By Aida Zekić
Photography by David Mas
Never was I so aware of my vices until I spent two months in Cuba, the haven of supply shortages. Havana is probably one of the few capitals where it is nearly impossible to maintain any kind of addiction, unless it includes extensive rum drinking. If you have another type of addiction though, you should come to Cuba—going cold-turkey will help cure you!
During my time in Cuba, I became aware of the many things a Western consumer such as myself can barely live without. (Seriously, I cannot. I am ashamed to admit it, but three weeks into my stay a relapse forced me to catch an overseas plane to refill on some good old capitalism.) What are my vices, you may wonder? They might be the same as yours—you just remain blissfully unaware.
We are all dependent on the Internet, but I love it so much that I decided to come to Cuba to discover how people actually manage without it. The only problem: I forgot I would have to survive offline myself. In Cuba, Internet access costs two dollars an hour, and is only available in the state-run telecommunication offices and, as of last year, in certain parks.
It is not that Cuba is without a fiber-optic cable running from Venezuela or that Google has not offered to install a better one for free— it is just that the Castros have chosen to ignore it. When the government offices run out of Internet access cards (yes, that happens), an addict like myself must turn to the black market. I attentively wander the streets until I hear someone whispering “Internet”, and discreetly buy an overpriced card off of them, trying not to get caught by a surveillance camera. Yes, a surveillance camera. Not only has two months in Cuba made me an enemy of the Castros, it has made me equally upset with the US embargo that stopped me from using Snapchat, FaceTime, Skype, or Apple Store. Non-addicted foreigners simply cut down on their Internet use whilst they are here, but I cannot—guess how much money I spent on connecting my phone and laptop to the World Wide Web each day? (Really, make a guess. I do not want to add it up.) But hey, the addict is the victim, right?
Like many aspiring political scientists who obsessively press the refresh button on live news feeds, I long to keep up with around-the-world happenings — peace deals, Nobel Prizes, whether Hurricane Matthew will kill me or not. Cuba’s provocatively slow Internet has, therefore, made me constantly annoyed and on-edge. Newspapers, TV, and radio are rather unreliable sources of information, as they are either state-owned or illegal. As much as online news is not a thing in Cuba, neither is freedom of the press—all text has to be approved by the Department of Revolutionary Orientation before publishing, which means that only ‘happy’ news is released. The Communist Party’s daily paper, Granma, is sold in the street in various languages, and I have never seen an issue that does not include Fidel Castro on the front page. The strangest article that I have seen so far celebrated ‘creative’ expressions of Cuban machismo and catcalling. Even if some independent sources of information are obtainable from publishers abroad, people with jobs, lives, and little money need to prioritise their time, meaning that most Cubans have decided not to care about domestic news at all. As my local friend told me, “news is something I am already familiar with and they never say anything new”.
Speaking of the media, I loved Oatly’s anti-milk campaigns in Sweden earlier this year. You know why? Because I was a privileged, pseudo-eco-friendly capitalist who did not understand the hardships of cow scarcity. People claim that there are so few cows in Cuba that the sentence for killing one is the same as for murdering a human being. It might not come as a surprise to you that all cows are state property. In 1981, a cow was found on the Isle of Youth that produced so much milk that Fidel Castro proclaimed her the “White Udder, the symbol of the revolution,” in gratefulness to her extraordinary service to socialism. Castro’s goal to have “better cheese than the French, better milk than the Dutch and better chocolate than the Swiss” failed after White Udder’s death in 1985. Today, milk is almost exclusively available to children under seven years of age, who are allowed one glass a day through the country’s rationing system. Now, I am thankful to be part of Sweden’s collective addiction: Arla milk. Swedes nurture their children with a daily litre from the day they stop breastfeeding. That is an addiction you cannot get clean from.