The recent opening up of the Internet in Cuba is creating new international connections between Afro-Cubans and broader black global cultures. Francisco, a dark-skinned Cuban based in Havana who practices Santeria, an African-Diaspora religion from Cuba, stated, “Now we are finally connected,” as he added my email address to his phone and told me he would friend me on Facebook.
This past month, during carnival festivities in Havana and Matanzas, the opening up of relations with the United States was visible on Cuban streets. Amid the crowds of people enjoying the parades of Afro-Cuban music and dance ensembles (las comparsas), groups of local Cubans were huddled in open-air public spaces accessing the newfound Wi-Fi hotspots brought about by the agreed opening up of online technologies for Cuban nationals. Standing outside hotels, on small cobblestone streets and in parks were Cubans of all generations chatting on phones, using tablets and typing on their laptops. A black Cuban woman in Matanzas using her iPhone to video-chat the carnival floats to her religious family abroad told me, “This just happened a couple of months ago. Thanks to Obama!”
Previously, Internet connectivity was one of the most coveted and highly monitored international relations on the island. During my research between 2004 and 2012, to even be able to purchase an Internet card required a passport, and the unreliable Internet connection cost CUC$6 (Cuban convertible pesos) an hour, or slightly over US$7, a significant expense considering that the average salary in Cuba is less than US$20 a month. Legal email and Internet use was allowed either at the local phone company’s computer stations or at tourist-only hotels. Now, not only are Cubans finally admitted into hotels, but also anyone can purchase Internet cards that provide up to five hours online for CUC$10.
Wi-Fi (pronounced in Cuba as “we-fee”) hotspots are currently transforming Cuban cityscapes. People recognize these shifts in technological access and international connection as directly related to the opening up of relations with the United States. Afro-Cubans I spoke with told me that “Obama brought us Internet!” which they saw as a form of “black remission,” an outside resource seen to typically benefit mostly whites on the island (particularly those with family ties to early Cuban exiles in the U.S.).
So, what will new Internet relations do for Afro-Cubans? Media technologies have been key in allowing previously marginalized communities to have access to transnational relations. For the Santeria practitioners I work with, media has facilitated new religious economies. Attracting a wide range of diverse practitioners globally, Santeria has brought travelers and tourists of all socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds to black communities on the island, and these visitors have begun to provide Afro-Cubans with formerly scarce international resources. Indeed, many Santeria practitioners supplicate the Afro-Cuban gods (oricha) to continue these positive political changes.
Francisco saw Barack Obama’s mulato (mixed-race) heritage as key to the opening up of relations with the U.S. “It’s as Fidel said,” he declared. “We wouldn’t have change until there was a black president in la Yuma [the U.S.] and a pope from Latin America.” The Castro “quote” (it’s disputed whether Castro actually made the statement) circulated online as a popular meme that depicts the former Cuban president, in a Nostradamus-like prophecy, purportedly telling foreign press in 1973 that the U.S. and Cuba would settle their differences only once there was both an African-American U.S. president and a Latin American pope. With the Argentinian-born Pope Francis’ arrival in Cuba this weekend and Obama’s second term seeing a flurry of transformations within the socialist island, this purported Castro prophecy certainly points to the power of race, politics and religious imagination.
For practitioners of Afro-Cuban Santeria, this new global relationship is reconfiguring practice, and many see “blessings” such as Wi-Fi accessibility as related to Obama’s blackness. Young Afro-Cubans see more than just racial symbolism in the ethnic makeup of U.S. politicians. People expressed great admiration for Obama, with feelings of excitement for a new age in which Cuba and the U.S. could put aside old differences, and they looked to younger generations for hope. (This inspirational Cuban message sounded remarkably familiar to the Obama campaign’s 2008 slogan for hope and change.)
As the United States looks toward the next election, however, it is crucial to think about how different political regimes (such as a shift from Democrat to Republican) could impact the world. For Afro-Cubans in particular and Cubans in general, the opening up of relations with the U.S. has meant very visible shifts in everyday life. What might be seen as an “Obama generation” of young black Cubans is nervously celebrating the potential for more relations with the U.S. and, hopefully, an end to the woefully unsuccessful U.S. embargo. And yet there is legitimate concern that an anti-Cuba U.S. president could crush this positive momentum, creating, instead, a return to the stifling politics of the not-too-distant past.
Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Ph.D., is associate professor of African-American religions at Harvard Divinity School. She is author of Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (Columbia University Press). Beliso-De Jesús is a cultural and social anthropologist who has studied travel, religious tourism and the circulation of Santeria religious media from a transnational feminist approach. She is a member of the Cuba Policy Committee at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, an associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University and a Ford Foundation fellow.