The Street Network | Translation
► Join Deambulantes. Our membership program help us continue covering Latin America.
►Do you listen Radio Ambulante to improve your Spanish? We have something extra for you: try our app, designed for Spanish learners who want to study with our episodes.
Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: Hi, Ambulante. Over the past three weeks during our fundraising campaign, over 500 people have donated to us and we couldn’t be more grateful for the support and messages of appreciation we have received from our community.
We have reached the last episode of this season of Radio Ambulante but remember that we come back in September. We will use this break to investigate and produce more stories for you: the stories you will hear in our season 13. And of course, with my colleagues from El hilo, we will continue every week explaining in depth the most important news in Latin America.
For this reason, before finishing, I would like to remind you that the challenge of financing the journalism we do is still there and that you can always support us with a donation to help us guarantee the sustainability of both podcasts. At RadioAmbulante.org/donate you can join our membership program and contribute whatever you can. All help, regardless of the amount, is infinitely important to us. Remember: radioambulante.org/donar. Thank you!
This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
OK, you may very likely be listening to this episode using the mobile data on your cell phone, or maybe your computer is connected to a WiFi network somewhere in the world.
And most probably, you don’t stop to wonder much how all that technology that allows you to be listening to us today actually works. As long as the signal is good, everything is fine, right? What I mean is that for many of us, being connected has become so natural that it is sometimes difficult to imagine a world where we are… disconnected.
Well, today’s story takes us to Cuba. There, for the last 30 years, accessing many of the technologies that allow us to communicate today has been much more difficult than in other Latin American countries.
There are several reasons for this: the economic crisis that affected Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US embargo that for years prevented imports of electronic devices to the island, and the restrictions set by the Cuban regime on new information and communication technologies.
So, starting in the 1990s, while the rest of the world became more and more connected, Cubans were left behind.
[Ernesto de Armas]: It was basically a non-technology world, an analog world.
[Daniel]: This is Ernesto de Armas. He was born in 1995 in Havana. So, he is a Cuban millennial. And when he says that the Cuba of his childhood was a non-technology world, he’s not exaggerating. Between 2002 and 2008, buying a computer for personal use was illegal.
[Ernesto]: I mean, it was unthinkable to see a computer in a store.
[Daniel]: Only foreigners and companies with government permission could have them. If you were an ordinary Cuban, you had to find them elsewhere, such as the black market, or through some foreign acquaintance. And that’s what happened to Ernesto. Around 2003, when he was about 8 years old, some Spanish friends of the family showed him a computer for the first time. And there was something in particular that caught his attention: video games.
[Ernesto]: There was one of them I remember he liked to play… And I’ll never forget, he had a game…
[SOUNDBITE MONKEY ISLAND ARCHIVE]:
You win! Give me your treasure!
[Ernesto] …which I still really like, and it was called Monkey Island. And I remember that sometimes I would spend hours watching him play.
[Daniel]: Ernesto was so amazed by video games that the Spanish friends gave him that computer. And that’s how he spent the next few years, exploring the medieval fantasy worlds of Warcraft III and the neighborhoods of Grand Theft Auto. Most of the games were pirated copies that other friends gave him, because accessing the originals in Cuba was almost impossible. Besides, only government offices and some work and educational centers had internet. In other words, don’t even think about getting a signal at home.
[Ernesto]: For me, it was unthinkable that two people miles apart could establish a connection with each other and play together.
[Daniel]: That’s why he was so surprised when one day around 2012, when he was in high school, a friend told him about the network.
[Ernesto]: And I said, “What do you mean the network?” He says, “Yes, on the network, on the Havana network, the street network.” And I didn’t know what he was talking about.
[Daniel]: The street network. A network that allowed Ernesto, with no internet, to connect through his computer and play with people from all over Havana.
[Ernesto]: And I was like crazy, confused; I mean, I was amazed. I said, “What is this? What do you have to do to get in here?”
[Daniel]: But joining the network was not easy. The necessary equipment was expensive and difficult to find. In addition, you had to have some knowledge of technology which, at age 17, Ernesto did not have.
[Ernesto]: You have to know how networks work, what a gateway is, what a subnet mask is, what a DNS address is, you have to know what an IP is, a physical IP, how repeaters work, how switches work, how to make Ethernet wiring connections, the type of cable you need, the category of the cable, how to use pliers to connect the ends of a cable…
[Daniel]: In other words, as if they were speaking to you in another language. And on top of that, Ernesto did not know any network administrator, anyone who could give him access from his neighborhood. No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t connect. About five years went by. Ernesto found a job with a French travel agency, he was able to save enough money, and he also moved to an area of Havana where he met a local network administrator. The administrator gave him all the instructions on how to connect. It was August 2017, and Ernesto got down to work. First…
[Ernesto]: I needed a 100-meter network cable—it wasn’t just any network cable.
[Daniel]: Luckily, there was the Cuban black market.
[Ernesto]: And I think it cost me about 60 dollars or something like that. It was not cheap.
[Daniel]: Ernesto had to connect the cable from his computer to a switch, that is, a connection port to the network that was in the apartment of the local administrator, in a neighboring building. So, with the help of a friend, Ernesto began to extend those 100 meters of cable.
[Ernesto]: I remember we had to run the cable from my room over the wall. We had to cut a hole, drill a hole in the wall, pass the cable into the kitchen. Then through the kitchen, and we took it out through a window and up to the rooftop. We took it all along the rooftop, we passed it over to the neighbor next door and I remember we had to go down and talk to her, explain what we were doing, and she got scared. “A cable in my house? But what is this?” We told her, “No, look, ma’am, we want to connect to the network.” “And what is the network?” So, imagine a 70-year-old lady— explaining the network to her was impossible.
[Daniel]: But the woman trusted them. So they ran the cable over the rooftop and from there, with the help of a long stick, they had to throw the cable over a power line to the window of the friend’s house, who lived on the opposite corner.
[Ernesto]: And then that friend, once we got the cable to his house, he still had to perforate a part of his window with a drill,–pass the cable through it, take it to the living room, pass it through a hole in the building, like a ventilation shaft in the building where he lived. That’s where we threw the cable and then we lowered it to the local administrator’s house.
[Daniel]: The administrator plugged the cable into the switch.
[Ernesto]: And that’s how we got connected to SNet.
[Daniel]: The SNet. The Street Network. A spider web of computers, cables, and antennas that grew and spread all over Havana starting in the early 2000s, and that by 2017 connected at least 20,000 people in the city. What Ernesto found there was much more than a video game room. At a time when very few people in Cuba had internet access, SNet became an alternative for thousands of Cubans who were looking for new ways to get information and communicate.
[Ernesto]: I believe that SNet was not only necessary, but also that it was a revolution, a small revolution in the thinking of an entire generation of Cubans.
[Daniel]: SNet was one of the few things that belonged to Cubans. It was autonomous, proud and, in its best moment, very unified. Or so it seemed.
We’ll be back after a break.
Hello, Ambulantes. We want to ask for your help. If you have a story that you think could be told on Radio Ambulante… write us. We are looking for funny, strange, moving stories… Stories that surprise us. You don’t have to be a journalist to propose a story to us. Perhaps it is a family story, something personal, a series of unusual events that you were able to witness, which years later continue to have an impression on you. Any idea is welcome, and it helps us to get to know our region better.
We are very interested in hearing from our listeners in places like Paraguay, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Countries we would like to cover more.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Our producer Pablo Argüelles brings us the story.
[Pablo Argüelles]: Ernesto went online on SNet in 2017, when the network was at its peak, and we’ll hear from him again later. But the network was not born overnight. Let’s go back in time to meet one of its founders.
[Da Vinci]: My name is Ángel Esteban Díaz. I am 51 years old.
[Pablo]: Ángel came of age in the 1990s, a time that was not easy in Cuba. The Soviet Union collapsed around the end of 1991, and the island was left without its main economic ally.
[Da Vinci]: It was a very difficult period. The country without oil, with scheduled blackouts. People jokingly said that they were scheduled light-ups because you got electricity four or six hours a day, but that was all.
[Pablo]: Water and gas were rationed; food was scarce. At the age of 20, Ángel had to drop out of school to help his single mother and his three younger brothers. He did everything. He grew corn, he raised pigs, and he even went into the sea at night to spearfish in underwater caves. Also, Ángel painted cars at home. He was so good that one of his regular customers gave him a nickname that would be important years later.
[Da Vinci]: And he called me Da Vinci.
[Pablo]: Da Vinci, as in Leonardo da Vinci.
[Da Vinci]: Because of the nice jobs I did for him, right? On the motorcycle. Different colors… Anyway…
[Pablo]: Over the years, Ángel began to do better. In addition to having his own paint shop, in 1994 he got a job at the state tourist transport company. There he painted buses, or as they say in Cuba, guaguas. And it was there that Ángel had his first contact with an object that until then he had only seen in movies and photographs: a desktop computer. It was a strange encounter. Ángel had raised pigs, fished barracudas with a harpoon and painted huge buses…
[Da Vinci]: But to sit down and hold a mouse in my hand —I had never done that.
[Pablo]: So, at first, he felt a bit clumsy with such a sensitive machine. He forgot what so many keys were for. But he caught on.
[Da Vinci]: During lunchtime, I would sit down and play the game of the little ball that is on the computer, little things, simple games like those that normally come with Windows.
[Pablo]: He liked it so much that he decided he wanted a computer of his own. But we already know that that was not easy in Cuba. So it took about ten years until finally, around 2006, he managed to get his own.
[Da Vinci]: It was a Pentium 4 with a monitor. Here we call it a culón.
[Pablo]: Culón. That is one of those old computers that had big monitors, unlike today’s thin ones. Ángel bought it secondhand from a friend. And from what I have heard, this was quite common in Cuba. Computers were mostly secondhand, bought from foreigners, stolen from tourists, or smuggled by parts into the country. And that is why many of then had to be built. You got a microprocessor, a memory and a hard drive over here; the box, the monitor, the mouse and the keyboard over there… And the parts weren’t cheap.
[Da Vinci]: If something cost you $100 in the United States or Mexico, here they would double the price. It was quite a luxury to have a computer.
[Pablo]: In all, Ángel spent about $300 on his first computer. A small fortune, considering that the monthly minimum wage back them was about 9 dollars.
[Da Vinci]: I do remember that, because collecting US$300 here in Cuba, at that time, was… very, very complicated.
[Pablo]: But he didn’t care. He had savings from his two jobs, and this was an investment. He would use the computer as a tool in his paint shop, and also for entertainment. In fact, shortly afterwards, a friend from the neighborhood gave him a USB copy of a video game called FarCry. And, well, Ángel was hooked…
[Da Vinci]: You hypnotize yourself so much that you lose the essence of time. You lose everything. Totally fanatic.
[Pablo]: Computers and video games showed Ángel a new reality, very different from the one he found outside, on the street. And this discovery was not only for him. Since the early 2000s, many other people throughout Havana were being exposed to computers and video games. And beyond the challenges of prohibition, scarcity, and smuggling, all those first-time gamers ran into a critical problem: after hours, days, and weeks of playing, it became boring to defeat the computer over and over again.
[Da Vinci]: Against the PC it is much easier, even if you set it on the hardest difficulty. It is always easier than playing against another person who thinks like you.
[Pablo]: And if there’s one thing I’ve learned producing this story, it’s that gamers are very competitive. They are always looking for new opponents. So it’s no surprise that, two or three months after buying his computer, Ángel received a proposal from a neighbor.
[Da Vinci]: “Ángel, you have a cement patio. Why don’t we bring some friends and play?”
[Pablo]: The plan was a video game party. Everyone would bring their computer and connect with cables to create something like a mini-local network and play in real time. His friend went on explaining:
[Da Vinci]: “And that way, we can use the multiplayer option. And that’s where everything becomes more difficult, because it is you against me, not you against the PC.”
[Pablo]: These parties are called LAN Parties all over the world. LAN is the acronym for Local Area Network, that is, an independent local area network, with no need of an internet connection. And as many people told me, they are a lot of fun.
[Da Vinci]: Imagine hours and hours firing shots at each other. Just four or five people.
[Pablo]: But organizing a LAN Party in Cuba twenty years ago was risky. Gathering in one place to play meant transporting those mammoth computers across the city. And this was a problem because let’s remember that between 2002 and 2008 only foreigners and companies with government permission could have computers for private use. So going down the street with big computers… it was very common for the police to confiscate them.
[Da Vinci]: So, to transport the computer, you had to ask a friend who owned a car so that you could hide it inside the car very carefully, and it looked like you were dealing drugs.
[Pablo]: It was clear that LAN Parties weren’t the most convenient way to connect and play. But, at the time, they seemed to be the only option… Until some gamer in Havana came up with the following idea: “Okay, we are not allowed to have computers. But… there is no law that prevents us from laying cables. So why don’t we create a much larger LAN network, laying cables not just in the patio of a house, but down the entire block, and that will save us the trouble of having the police seize our computers.”
So, around 2005 or 2006, guided by that competitive impulse to find more and more opponents, gamers in Havana began to lay cables in different neighborhoods of the city.
[Da Vinci]: A line that you put from one house to the next, from one house to the next, from one house to the next. And so they joined entire blocks. Hundreds of users connected by cable.
[Pablo]: And there was no obstacle that gamers did not overcome: wide avenues, high-voltage power lines, skeptical neighbors… The connection was a game in itself.
But there was one insurmountable challenge: connecting by cable was viable within a radius of approximately 100 meters. With longer cables, too much connectivity speed was lost. In other words, extending beyond one block was impossible. And for Ángel, this was the main problem. He lived on the outskirts of the city, west of Havana, just a few meters from the sea. And distances between houses can be very large there. Connecting to your neighbors by cable was simply not an option. Until early 2007, when the same friend who had suggested doing LAN Parties in the patio of his house called him on the phone and said:
[Da Vinci]: “Listen, I am creating a wireless network.”
[Pablo]: Ángel didn’t understand a thing.
[Da Vinci]: “But how does that work?”
[Pablo]: A wireless network?
[Da Vinci]: “Yes Ángel, there are these WiFi devices…”
[Pablo]: His friend explained that something called WiFi devices did the unimaginable. They were able to connect computers to each other without using cables. Now, to be clear, I know that many of us, when we hear WiFi, we automatically think of the internet. But in this case, they were not using these devices to connect to the internet. The friend wanted to connect from his neighborhood to a local network about five kilometers away. But that was too far. They needed an intermediate place that would serve as a link between the WiFi devices. A well-located place, with no geographical obstructions such as mountains, trees or buildings. And Ángel’s house, barely five meters from the sea, was that point. His friend told him:
[Da Vinci]: “The idea is that you, who are in the middle, put a shaft up on your roof and set up the equipment so that you can serve as a bridge, and that way, you can connect.”
[Pablo]: This was the opportunity Ángel had been waiting for. So he took a few metal pipes and welded them together into a shaft.
[Da Vinci]: Really, really long! Looking up it was almost 15 meters high! It shook up there!
[Pablo]: With the help of his friend, Ángel installed the WiFi device at the top of that shaft. It was a small white box that they began to move millimeter by millimeter, to the right, to the right, more to the left, to the left, up, up, down, down, up, up… Meanwhile, downstairs in the house, a person who was in front of the computer was looking to see whether the signal from the two networks could be captured.
[Da Vinci]: Hey, yes, it comes up, it comes up! Maybe not the best signal, but it comes up!
[Pablo]: What they saw were the names of the networks. Then, to start communicating with those networks, they set up a messaging program.
[Da Vinci]: And then when he sets me up, he says, “What name are you going to have?” “My name is Ángel.” He says, “No, no, no, you use a nickname on the networks.”
[Pablo]: And Ángel already had one.
[Da Vinci]: From day one, from the first minute, I was always called… Da Vinci.
[Pablo]: And from that day on, Ángel—or rather, Da Vinci—and his family joined the two neighboring networks. The signal was a bit slow…
[Da Vinci]: But we are connected. Imagine seeing a person connected to WiFi and chatting with them. That was an incredible novelty. I was jumping up and down.
[Pablo]: Not that Da Vinci was connected to all of Havana. And much less to the internet. What he could do was chat and play with the users of the two neighboring networks. There were no more than 50 people. But this was happening in other parts of Havana. Word was spreading about these wireless networks that were beginning to connect different neighborhoods with each other. When Da Vinci scanned the sky from his rooftop with the WiFi antenna…
[Da Vinci]: You saw names of other networks with a very low signal, very low, very low, not enough to connect. But you did see them. They existed.
[Pablo]: On his computer he saw the names of those networks: El Vedado, Playa, La Lisa. The names reflected the geographic locations of the networks, as well as their identities. For example, the network that Da Vinci helped build on the roof of his house was named RoG, the acronym for Republic of Gamers.
And those networks were being organized according to their own needs. Scarcity had forced them from the start to work with whatever was at hand. You could say that each network was a sum of wonderful inventions. And perhaps one of the most extraordinary were the antennas with which they were connected in those years. They called them Creole antennas, and they were made by hand, with more enthusiasm than knowledge and with all kinds of metal objects. Some even used soda cans, potato chip cylinders, clothes hangers or kitchen trays, which meant that they were not so reliable, and they were also quite vulnerable to Caribbean weather and storms. But for the creators of the networks, these imperfections were secondary. The important thing was always to connect more and more and more people.
[Da Vinci]: At first they were gamers, only players. It was games, games and more games.
[Pablo]: But then…
[Da Vinci]: All kinds of people began to join the network.
[Pablo]: By 2010, RoG was connected to about 700 users in western Havana. And they no longer just played Warcraft or Call of Duty, but also shared files and talked through voice chats. By then, Da Vinci had replaced the shaft on the roof of his house with a much more stable tower measuring about 300 meters; and in one of his rooms he had thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. Everything was paid for with collections from network users, and Da Vinci had become the leader of RoG.
[Da Vinci]: Everything that was being done was counting on me. I was the one who gave the best advice, I was the one who maintained the discipline, the respect.
[Pablo]: All this was necessary not only to guarantee good coexistence within the network, but also to avoid attracting the attention of the government. Because these networks were expanding in a kind of legal vacuum. They weren’t forbidden, but they weren’t allowed, either. The law that until then regulated the use of the radio spectrum in Cuba was from 1992 and did not even contemplate the existence of wireless networks connected via WiFi.
[Da Vinci]: And when the networks began to grow in Cuba, the State began to interfere.
[Pablo]: Government inspectors began to visit homes with suspicious antennas on their roofs, such as Da Vinci’s.
[Da Vinci]: They came and gave you a fine. They came back again: another fine. And a third fine…
[Pablo]: Until one day, things got worse.
[Da Vinci]: The police came. And they confiscated everything. The two computers. All the WiFi equipment I had up there. There were like five or six of them…
[Pablo]: And even the cables. In all, about two thousand dollars lost. The RoG network was dismantled, and Da Vinci had to go out to take up a collection among the users. With that money and his own, he turned to the black market and bought all the necessary equipment to put RoG together again.
[Da Vinci]: Not a week passed and we had rebuilt the entire network.
[Pablo]: This was something that happened quite a lot. It was as if for every network the government dismantled, two, four, eight more appeared. There came a time when the government had no choice but to stand back and watch the networks grow.
[Pablo]: By 2014, there were hundreds of them connecting locations throughout Havana. Meanwhile, the constant smuggling of increasingly powerful antennas into Cuba was making it easier to connect not only between blocks, neighborhoods and districts, but now also between municipalities. At the beginning of that year, Da Vinci received a call from the administrator of a network in downtown Havana. He told him:
[Da Vinci]: “We are going to link the networks, brother. In the end, the more people we are, the more fun we have.”
[Pablo]: The man invited him to some meetings held by the administrators of different city networks in a park. They were a sort of assembly that started out quite chaotic.
[Da Vinci]: Just picture it—a meeting of 200, 300 people in a park. Everyone giving their views.
[Pablo]: Giving their views on how to link the networks into one large metropolitan network. It was hard for them to agree because they each had their own way of organizing and connecting. It was as if they spoke different languages. And from a technical point of view, this meant that the connections were not so stable; they were slow and they had noise, interference. If all those local networks wanted to become a single metropolitan network, order had to be brought on the technical and administrative level.
After several discussions, it was decided that all the networks in Havana would be articulated around 9 main networks, renamed pillars. RoG, the network that Da Vinci built in his house, would be one of those pillars. The remaining eight were called GNTK, Imperivm, Playa, Wifinet, Cerro Cerrado, Habana.Net, Comunidad Sur and Habana del Este.
The pillars would be in charge of channeling user traffic from one network to another. For example, a user living in western Havana, near Da Vinci’s house, would connect to the RoG pillar, and through that pillar they could automatically connect to the rest of the city’s pillars. It was an orderly system and it worked.
[Da Vinci]: Automatically, the network quality shows a great improvement because now there was no noise. Everything was organized in the frequencies, in the channels, in the power.
[Pablo]: Now, these were the technical solutions. But to fix the chaos of the assemblies, it was decided that only three representatives of each of the 9 pillars would attend: one as general organizer and two as technicians. Da Vinci became the general organizer of RoG. That is, he represented the group of small networks in his district, and its users.
[Da Vinci]: Everyone did their part to make this work.
[Pablo]: With this system of representation, the assemblies became much more efficient. Making decisions was much faster, by consensus. And one of the most important ones was to establish a monthly contribution of one dollar per user. This money would be used to maintain the network infrastructure.
[Da Vinci]: To improve it every day, because now you enter and occupy a space of bandwidth, but you have to continue improving the equipment so that you can accept more people.
[Pablo]: The growth of the network also forced the assembly to create a code of rules and sanctions: no damaging the network infrastructure, no hacking the services, no spamming, no posting pornography, no selling drugs, and no posting of discriminatory content. But there was also another type of rules: no rebroadcasting of State telecommunications services, no using the network for profit, and above all, no talking about politics. Because the last thing the organizers wanted was to give the government some pretext to dismantle their network.
[Da Vinci]: We knew… from experience, that if you removed the topic of politics, that already gave us a 50% advantage. No talk in favor or against.
[Pablo]: In a country as politicized as Cuba, the network would be for everyone, neither revolutionary nor counterrevolutionary. Neutral. And for this very reason, they also decided so call it SNet, the Street Network.
By about 2017, SNet had close to 20,000 users throughout Havana. It was one of the largest non-internet networks in the world.
And these are some of its users:
[Carlos]: I joined SNet around 2014.
[Melanie]: End of 2015 or beginning of 2016.
[Julia]: And from then on, I was hooked.
[Nessa]: You would get up and you hadn’t even left your room to get breakfast, and what you did was turn on the computer, the laptop, and SNet.
[Pablo]: SNet was a universe to be explored. And the gateway was a program called TeamSpeak.
[Fer]: It was a program that allowed you to chat and make video calls.
[Pablo]: TeamSpeak was like Whatsapp or the SNet phone, and was therefore one of the most popular services. Because with it, many people in Havana were just a click away. With no need for a telephone line or an Internet connection, you could do something that until then had been very difficult for ordinary Cubans: have cheap and unlimited conversations with people from almost the entire city.
[Darielys]: I met thousands of people there, thousands of people, almost my entire circle of friends, almost all the people I know, I met there.
[Pablo]: Also there were digital libraries with millions of titles, up-to-date copies of Wikipedia, second-hand buying and selling sites, and file transfer services.
[Tricia]: It was a repository where you could download movies, music, games, novels, books, all absolutely free.
[Pablo]: All pirated copies, of course. In fact, many games and services were like that. The few people who had internet access at their offices or universities downloaded the programs and then uploaded the copies to SNet, because getting the originals was impossible. And there were also forums.
[Keyla]: And it was like Facebook, so to speak. You could post photos; you had a profile.
[Pablo]: There were even radio programs transmitted through TeamSpeak.
[Radio Tico Madruga]: The program you’ve been waiting for, Radio Tico Madruga, at its usual time from 11 p.m. until very close to 3 a.m. [Sound of a verse from “Hasta que se seque el Malecón”]
[Pablo]: But the network also had a dark side: pornography, scams, extortion, or sexual harassment, which the network called “tiburoneo.” And besides this, for some users the bad thing had to do with one of SNet’s own rules:
[Julia]: Let’s see, what I liked the least… I think it was the lack of freedom of expression.
[Pablo]: Not being able to talk about politics. But for users like the one we just heard, that imposed silence, that self-censorship, was a price worth paying.
[Julia]: For me, it was preferable to have that prohibition in order to keep what we had, which was much bigger than that.
[Pablo]: Because, despite its imperfections, SNet had become Havana’s internet. And the Habaneros were the owners.
[Ernesto]: In other words, you have an enormous feeling of belonging to that place.
[Pablo]: This is Ernesto, whom we heard at the beginning of this story, when he did all that juggling to connect to the network for the first time. Shortly after joining in August 2017, Ernesto formed a team with four friends to compete in the DOTA 2 video game tournaments that were organized on SNet. They trained every day, connected from different places in Havana. And they decided to call themselves Team Fortress.
[Ernesto]: I wouldn’t say we were a superb team. But we were… we were good.
[Pablo]: In early November 2017, Team Fortress was preparing for a tournament organized by the Cuban Electronic Sports Association. On Saturday, November 11, Ernesto agreed with the team that they would train early the next day.
[Ernesto]: I go to bed, I wake up…
[Pablo]: He logged in to the SNet, opened the DOTA 2 game, and a message appeared:
[Ernesto]: And I see a message telling me that there’s no connection.
[Pablo]: It said “Connection error” on the game start screen. At first, Ernesto was not surprised. There were times when the links to some pillars of the network and their services went down due to blackouts or storms. But the rest of SNet would still be running. It had been designed that way.
[Ernesto]: But then hours go by and I see that the service is still down, and I decide to go to a forum and check to see whether someone had written something about it, because usually when a service was down for a long time, people started writing, asking, “What’s going on, what happened, what is going on?” And I see a tremendous statement from the administration saying that the network had come apart.
[Pablo]: We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, we connected to SNet, a network that grew throughout Havana to connect thousands of people. SNet was an independent network, one of the largest in the world. It was not connected to the internet; it did not answer to telecommunications companies or the Cuban government. But in November 2017, thousands of users woke up to unexpected news: the network had broken up. And from then on, things would only get worse.
Our producer Pablo Argüelles continues the story.
[Pablo]: The 9 pillars that supported SNet had split into two factions. The links between the two sides had been severed; users living on one side of the network could no longer connect to the pillars on the other side. Forums, chats and games were left empty. Families, couples and friends could no longer communicate. It was as if an invisible wall had been erected in Havana overnight. But the truth is that the network and its organizers had been separating for months.
[Jade]: Look… The issue of the breakup was simple. It has 400 nuances and 8,000 stories to make four soap operas. But it’s simple.
[Pablo]: This is Jade, one of the architects of SNet and the technical lead of the RoG pillar.
[Jade]: SNet required a shared economy.
[Pablo]: Let’s remember: to function, the network had started charging users a dollar a month. It was a basic income to maintain and improve the entire infrastructure.
[Jade]: If you do not want to help, then you are simply not part of it. Totally voluntary.
[Pablo]: In theory, the entire organizational and administrative structure of the network was like this: voluntary, collaborative, and non-profit. The social aspect was more important than the economic, and for that reason it was commonly said that SNet belonged to its users. But as more and more people joined, the theory began to collide with reality. Here is Da Vinci again:
[Da Vinci]: Everything became hypocrisy; everything was out of control. And the problems began—the discussions, the ambition to get more users in order to earn more money.
[Pablo]: One of the biggest problems the network began to have is that there was no transparency and order in its finances. Collection of the one-dollar contribution was in the hands of the local administrators, the persons in charge of connecting and disconnecting users. And this was a problem. Those admins had too much power over the people who wanted to connect, and according to Jade…
[Jade]: The average SNet user no longer saw himself as a user, but as a customer.
[Pablo]: And there is a big difference between user and customer. The user… uses, often for free. But the customer is always charged for a service.
[Jade]: The administrators began to charge for extra services they provided.
[Pablo]: They sold multimedia content and also developed private services.
[Jade]: And for you to have access to that server on a monthly basis, you would have to contribute an extra amount of money.
[Pablo]: And among those services, there was a new one that was beginning to spread in Cuba: none other than the internet as we know it. In 2015, the Cuban government began to enable WiFi hot spots in different parks and squares in the country, including Havana. They were known as WiFi parks. It was the first time that the doors of the Internet —Google, Facebook, Twitter— opened to ordinary Cubans. But those doors were still too small. The coverage area of the WiFi parks was very limited. And since so many people tried to connect, the speed was not good. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t free. You needed to buy a scratch card that cost $2 for an hour of Internet, almost a tenth of the average monthly salary in Havana.
That’s where some local SNet administrators saw a business opportunity. They pointed their antennas towards WiFi parks to connect and charge for that service within the SNet. It was a daring move, because what they were doing was stealing the internet from the Cuban State’s telecommunications monopoly. According to Jade and Da Vinci, this kind of abuse was taking place in various pillars of SNet. And they wanted nothing to do with it.
But this is only part of the story.
[Juan]: Let’s see, let me explain this to you from a bird’s eye view. What is going on?
[Pablo]: This is Juan. He was the general organizer of the Cerro pillar, one of the sides that were opposing RoG. He confirmed to me that business was being done in a widespread way on the network.
[Juan]: Everybody did it.
[Pablo]: And Juan, just like Jade and Da Vinci, was concerned about this. Economic interests were spoiling the SNet and putting it in the crosshairs of the Cuban government. But for Juan, the most dangerous and daring business within the SNet was not the one that the local administrators did. It was the one that Jade and Da Vinci wanted to create.
[Juan]: They all brought a proposal of a game they were playing, which was WoW.
[Pablo]: WoW, World of Warcraft, one of the most popular and addictive games in the world. Within the SNet it came to have more than a thousand users connected at the same time. In a sense, the WoW was the showpiece of SNet’s achievements, but also of its contradictions. Because as the network grew, users demanded more speed, more services, more games. And all this cost the pillars in charge of developing those services a lot of money. And for the organizers of the RoG pillar, it became clear that the $1 contribution was no longer enough. If they wanted to keep growing, SNet would need new forms of funding. This is Da Vinci:
[Da Vinci]: And we came up with the idea of setting up a store for World of Warcraft.
[Pablo]: The store was so that the most fanatical users could buy accessories for their avatars: saddles and gear for their dragons, helmets, armors, that kind of thing. All the money would be used to improve the network infrastructure and, according to its creators, there would be no profit involved.
So in August 2017, Da Vinci and Jade pitched the idea of the store to the SNet assembly. And several of the general organizers objected, including Juan:
[Juan]: We did not agree with that type of business being done online at that time, because we did not want the police to come after us.
[Pablo]: According to them, opening a store, whatever its purpose, would put the network at risk of being accused of illicit enrichment by the government. It was just too dangerous. After more than two hours of discussion, the idea for the store was put to a vote. There was a tie: 4 against 4, and one abstention. Da Vinci was not happy.
[Da Vinci]: Those five pillars were going to deny me, just for the sake of contradicting. Just out of envy.
[Pablo]: By now, the arguments and accusations between organizers had become too personal.
[Juan]: Da Vinci is not going to tell you that what he had was a business to get rich himself. And neither is Jade.
[Pablo]: There were tensions too complicated to explain here, resentments that stemmed from years of working on a community project like SNet. The fact is that in November 2017, three months after the vote against the store, the last straw came. One pillar accused another pillar of stealing users. The other pillars entered the dispute. Two sides were formed: the 4 pillars that had been in favor of the store, and the 4 that had been against it, plus the pillar that abstained. In other words, 4 against 5. They gave themselves ultimatums. But the impossibility of finding a solution resulted in Jade making the most drastic decision on the night of Friday, November 11.
[Jade]: If it was going to break apart, I wanted meee, to be part of the one that tore up the thing—not let it rot itself away because of what someone else was doing. No, no, no.
[Pablo]: Jade unplugged the equipment that connected his side, the one with the 4 pillars, to the other side, the one with 5.
[Jade]: We decided to just stay connected with each other and disconnect from all those people who clearly did not have the same goals we did. Pop! The network was separated, that’s it, it’s over.
[Pablo]: Da Vinci was disappointed. It was not for nothing that he had devoted about 10 years of his life to the network. But after all the stress, maybe this was best.
[Da Vinci]: When something has been going wrong for a while, there comes a time when you feel relief because it has just broken.
[Pablo]: Many people I spoke to agree that SNet broke up because of money. The two factions that remained were like a divided family. One family retains the family name, SNet. And the users, the supposed owners of the network, were the ones who least knew what was happening. One of them was Ernesto de Armas, who got up on the morning of November 12, 2017 to train with his friends and found the network divided.
[Ernesto]: It took everyone by surprise. Nobody imagined that. And besides, we all thought it was a terrible idea; what they had done was horrible.
[Pablo]: Users organized meetings in the network forums to protest. Hashtags were created saying “The network is only one,” “Only one Snet.” And in one of those forums, Ernesto issued a warning:
[Ernesto]: And I talked about the threat that this separation posed to SNet’s survival, which I thought was absolutely crazy and a blunder.
[Pablo]: With the breakup, not only were entire communities cut off, but the noise, the slow signals and the interference between pillars returned. Also many users decided to disconnect. And besides, SNet was more vulnerable than ever to government intervention.
In late May 2019, a year and a half after the separation, a story began to circulate in the Cuban media.
[Archive Soundbite] Journalist: Any citizen with permanent residence in Cuba will be able to opt for a license to place outdoor antennas as of July 29…
[Pablo]: After decades of inaction, the government decided to update the 1992 laws that governed the use of the radio spectrum in the country. With the new resolutions, all wireless networks that functioned outdoors, that is, on the street, would have to be regulated before the Ministry of Communications. And in theory this was good news for SNet. It resolved the legal vacuum where it had existed since its birth. But when I asked Da Vinci about these changes in the law, he said:
[Da Vinci]: Man, for me, it is a disaster.
[Pablo]: Because now the government would impose a limit on the power of the WiFi antennas that the wireless networks worked with.
[Da Vinci]: The power they authorized allows connections within a radius of 200 meters.
[Pablo]: On top of that, laying cables across a street was forbidden. In short, wireless networks could no longer be connected from one neighborhood to another, from one district to another, much less at the metropolitan level. The resolutions were a frontal attack on SNet and would take effect on July 29—two months later. With the clock ticking down, organizers from the various SNet camps began meeting with officials from the Ministry of Communications. They wanted to propose alternatives to the resolutions. This is Jade, again:
[Jade]: The Ministry could somehow make an exception for us to continue existing the way we did, and improve.
[Pablo]: But there was another problem: already divided, the organizers of the two SNet camps met with the government on their own, without forming a common front. And that affected their power of persuasion.
[Jade]: That is very clear to me. If we had been able to go to the Ministry at the time the resolutions came out, as SNet, as a single group, as a single voice, it would have been totally different. I am sure of that.
[Pablo]: The administrators posted reports of their meetings with the Ministry of Communications on the forums of both sides of SNet. The government seemed to be listening to them. But for users like Ernesto, this was not a sign of anything.
[Ernesto]: That seemed fruitless to me from the very beginning, I felt that you cannot have a dialogue with the Cuban government, you cannot sit at the table and set terms, because the Cuban government has all the power.
[Pablo]: As the day approached when the resolutions would go into effect, some online forum users called for adopting a more confrontational stance. They said that nothing would be achieved by sitting on the couch in their homes. They had to protest. But not all agreed. Among them, Jade and Da Vinci.
[Da Vinci]: We, the administrators on this side, urged people all the time not to do that.
[Pablo]: For them and for the side of the 4, they had to avoid taking a political position because that was the only way they could they negotiate with the government until the last minute. Protesting, on the other hand, would mean crossing the line between being neutral and being opponents of the government.
On Monday, July 29, the resolutions went into effect. From that day on, all owners of outdoor wireless networks had two months to register their equipment with the government. On the morning of Friday, August 9, in a last attempt to reach an agreement, a group of administrators from the side of the 5 met with the deputy director of the Ministry of Communications. He told them that no concessions or extensions would be given. Wireless networks that did not comply with the new regulations should be taken down within the next two months.
That night, Ernesto read a statement from the Cerro pillar administration, from the side of the 5.
[Ernesto]: It said a point had come in the negotiations in which the government was no longer willing to compromise.
[Pablo]: So a call was made to the network users to make a “brief appearance” the next morning in front of the Ministry of Communications to express their disagreement with the resolutions. The next day, Ernesto did not go to work, but went to the area of government buildings, a few steps from the Plaza de la Revolución.
[Ernesto]: I was very nervous.
[Pablo]: He knew that that “brief appearance” was actually a protest. And protesting in Cuba…
[Ernesto]: It is dangerous, it is very dangerous, it is something that is not normally on anybody’s mind.
[Pablo]: But he felt that SNet was worth it.
[Ernesto]: I was fed up with the Cuban government and the State always doing whatever they wanted.
[Pablo]: When he got to the park in front of the Ministry of Communications, a few people were already there. Not very many, not more than 100. He looked around.
[Ernesto]: And I realized that the entire park where we were was completely surrounded by the police. There were police patrol cars around all the streets.
[Pablo]: And no one really knew what to do. They did not even have banners or shout slogans. They were just there, standing still. Then Ernesto had the idea of contacting the independent Cuban media outlet 14ymedio via Twitter.
[Ernesto]: They began to report on what was happening, saying there were people in the park across from the Ministry of Communications who were protesting.
[Pablo]: But the press coverage began to make some people very nervous.
[Ernesto]: Because in Cuba, requesting the presence of the press is a sin. That is something that the Government does not forgive.
[Pablo]: People were afraid. A group of administrators went inside the Ministry of Communications. Two officials greeted them. They also looked scared. They asked the organizers to please not stay out front anymore, to discourage other people from coming to the park. The administrators left the building and at around 11 a.m. and announced that the protest was over. Ernesto went to a friend’s house and the first thing he did was go online. He logged in to TeamSpeak, contacted the general organizers of his pillar, the ones who had called the protest…
[Ernesto]: And basically what I did was try to convince them that it was necessary to stand up, that we had to go to protest again the following Saturday.
[Pablo]: Because they had been trying to negotiate with the government for months, and because the time for dialogue was over…
[Ernesto]: And their response was, “we will think about it.”
[Pablo]: The following days, Ernesto tried to mobilize SNet users on his own. He created groups on WhatsApp and later on Telegram to organize a new protest that Saturday. And then one night that week, he had a visitor.
[Ernesto]: And I was in my room with my phone. I was playing. And my mother walks in and says, “Hey, there are some people who want to see you.” And I said, “What kind of people?” My mother says, “I don’t know, but they look like segurosos to me.”
[Pablo]: Segurosos, that is, State Security agents, from government intelligence agencies. Ernesto told his mother not to open. But his grandfather was also in the house. And he was a supporter of the government. He begged Ernesto to cooperate.
[Ernesto]: I was very scared. He was pale, he was trembling, his voice was shaky.
[Pablo]: Ernesto yielded. The men entered.
[Ernesto]: They asked me to please go with them, that they wanted to talk to me, that nothing was going to happen, they just wanted to have a talk with me.
[Pablo]: So he went out to the street. A police car appeared out of nowhere. They made him get inside, took him to a nearby police station, and put him in an empty room. They left him there, alone, for about 30 minutes. Then two men came in. They told him that they knew that he had protested and he must agree not to participate in any further demonstrations.
[Ernesto]: And they asked me to sign a document that I did not sign. And one of the people who were there, one of the two men, raised his hand over his head and said something like, “Kid, I’m going to bust your face in if you don’t sign that!”
[Pablo]: Ernesto did not give in. The man didn’t hit him either. But the feeling of violence stayed in the air. Two more people entered the room, a man and a woman. Now it was four against one.
[Ernesto]: From that moment on, the situation inside the room became even more tense. They started asking me a lot of personal questions about my friends, about who they were.
[Pablo]: The agents told Ernesto that they knew he was planning a terrorist attack at the Plaza de la Revolución.
[Ernesto]: Or course, it is a tremendously stupid and a complete lie.
[Pablo]: Ernesto remained silent. And then after a while…
[Ernesto]: They told me, “Look, you can go.” I left the room where I was. I remember my legs were shaking, my hands were shaking. I felt like I had a lump in my throat. And I leave the police station. I walk a few meters, go down the stairs and just as I am done going down the stairs, one of them comes out and says to me, “Hey, come here, come here, come back.”
[Pablo]: Ernesto went back to the room. They continued to question him and then let him go. And on his way out, they told him to come back. This happened two or three more times. A cruel game. Until one of the men said:
[Ernesto]: “Listen, I advise you to think carefully about your family. If you love your family, if I were you I would drop this because your sister is a student at the university and it would be a pity if she had to abandon her career, and it would be a pity if your relatives lost their jobs. How are you going to tell them that this is your fault?”
And then I started to be more afraid.
[Pablo]: They eventually let him out, this time for real. As he walked home, he thought about what he was going to do, how he could protect his family, and whether or not he should protest for SNet the following Saturday. When he got home, his grandfather asked him what had happened, but Ernesto couldn’t answer. He went to his room, fell asleep, and the next morning his grandfather sat down with him and told him:
[Ernesto]: “You are my grandson, I love you very much, but if you keep doing what you are doing, you can no longer be my grandson. And you cannot live here anymore.”
[Pablo]: While he was saying this, his grandfather was crying. So did his grandmother. Ernesto had never seen them like that and didn’t know what to say to them. But he didn’t change his mind either: he wanted to go to protest on Saturday. There were about three days left when he began to receive several calls from unknown numbers. It was State Security. His mother, his girlfriend and his friends also received calls in which the agents told them to get away from Ernesto, or to make him stop, because he was being manipulated by counterrevolutionary groups seeking to overthrow the Cuban government. On Thursday, a couple of days before the protest, two officers called him again.
[Ernesto]: And they said that if I set foot outside my house on Saturday, they would put me in jail. That was it.
[Pablo]: The fear was just too much.
[Ernesto]: I posted a statement on Twitter saying that I was withdrawing from the protests, that I would not go the next day.
[Pablo]: His friends and family understood it. And other network users did, too. Actually, many already knew what to expect. On Saturday, the police cordoned off the streets around the park across from the Ministry of Communications. Several journalists and activists reported pressure from the police and State Security to not leave their homes. Just like what happened to Ernesto. And so the second pro-SNet protest never took place.
[Ernesto]: And nothing, I mean… nothing happened in the end… Nothing happened in the end…
[Pablo]: The Cuban government ended up giving SNet one last alternative: either it was completely dismantled and disappeared, or it was annexed to the computing centers of the Ministry of Communications: the Joven Club de Computación y Electrónica. Unilaterally, without consulting other pillars, the general organizers of the Cerro pillar agreed to the annexation.
[Ernesto]: Everything that SNet meant, that its community meant, was finished. Where if there was a node that had a problem, people contributed money, bought the equipment, it was fixed…
[Pablo]: With the annexation to Joven Club, SNet joined the government network and so, in theory, made the leap from Havana to other provinces of the country. This is something that many of its creators had dreamed of. But network services slowed down and user complaints took months to resolve. In other words, SNet went from being a community network to being a bureaucratic network. The way Jade sees it…
[Jade]: When you put an institution on top controlling and deciding something that belongs to a community, well, you kill the initiative, and it died. It died.
[Pablo]: And as for Da Vinci, well… by that time he was very tired of the network. He had given years of his time, his work, his sanity and his money. For him, the annexation to the Joven Club did not change things much. SNet had already given everything it had to give.
[Da Vinci]: We had reached the goal for which SNet was created: to replace an internet that did not exist.
[Pablo]: When SNet was initially formed around 2011, only 2 out of every 10 Cubans had access to the Internet. But by 2019, after all this history, it was 7 out of every 10. And the connection was still quite expensive and slow. The Cuban government censored independent media sites and also, when it wanted to, blocked access to social networks—and this it continues to do today.
But once they had YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp… SNet was no longer necessary. And this was something many users told me. As soon as they had fairly decent enough access to the internet, they stopped seeing the fun of SNet and simply disconnected from it, not without a bit of nostalgia. Because those same users told me something else: the internet we are connected with today can never be what the street network was.
[Amanda]: If I had to define SNet in one word, it would be unity.
[Nessa]: It would be: link.
[Berlín]: Without thinking twice, family.
[Amandy (Cleo)]: Well, I would say: community.
[Tricia]: I think it would be: novelty.
[Star]: It was beautiful, it was powerful.
[Natalie]: And maybe those who didn’t experience it cannot understand it.
[Pablo]: Like many of us, who don’t know what it’s like to do stunts to plug a cable between buildings, or what it’s like to buy a computer on the black market and then build a WiFi antenna with a soda can. Whatever it took to connect to an independent and pioneering network, built at the initiative of the Cubans themselves, with ingenuity, solidarity and the constant desire to communicate with more and more and more people.
[Daniel]: Da Vinci continues to paint cars and still has the tower on the roof of his house. Some of his clients still recognize him as the Da Vinci of SNet.
Jade lives in Matanzas and is self-employed.
After his encounter with State Security, Ernesto decided he would do everything possible to leave Cuba. Today he lives in southern Chile.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, this is the last one of our 12th season. We are already working on the stories for our next season, which will be released in September. But we won’t leave completely… maybe in the middle there will be a surprise, so I recommend you keep an eye out. We will also be sharing exclusive material from the episodes on our networks, as well as announcements and news, so look for us as radioambulante all together on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok. If you haven’t subscribed to our newsletter, please do! And if you want to get in touch with our team to tell us something or suggest a story, write to us at [email protected].
Finally, if what we do excites, entertains, informs and expands your world, share it with your family and friends, or start a Listening Club in your community. At Radio Ambulante we want to open conversations and bring people closer through empathy. If you think the same, help us reach more people.
Thank you very much and, now yes, here are the credits…
Pablo Argüelles is a producer for Radio Ambulante. He lives in Mexico City.
This story was edited by Camila Segura and Lisette Arévalo. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano with music by Rémy.
Many thanks to Javier Roque, María Lucía Expósito, Ted Henken, and Larry Press for their help. And to all the people who shared their SNet stories with us.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Selene Mazón, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Laura Rojas Aponte , Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.