Social media access in Cuba has changed the way Cubans are telling their stories to the rest of the world. Thankfully, the conversation is no longer strictly contained to how Cuba is a traveller’s paradise, or of the turbulent politics, but is finally centring real Cubans and their lives. Specifically, social media has spotlighted the ways Cubans are existing and interacting with dual realities: that of the lives they lead under the state, and their online lives as global citizens who might lack common privileges like at-home internet access, yet still wish to share their everyday experiences.
For years, Cubans have used social media to interact with politics or form groups like Movimiento San Isidro, which protests against government censorship of artists on the island. Cuba’s constitution prohibits private ownership of media outlets, which means traditional media is state-controlled. As such, journalists employed by the state can only publish works that are aligned to the government’s objectives; those not employed by the state and publish works that can be considered an opposition to society are likely to come across resistance, censorship, and arrest. That can include social media content creators.
Notwithstanding, there is now a wave of Cuban vloggers and influencers who are using social media like many of us abroad to create everyday content — but the practice comes with challenges. While the private ownership of computers and cellphones was introduced in 2008, most Cubans don’t have computers or wifi at home given that internet access is costly even in public hotspots. Many regularly walk to public parks and pay prices akin to a significant percentage of their average monthly wage for internet access. The average salary for Cubans working for the state is the equivalent of $34 USD (£25) monthly, $400 (£290) yearly. A pre-paid data SIM card, which is necessary for internet access, will cost a Cuban anywhere from $5 (£3.60) to $30 (£22) USD monthly, depending on the package. Some Cubans generate a larger income by reselling items they receive from relatives elsewhere, working in tourism, or through other creative sources of revenue, yet the internet rates remain pricey for a majority of the population. And even then, internet access is censored. Blocked websites include pro-democracy sites and blogs from prominent Cuban writers like Yoani Sanchez.
Considering that internet access is costly and inconvenient, how are content creators like Anabelle Vigo (@anitaconswing) vlogging from the island? A glance at Vigo’s social platforms will show her take on daily life in Cuba via weekly YouTube uploads, including a video on supermarkets in Cuba that has amassed almost one million views. Vigo started on social media about three years ago as a 16-year-old high schooler who would walk to the park, sit for two to three hours to upload her videos online, and go back the next day to promote them on Facebook. Today, Vigo has 81,000 subscribers who hail from all over the world, including Mexico, Spain, Argentina, and Cubans who live outside the island. She’s also monetised the channel with Google ads, but getting paid is a challenge. Because Google must comply with the sanctions imposed by the United States Office of Foreign Access Control, AdSense is not available in countries like Cuba, Crimea, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. This means creators in Cuba must find alternatives to earn money from ads. “Google AdSense pays me as a YouTube creator, but it’s because I don’t have my channel based out of Cuba. My channel has to be under someone else’s name and located somewhere outside of Cuba. That person receives the money I make and sends it back to me,” she tells Refinery29, describing a manager-client relationship.
"Vigo embodies the enterprising spirit that’s typical among many Cubans, people who are known for their ability to make wine out of water."
Vigo earns more as a digital creator than the average Cuban. In a YouTube video, she disclosed that she’s earned $6,107 USD (£4,412) since she started her channel two years ago. In addition to her Google AdSense income, she has partnerships with businesses on the island who pay for ad space on her channel. Vigo also has an Instagram store where she re-sells her own clothes, and re-sells others’ for a 25% cut, and hires distributors who will make home deliveries in her neighbourhood — a local Poshmark of sorts. At 19, Vigo embodies the enterprising spirit that’s typical among many Cubans, people who are known for their ability to make wine out of water. This entrepreneurial ethos was invigorated during Cuba’s Special Period that lasted throughout the ‘90s, wherein the government strictly rationed and restricted food, fuel, and services because of the economic instability that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Through creative resources, and sometimes secretive methods — such as leveraging connections with farmers for cattle theft, raising pigs at home, and purchasing black market goods at a higher cost — Cubans found ways to survive amidst a period of widespread food insecurity, tethering on the brink of famine.
Today, the way Vigo harnesses the internet to fulfill her endeavours is telling of the impact that social media has on the country. Like any conversation involving Cubans and the media, this one also includes censorship. The Cuban government has a history of silencing journalists — such as the aforementioned Yoani Sanchez whose blog, Generación Y, is blocked on the island — dissidents, and, most recently, digital creators. Last October, two Cuban YouTubers were detained and had their internet cut after participating in an online forum discussing politics in Cuba. But being censored is not a concern for Vigo as she avoids discussing politics on her channel. “I have been careful with everything that I say. I try to not get involved in political issues simply because they don’t interest me,” says Vigo.
However financially transformative social media has been for Vigo, she still says that when it comes to her mental health, it’s come at a cost. While she acknowledges the privileges she holds as a content creator, Vigo says that the access she’s privileged to have has also let her see how others live outside of the island, and as a result, is now more aware of the limitations in her own life. “Social media has helped me because I would have otherwise not have been able to live this lifestyle or go to places I’ve been able to visit. On the other hand, it does sometimes hurt to look at reality like it is,” she explains. “I follow a lot of influencers who are not Cuban [who] live in other places and have another way of living. I look at them in awe, looking at their travels and food, and knowing we can’t have that here.”
Cuban creators like Vigo have found success in monetising their personal brands — a byproduct of capitalism — yet remain confined to the strict rules of a socialist society. With the proliferation of social media on the island, creators are finding ways to showcase their reality without necessarily commenting on it. Some, too, are becoming less self-censored in their political criticism, regardless of the cost. After all, less than a decade ago, Cubans were afraid to post online. Now, they’re sharing their lives with the rest of the world, and earning income from it. This all begs the question: As creators’ lives are being streamed worldwide, how will social media change individual lives on the island, and will this impact how Cubans at large live as well?