I MET RAUL MOAS IN APRIL, at 420 Lincoln Road in fashionable Miami Beach, across the Biscayne Bay from Miami proper. “For us Cuban Americans, Cuba is omnipresent,” he told me at the office of Roots of Hope. “For me, it’s always been a mythical place.” Moas is 27 years old, and the grandson of migrants who fled to Florida after Communist revolutionaries under Fidel Castro seized control of Cuba from a military government, in 1959. The Communists aligned the country with the Soviet bloc through the Cold War, and were shunned by the United States. The US government restricted trade ties and travel to Cuba in the early 1960s, and the two sides broke diplomatic relations. In the decades that followed, and even after the Cold War, Cuba remained under single-party Communist rule and isolated from its giant neighbour—as it is today.
Roots of Hope disagrees with this state of things. A non-profit opened in 2003, it works to help young people in Cuba reshape the island’s politics and its place in the world, fostering stronger ties to the United States along the way. Moas is its executive director, and that day he wore a shirt striped blue, white and red—the shared palette of the Cuban and American flags. With him were two men, both on the older end of middle age, leaving for a visit to Cuba the next day. Moas instructed them in the use of smart phones, and handed over one phone set to each. They planned to hand these over to people they knew on the island, for personal use.
“Until 2009, it was illegal to use the internet in Cuba,” Moas explained to me. “Today, in theory, no—but rates remain inaccessible to most citizens and mailboxes are controlled by the government.” Cuba has almost no broadband connectivity outside of a few hundred government-run establishments, where access costs the equivalent of about $4 an hour—in a country where monthly wages average around $20. Last month, the government announced plans to halve rates and install new connections, but Cubans are increasingly turning to international satellite networks and smart phones to surf free of any official control. Smart phones sold on the island, through government stores, are prohibitively expensive, so phones from abroad are welcome. “We simply want to provide young people the opportunity to connect to the world,” Moas said, “to communicate with the outside without restrictions.” As Cuba’s isolation wanes, he argued, change will come by itself.