In the first episode of what I would like to be a series of articles called "Far Away Tech", in which I explore and take you on a tour of tech in the world, I profile a Cuban tech YouTuber, part-time DJ, and aspiring leaker.
When you think of the bastions of tech in the world, you think of Silicon Valley as a start-up incubator and the birthplace of GAFA. You may also think of South Korea and Japan, the strongholds of Samsung and Sony, where the integration of technology into everyday life is light years ahead of Europe or North America. Or China, and its tech-hub in Shenzhen, a real epicenter of the world tech industry.
No one suspects that a community of technophiles is growing in Cuba, an island state in the Caribbean among the last communist enclaves in the world. At least that's what I thought. Me, a Franco-German, and geocentric European before running into Julio Lusson by chance.
Julio Lusson is Cuban and lives in the Havana region, in the city of Justiz near Guanabo. Julio runs the YouTube channel TecnoLike Plus, dedicated to tech, and with more than 10,000 subscribers. Its Spanish-speaking content is quite typical: reviews, comparisons, smartphone buying tips, and smart home and IoT products.
But in the last few weeks, Julio has been in the news a lot for his leaks around the Google Pixel 4a, which he has gotten his hands on before anyone else. He has already published a lot of leaks and even a complete review. His leaks have since been picked up by many specialized sites and Julio has become one of the main sources of information around this much-awaited Made by Google smartphone.
So it was while reading an article about one of his leaks that I came across Julio. I found it really unusual to discover a leaker, and tech-YouTuber moreover, based in Cuba where Internet access is known to be very limited. An exchange by direct messages on Twitter and some Google Translate later, I am pleased to draw this atypical portrait that shows that we don't share the same language, nor the same means, but the same passion.
Talking tech in Cuba, despite the embargo
There is a lot of talk about the anti-Huawei embargo in Europe and its potentially harmful consequences for the tech market. In Cuba, however, the US embargo - "el bloqueo" - has been in place since 1962, although it has been relaxed since the early 2000s in the face of criticism from the international community.
In Cuba, "iPhones are very popular but there is no Apple Store because of the trade restrictions. "To use Apple services like the App Store, you have to go through a VPN," says Julio Lusson. "But there is a Samsung store in Havana, affectionately nicknamed 'the Samsung Museum' because it is deserted most of the time, with the smartphones being too expensive," Julio laughs.
Access to technology, as a consumer, is not easy in Cuba, as you will have understood. One of the only official e-commerce platforms is TuEnvio (whose site seems to crash quite often) but it is dedicated to the sale of food products. To buy a tech product, you have to turn to unofficial sites set up by private individuals who resell them under the counter and online.
"There are flagship brands like Apple, Samsung, Huawei, and OnePlus. The price of smartphones is considerably higher because there are no dedicated shops, the logistics for shipping are laborious and the sale is subject to heavy taxes," Julio explains.
The YouTuber explains to me, for example, that an iPhone that costs $1,000 at launch can become 1,400 CUC (the Cuban Convertible Peso, one of the two currencies in Cuba indispensable to buying imported goods), that is to say, you are paying 1,400 US dollars on the island.
But there's a big market of technophiles in Cuba, Julio assures me, which isn't accessible to everyone. The problem, in large part, lies with a patchy Internet.
The D system for uploading with a slow and expensive Internet
"Internet access in Cuba is complicated but not impossible," says Julio. The YouTuber recalls its beginnings in an underground network called SNET, through which a community of Cuban Internet users bypasses Internet restrictions:
When I started YouTube, I had to drive five kilometers by bus to a Wi-Fi hotspot on the street to upload my videos from my smartphone, sometimes standing in the rain for hours.
It makes you want to think twice before bitching when your fiber connection is a little slower than usual. But since then, Julio has managed to get Wi-Fi access at home. "The connection is bad, we're talking 2 Mbps at most, but it allows me to upload at least one video a week."
Then comes the question of price. In Cuba, the main national ISP is ETECSA. "You have to pay by the hour. An hour of Internet costs 0.70 CUC, or 0.70 US dollars. If you take into account the average salary in Cuba of 15 CUC per month, the bill is steep," says Julio, especially since it can take hours to upload a video in 1080p.
"We also have the possibility of using mobile data. But I never do it because it's way too expensive. A 2 GB data pack costs 10 CUC", Julio adds. That's two-thirds of the average monthly salary. Anyway, the YouTuber is trying to keep up with his weekly video schedule.
Julio has indeed monetized his Tecnolike Plus channel. Launched two years ago, his channel brings in money - "enough to help me pay my Internet bills and continue making videos." To make ends meet, Julio, who started out studying industrial mechanics, works as a DJ at private parties on the weekends and as a smartphone dealer during the week. "It's not much, but I'd really like to start my own smartphone store someday."
The buzz around the leaks of the Google Pixel 4a
As I explained, I discovered Julio Lusson and his channel through an article mentioning his leaks related to Google's upcoming Pixel 4a. Julio remains very vague on the means by which he claims to have had access to the smartphone. "This is the first time I've had access to an advanced tech product before anyone else."
For the Pixel 4a, it's a member of his team who acted as an intermediary. "This member knew someone who had the smartphone in his possession, he was contacted, and the rest is a secret," says Julio, and he won't tell me (understandably) any more than that.
But the fact is that he's made a lot of noise with his videos on the Google Pixel 4a. According to SocialBlade, an online tool for tracking the stats of content creators (on YouTube, in particular), his channel has seen a 129 percent increase in views over the last 30 days.
We're not at the level of a Brownlee Brand in terms of production or direction here, but Julio's videos are very professional, the editing is done in his home studio and everything is filmed from his room. It looks pretty "pro", as you can see in his review of the alleged Pixel 4a (in Spanish).
Julio has also surrounded himself with a team of enthusiasts like him to feed the eponymous blog TecnoLike Plus. "Some members come from all over Cuba, others are based in Spain and we all work more or less together, albeit remotely," he explains.
The main obstacle for Julio remains the blockade imposed on Cuba: "It has a great impact, foreign companies have contacted me to send me products to test. But each time I have to give them another address that is not based in Cuba or they'll never be able to send them to me."
The YouTuber says he is not worried about press freedom issues, as his channel talks about tech and not politics, which could be a cause for concern. One of his dreams would be to be able to get out of Cuba and participate in a big tech event in a foreign country.
But Julio, with more than 10,000 subscribers, seems to have found his audience: "Cuba is my main source of audience. The tech has become something very important here. Today, it's not just young people who follow tech. I have a lot of older people following me every week."
So in Cuba, people consume tech just like anywhere else. Certainly, there are certain peculiarities there. ToDus is the national alternative to WhatsApp for example, but people also use Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Telegram, and Twitter. And Xiaomi has also dipped its toes into the Cuban market. "The manufacturer has gained a lot of notoriety with its value for money," Julio tells me.
The tech revolution seems to be well and truly underway in Cuba, where even an embargo and the vestiges of the Cold War cannot stop the pioneers of a nascent but promising web.