Josuhe Pagliery was in Miami the night of Fidel’s death.
A moment that had perplexed and fascinated Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits for decades had finally come to pass. A Cuban visual artist, Pagliery, 35, had been in the U.S. since early November to raise money and gather some publicity in hopes that he and a computer programmer friend might become the first from their island nation to create a fully animated video game.
“It was very shocking, super strange to be here in the U.S. when that happened,” Pagliery said from the home of family he’d never met until this visit, his first to the U.S. “This is someone you’ve known your entire life, and then to see it from another perspective — it’s a very strange feeling.”
In a few days, Pagliery is due to get to get back on a plane and return to Cuba, his family, his girlfriend and a life he says is going to change in untold ways.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now both with your new president Trump and now that Fidel is gone,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen, but change will come, and all I can hope is that it will be change for the better.”
Pagliery was in New York and Miami with the help of the Innovadores Foundation, the first program of its kind to bring young Cuban engineers and tech-focused developers to the U.S. to learn the nuts and bolts of creating a startup company that might have practical benefits for a country with many needs.
This past summer, a second group of young Cubans, three in total, spent six weeks in Manhattan at Grand Central Tech, a so-called incubator project funded in part by Alphabet‘s Google, PepsiCo and JPMorgan Chase .
Pagliery’s work as a multimedia artist had come to the attention of Jonathan Matusky, a Carnegie Mellon University engineering graduate and full-time Innovadores staff member who lives in Havana, spending much of his time meeting with students and others working in technology fields in addition to shuttling between the recently created U.S. Embassy and Cuban officials on behalf of the program.
Pagliery, who wants to become the first Cuban to create a video game, worked with Matusky to establish an Indiegogo crowd-sourcing site that recently surpassed its goal of raising $10,000 to develop a video game, Savior. Crowd sourcing may be common in the U.S., but to Pagliery it was little short of magical. “We’re very happy with how everything has come together,” he said.
In Savior, characters discover that they’re actually living inside a video game and that the game itself is falling apart. Players then try to save the world from total collapse, weaving their way through a maze of traps and creatures.
Together with his partner, Johann Hernández Armenteros, Pagliery created Empty Head Games, a bold development in itself given the Cuban government’s many restrictions on private enterprise and the near-total absence of independent funding.
“The game is really a reflection of a life as a Cuban living in a cyberworld that may seem as though it’s years behind but revels in what it does know,” he said. “For me and video games, I don’t have the widest access to information, so I bring back my memories of a gamer from maybe 20 years ago and include that in my own game. Ultimately, it was a very personal experience that went into making the game.”
Pagliery’s trip to the U.S. comes as lovers of Cuban music, dance, history and sport have been visiting the island in recent months, taking advantage of the willingness of the U.S. and the Castro government to renew diplomatic relations. Some trips are about rural development while others provide polished tours of the arts. Considering how arduous it used to be to travel to a city 105 miles from Key West — and how travel still must fit into one of 12 categories — round-trip flights to Havana originating from Miami occur at remarkably regular intervals.
These days, Americans are as common a sight in Cuba as Europeans and Russians. Either way, the opening is real despite the limitations of a 58-year-old economic embargo. Just how that relationship will evolve under president-elect Donald Trump and Cuban President Raul Castro, freed from the constraints of his brother, are fuzzy.
The same might be said about the Innovadores Foundation, itself a product of patience and commitment on the part of Miles Spencer, a tech startup investor, and John Caulfield, the recently retired chief of the U.S. Interests Section office in Havana from 2011 to 2014. Spencer heard Caulfield speak a few years ago and approached him with an idea of connecting young tech-minded Cubans with similarly ambitious young people in New York.
By living and working in Havana, Caulfield built up the kind of relations essential to alleviating the fears of Cuban government officials that some of its country’s finest minds would use the Innovadores program to defect. Working quietly, Spencer related this summer how they were able to get the Obama administration on board before making a successful presentation to the Cubans.
In preparing for their third class at Grand Central Tech in the summer of 2017, Innovadores provides informal assistance and advice to app developers, designers and other entrepreneurs. the goal, Caulfield said in an email, is to match Cubans with technical experts and potential financial backers in the U.S.
Pagliery himself arrived in New York in early November and promptly spent much of his first 24 hours in an apartment in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill sending and receiving emails in support of his crowd-sourcing campaign. Most of his initial support has come from other video game enthusiasts curious about the work of a Cuban developer.
Being in New York put Pagliery in a thrilling daze. The crowds, the speed of things, the very tall buildings and, of course, the internet were “super cool,” he said.
“If you want to open a full page with graphics in Cuba, you could wait a half hour,” he said. “If you go to a Wi-Fi hotspot, you have more of a real internet, but you have to go to sit on a curb in the street with a lot of people around you, a lot of noise, not a real way to do work. And there’s an expense, you have to pay for it, and it’s not cheap.”
Eager and amiable in the way of a first-time visitor, Pagliery fluctuates between carefully choosing his words and letting his emotions run free, unencumbered by the thorny terrain of geopolitics. Going back to Havana means confronting a slower internet but also reconnecting with Hernández, whose opportunities to travel outside of Cuba are limited because he’s a programmer; as an artist, Pagliery says, he has more chances to travel and for that reason also has visited Madrid and London, though securing such visas can take months or even years.
For Pagilery, the next three to four months promise to be very busy, highlighted, hopefully, he says, by a demo of Savior in March at a Havana art gallery. If all goes as planned, he hopes to relaunch the Indiegogo campaign with an eye to getting a distribution deal for the video game in the U.S. or Japan.
What happens after that, he says, is unclear.
“People in Cuba, sadly, have learned to wait,” he said. “Time in Cuba works in a different way than probably any other place in the world. But honestly and frankly, I think things will go faster in ways that older people didn’t have, to choose to move wherever you want, not to be restrained.”
“In the U.S., I see many opportunities that I don’t have in Cuba, but maybe in Cuba I have more time to work. I like to try to see the best of the two countries, and then keep going and going.”