Saturday, June 1, 2013

Viva La Digital Revolucion

Thomas Pankau
Backpack Journalism—Cuba
May 25, 2013

                                                Viva La Digital Revoluci
Cuba is a land of revolution.  From the country’s 19th century wars for independence from Spain to the communist takeover in the late 1950s and the support of guerilla movements in Latin American throughout the Cold War, revolution has been and continues to be a concept familiar to all Cubans.  It pervades the many forms of government propaganda while the Cuban people publicly show their adoration for revolutionaries like Jose Marti and Che Guevara.  “Revolution” has become a source of collective pride for Cubans, as an integral part of their country’s history.  But there’s a certain revolution the Cuban government won’t embrace—the digital revolution. 
The rise of digital technology has brought forth sweeping changes to the world over the last few decades while humans now have access to far more information than ever before.  But Cuba’s Internet is notoriously restricted to its people and the country ranks second only to North Korea in terms of Internet control (World Factbook, 2013)
            Cubans who wish to access the Internet have to overcome limited availability, government censorship, and slow connection speed, among other obstacles—purchasing computers was not legal until 2007.  Most citizens would have to use a cyber-café and pay by the hour to get online, and only one of these cafes exists in Havana.  One hour of connectivity costs $5, while the average Cuban must subsist on $15 a month (McKinley, 2008).  Recent prospects for change seem to indicate slow progress.  Currently, the Cuban government is considering plans to activate a fiber-optic link to Jamaica in order to increase bandwidth, though it is unclear whether or not this move will change the availability of Internet to Cuban citizens (Orsi, 2013)
Since Raul Castro took office in 2008, there have been a number of liberalizations in many areas of Cuban life (Davis &Wayne, 2011).  Private businesses have increased, and travel restrictions for Cubans have been reduced, for example, but the Communist Party of Cuba still wants total political control and is hesitant to concede any of that power.  The idea of a populace armed with a vast resource of information is enough to make the Cuban government fearful of what unrestricted Internet could bring to Cuba.  Because of this, there is a significant effort to maintain the status quo by the government.
            In 2009, an American contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for bringing in computer equipment with the intent of setting up an Internet connection without government approval.  He is still in jail in Cuba and is serving a 15-year sentence (Ukman, 2011).  The Cuban government has clearly demonstrated its willingness to prevent Internet functionality to the Cuban people, through force if necessary.  The end result is a country where a mere 12% of the population has Internet access .  But there is a growing demand for Internet among the population, and many people are resorting to illegal activities to do so.  The Cuban black market allows people to purchase government-approved accounts that have been cleared for Internet access, in addition to the spread of computer equipment necessary for connectivity.  With the spread of these necessary components, a whole underground movement of computer programmers has sprung up in Cuba that has thrived on providing information and connectivity to others.  Videos that are critical of the Cuban government often become sensations in Havana because they are shared through thumb drives (McKinley, 2008).  As one of these computer programmers has said, “This is going to get out of the government’s hands because the technology is moving so rapidly” (McKinley, 2008).
            This places significant pressure on Castro’s regime to carefully determine the implementation of Internet access to Cuba.   If nothing is done, the underground movement will only grow in size which poses a threat to political stability.  When considering other countries with highly controlled Internet, China instantly comes to mind.  The Communist Party of China regulates what its citizens access by blocking certain websites, words, and phrases (Human Rights Watch, 2006).  However, Cuba uses an intranet system.  This is a way of connecting to other computers within the country in a closed system (meaning it is completely disconnected from websites outside of the country).  While Internet does exist in Cuba, it is found predominantly in tourist destinations or is accessible by government officials, whereas the most widely accessible form of online connectivity to average citizens is through this government-approved intranet.  This intranet system is more analogous to what countries like North Korea use to control the spread of information among its people (World Factbook, 2013).  North Korea’s Internet is even more tightly controlled than Cuba’s.  With Cuba’s much higher Internet-capable population, exercising the same level of control as North Korea would be highly unlikely.
            Switching over to a method of Internet censorship based around blocking availability to undesirable websites like China does would likely allow more Internet freedom since it is more connected to the world beyond a country’s borders.  However, even countries like China have Internet users who find ways to circumvent censorship in place.  Chinese citizens who are knowledgeable of online restrictions have adapted to them—for example, using metaphors or analogies to discuss topics the Chinese government would not approve of.  However, more tech-savvy users will always find ways to bypass the restrictions in place.  The user of proxy servers to view blocked websites is the most common way of dodging Internet restrictions in China (Human Rights Watch, 2006).
            Since Cuba already has a growing population of underground computer programmers who are likely to be knowledgeable in these tactics, it appears that Internet connectivity is an inevitable part of Cuba’s future.  Restrictions will be attached, of course, but the people will adapt and find ways to spread information.  This is the revolution that the Cuban government cannot prevent, no matter how hard it tries. 

Works Cited
Davis, B., and Wayne, M. (2011, July 5). Cuba seeks closer economic ties with Beijing.

Human Rights Watch. How Censorship Works in China: A Brief Overview. © 2006 by Human Rights Watch.

McKinley, J. (2008, March 6). Cyber-rebels in Cuba Defy State’s Limits . New York Times

Orsi, P. (2013, March 25). Internet Cable from Jamaica to Cuba Comes Online.  Miami Herald

Ukman, J. (2011, August 5). Cuba Rejects Appeal of U.S. Contractor Alan Gross. Washington Post

World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 27 September 2011

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