Getting connected

My following article appeared in yesterday’s Guardian Comment is Free section:

Cuba is the least technologically connected country in Latin America, falling way behind in mobile phone and internet penetration. The Castro regime has blamed the long-standing US embargo for the communication restrictions – and must utilise satellite technology as a result – but the situation is far more complicated than the government likes to publicly admit. For example, Cubans are required to obtain a permit to buy a computer or subscribe to an ISP, therefore making regular contact with the outside world a virtual impossibility for the vast majority of citizens.

During a recent visit to the island, I discovered that although access to the internet has improved since a crackdown in 2004, some Cubans are frustrated by their government’s unwillingness to allow unfettered access to the web. Many young Cubans can use an intranet with an email address and government-approved websites, but this is hardly a replacement for the real thing. One student in Havana, who was studying IT and the internet, told me that he and his friends were increasingly angry that the authorities did not allow them to experience the web in its unfiltered glory.

I met Felix at the Iranian embassy in Havana. He was in his 50s and had spent most of his life teaching at a local university. He left a few years ago because the pay was poor and he needed to better support his family. Felix lamented the lack of a free press in his country and the ways in which the internet – something he had seen a few times with former university friends – was routinely blocked and restricted. “Life for us is very tough”, he told me. He resented the ruling elite who dictated policy to the masses while enjoying complete personal freedom themselves.

The last 12 months have seen a tightening of control over the Cuban population, partly due to Fidel’s sickness and a fear of American meddling. Marc Frank, Reuters correspondent in Cuba, told me that, “the two main security issues for the government are cell phones and the internet”, as they allow citizens access to information away from prying authorities. He rightly acknowledged that internet access wasn’t a priority for most Cubans – more basic needs such as employment took precedence – but it was a political ticking time-bomb. The rise of hip-hop culture amongst the Cuban youth, and the appropriation of US-style gangsta rap, is leading to an increased taste for what globalisation has to offer. The internet is integral to these new desires. Despite this, I could find no regular bloggers based in Cuba.

Fidel was undoubtedly respected by large swathes of the population, but the mood for change is palpable. Neither US-style capitalism nor Chavez-inspired socialism may be right, but the inevitable passing of Fidel will probably see at least slight democratic openings.

Any nation that believes in the rule of law and democracy must guarantee freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of speech. Cuba is not currently that country. Decades of pointless US interventions and an over-zealous Miami community have brought Cuba to the point of economic ruin. None of these facts, however, excuse the inability of the Castro regime to enter the ranks of modern, open nations. Many governments are routinely filtering “subversive” websites in an attempt to protect their autocratic rule. They are fighting a battle that they can never win.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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