Cuba & Internet: Jump in or Stay Out?

Graham Sowa

I don’t talk to the US media about Cuba because I have seen what the media produces about Cuba.  Even the best efforts to put something down often produce results and readers that are left wanting.  The worst are blatantly malicious.  The media shares responsibility for the generations’ long divide between the governments of Cuba and the United States.

Regardless of my conscious attempt to avoid participation in traditional, or “mainstream”, media concerning Cuba I was recently vanquished by my foil.

Noticias Martí, ironically an anti-socialist news service sponsored by tax dollars from the Federal Government of the United States of America, used my name and content from this blog for an article about three weeks ago.

This could be a sign of success.  Even if our stories are distorted by the ideologues at Noticias Martí at least this shows that our capacity to produce and publish independently is worth more than the 20,000,000 USD my government fritters away annually on their failed incursions into Cuban airwaves.  They have to rely on a collective of lowly bloggers for their content.

But then I’m reminded of those (almost always generic) cautionary tales:  the media never gets Cuba right and no matter what you say or how you say it someone, somewhere, will react.  That reaction depends on who you pissed off and which side of the Straits of Florida they live on.

Or the oft repeated cautionary tale that says no one should write anything, because the counterrevolutionary forces will just use that against the revolution.

But this ought not to dissuade participation.

In forums of self publishing, such as this blog, the words are originally ours.  We can defend our articles and stories in their original context because we are the original source.

Such a defense is rarely possible with traditional media where writers, editors, and printers separate the source of information from the reader, or, in my recent experience, the plagiarizer.  This is why self publishing is the new media of communication in 21st century participatory democracy.

But then we are still left with that nag of a warning that says we shouldn’t write anything lest those counterrevolutionary forces take hold of it.

There is something to be said about this argument that, as much as we want to hold ridiculous or resist as intrusion onto free speech, keeps on coming true.

Take the new Cuban narrative about the internet as an example.  In the past few months we have seen articles in Granma with words like “cyber war”, “digital subversion”, and “foreign electronic agents” marketed as reasons to fear the internet.  The same articles go on to say that United States is capable of shutting down internet in any part of the world at any time.

The Cuban Government’s argument is a bit confusing.   They claim that the United States is promoting and shutting down internet at the same time.

That latter accusation belongs more squarely on the shoulders of Middle East and North African governments.  The United States tried, and failed, to silence WikiLeaks.  They have learned that silencing the internet is a near impossibility, even with their vast resources.

In practice the United States is promoting internet more than trying to mute it.  And they are doing so in much of the same way as the Cuban Government is accusing them of.  The New York Times recently profiled the United States State Department efforts to create internet capabilities for individuals with the express intent of subverting centralized control of communications.

As much as some people might want to say that the Cuba is trafficking in rhetoric of fear to justify their aversion to open internet access we must recognize that the fear is not baseless.

Therefore our advocacy of open internet cannot dismiss these fears as not being real, because indeed they are.  In lieu of dismissal we need to ask if this fear of subversion is worth the status quo.

Fear of small, failure ridden programs, such as Noticias Martí or the United States State Department internet promotion, should not be allowed to shape Cuban policy towards interne.

We should not be scared of entering the digital global network because these elements exist in it.  They will always exist in it, no matter if we join today or wait yet another decade.  The ground lost by a delayed entry has been, and will be, ours.  All battles have their fields, and in the battle of ideas the new field is the internet.  Let us step onto it.

Graham

Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.


6 thoughts on “Cuba & Internet: Jump in or Stay Out?

  • July 15, 2011 at 10:56 am
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    Graham, I’m very much enjoying your journal entries, especially the recent ones reflecting on your experiences in Haiti. Up the road apiece from me here in Vermont is the School for International Training/World Learning, whose main purpose seems to be grinding out future NGO leaders. Students there would learn much from your reflections.
    Like another M.D. favorite of mine, Anton Chekov, you are a writing doctor. Another favorite writing doctor of mine was Luis Ferdinand Celline, though not, of course, his politics. Still, I can seperate out the former from the latter and appreciate his original and ground-breaking literary talents.
    As for Cuba’s lagging in access to the internet, I feel in part this is due to insufficient YOUNGER members who have not yet been incorporated into positions of power within the government. Lets hope that the younger folks I observed at the recent Party Congress reflect forthcoming changes. The other part, of course, is fear of not having control over information and expression; Cuba, however, is not like the PDRK–never was and never will be–and at least some members of the leadership, both old and young, are bright enough to know that embracing the internet will lead to greater progress and unlocking more potential.

  • June 19, 2011 at 10:13 am
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    Mark: i don’t think that when officials in the Cuban government sit down to talk about internet access in their country they actually use the line of reasoning you are referring to. In my short time here, and the limited understanding that has brought me, I think that everything done in centralized, top down, planning takes a lot of time. It is not just because they fear losing a monopoly on power. In countries like the U.S. it is often the Gov’t that must adjust to the changes that the population makes (i.e. what social network has the US gov’t invented? our government is very much behind the curve on internet use in their services and programs) whereas the Cuban government takes a top-down approach, where the access of the population is completely dependent on the access of the government. Given a variety of reasons, including very limited resources, the population has had to wait on the government, rather than the government catching up with the people.

    f0rty: I very much doubt that the average American has any idea of the internet access in Cuba, and I don’t think many would notice or care if Cuba opened access. I think a better statement would be that Cubans would probably rejoice if they had internet access.

  • June 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm
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    The Internet is nothing more than the use of standardized protocols enabling otherwise independent computer networks to communicate on a common platform. Email, social media, blogs and websites (including this one) are all part of this network of networks. The Internet is not controlled by the US government or any government for that matter.

    Many countries including the US allow their citizens unrestricted access to the Internet. Only a few countries like Cuba deny their citizens this right. Why? Because Cuba’s authoritarian government fears the free flow of information on the Internet will expose the unchallenged lies propagated by state media, and they fear the organizing potential of social media to undermine their monopoly on power.

  • June 18, 2011 at 11:46 am
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    What other countries fear the internet? North Korea, Iran, China? What these governments actually fear is that a free internet is like freedom of assembly, and freedom to travel. Instant communication.

    I know that the people of the U.S. would rejoice if all Cubans had access to the world wide web.

  • June 17, 2011 at 2:34 pm
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    Graham is right! Of course the U.S. will use the Internet against Cuba. But for Cuba to refuse or delay use of the Internet for that reason is to guarantee defeat. Cuba must use the Internet; it cannot be ignored!

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