Why Students in Cuba Need Internet

Graham Sowa

Students taking their turn for Internet time.

Last week a special article ran in Cuban papers titled “Cyberwar:  Access to the internet, subversion, or human rights”.  The more often I read about the internet from the Cuban government perspective the more I feel like we need to do a better job of explaining to them why the internet is necessary.  We cannot just rely on the usual complaints of lack of access.

Explaining the importance of something to a person who never has used it is a nearly futile task.  Anyone who grew up with the internet and has tried to explain it to a grandparent should know what I am talking about.  If there is no basis for understanding how the internet works, and why it is important, people will continue to be frightened of it by ambiguous terms such as “cyberwar” and “subversion”.

Therefore, I’m going to try to defend an opening of the internet in Cuba as a necessity for students.  Even with all of its faults, an open and universally accessible internet in Cuba is preferable to the status quo.

There are probably more additions and changes to medical knowledge in a year than anyone could learn in a lifetime.  We medical students have six years to digest as much of this as possible.  Access to information, particularly contemporary information, is critical to our careers.

Most students use their limited internet access at the school (forty minutes a week for each student, depending if you can talk your way in for some extra time) for communication.  We furiously upload email attachments of letters home while copying and pasting messages from our inbox into microsoft word documents to read later, off the clock.

Spending hours doing research on google scholar or PubMed is not an option.

The school does a fairly decent job of making their printed materials available in digital format.  We students also exchange videos, textbooks, and other learning materials among ourselves. The ubiquitous memory stick means that computer users in Cuba know that swapping materials takes time and risks viruses.

Some of us have digital libraries that fill 500 gb hard drives.  We don’t have access Wikipedia through the web, but we do posses downloaded copies of the entire online encyclopedia in various languages.  We are humans, so of course we have adjusted to our environment in order to meet our needs.

But none of this adjusting replaces the necessity of a continuously updated and searchable world wide web.  Not having internet makes establishing the accuracy and validity of what we are reading a veritable chore.

Besides the general use of a searchable database the internet also offers specificity and depth found in focused academic studies published in journals.

As students studying a scientific and social curriculum academic journals are critically important to keeping knowledge contemporary and research relevant.

These academic journals often cost money to access. Single articles can cost 20-30 dollars.  A university can pay hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year to access databases of journals for their staff and students.

So now we see how students in Cuba are sidelined in the global communication revolution. Crossing the government barrier only leads to a confrontation of a more insurmountable market barrier.  But we are not at an impasse.

Open access academic journals are gaining popularity.  The Public Library of Science allows full and free access to their peer reviewed publications.  The Database of Open Access Journals keeps a running index of all journals that allow open access to anyone from anywhere.

Some newer journals, such as Health and Human Rights have taken it upon themselves to publish a free online peer reviewed journal.  In addition to journal articles there are numberless podcasts, youtube videos, websites, blogs, and online forums open to anyone with the means and will to learn.

These are models for how academia should participate in the 21st century.  Students in Cuba should no longer be delayed the privilege.




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.

2 thoughts on “Why Students in Cuba Need Internet

  • Graham
    Here is the simple logic they use.
    One side of the balance no internet and they can keep power. People less informed means they can keep power longer. The other side of the balance is people can make informed decisions and that they are in control and not the few that hold all the power.
    They of course will pick the side of the balance that gives them all the power. So you can not reason with their logic. They are defending “their right” to be in power.

  • What the internet offers is access to information which, in the best case, will be process by individuals to form new concepts and knowledge. That is exactly what the regime fears the most, which is that people will form their own ideas and begin to ask questions about their reality and the system they are force to live with. This is a natural process which is not typical of the internet, it happened when the arrival of the printing press and books and knowledge were not longer under the control of the church and available to those how could read and buy a book. In other words the church lost the control of people’s mind.

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