Barbara Maseda (Juventud Tecnica)
HAVANA TIMES — At one end of the debate surrounding the potential benefits of using freeware and open-source programs in Cuba, we find a fairly reduced and largely unknown group of people who have been working with these programs for years: the Grupo de Usuarios de Tecnologias Libres (“Users of Free Technology Group”, or GUTL), an organization made up of experts and aficionados from around the country.
Pablo Mestre Drake, the group’s national coordinator, shared with Juventud Tecnica magazine the ups-and-downs, satisfactions, perspectives and other experiences the organization has accumulated over its first five years of life.
How was the group founded?
Pablo Mestre Drake: The Users of Free Technologies Group came into being on June 23, 2009, following a meeting held at Havana’s Palacio Central de Computacion (“Central Computer Club”), where people from several provinces and many members of what had till then been known as “Linux Habana” got together. The idea was to create a new group with new aims that would take on much more wide-encompassing projects and help create a legal association that would truly represent the community of free technology users.
What organizations existed before then?
PMD: There were more local groups, like the pioneer “Linux Santiago.” People who were interested, not only in Linux, but also in freeware in general, began to meet and to get to know one another. There were isolated initiatives in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos. These were scattered across the country, everyone did their thing at their end. The idea was to bring all of that work under a single organization, so that there would be no redundancy and get everyone to work towards a common end.
At the time, these communities received support from the group involved in the nationwide freeware installation initiative, which gathered such entities as the Ministry of Information Sciences and Communications, ETECSA and other companies. As part of this process, the State made a server available to these communities, where they could host different services that would be accessible through the SoftwareLibre.cu portal. These included file storage systems, a wiki and a support directory. One day, an unidentified user sent out a message with counterrevolutionary content and, without asking us anything, they shut the server down – just like that, without prior notice. And it was never activated again.
Two years later, in 2009, we transferred the information to an Internet site, something which violated a series of information security norms and policies in effect at the time. In addition, that didn’t meet the requirement of being accessible to all members, as some only had access to .cu domains or local e-mail accounts and not the Internet. We approached the administrators of Cuba’s Computer and Electronics Youth Clubs and founded GUTL. With the aid of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), we set up a web page that later began to be hosted by the clubs, when the Ministry instructed them to lend us support.
Why do you speak of “free technologies” rather than “freeware”?
PMD: We speak of “technologies” because we wanted to promote, not simply freeware, but the use of knowledge and hardware as well. Not much hardware is developed in Cuba, but the intention was to come up with a name we wouldn’t need to change later, a name that wouldn’t limit our scope as a group.
What does GUTL currently do?
PMD: No free hardware movement exists in Cuba. We promote the use of free technologies, offer support to the members of the community and those who want to join us. That is what we do: offer support and promote the use of freeware.
What kind of support have you received from government institutions?
PMD: At first only individual officials at institutions such as the Central Computer Club and the CDRs offered us support. Some years later, we managed to set up venues of the Latin American Freeware Installation Festival (FRISOL) in other provinces across the country and the festival grew so much that the Ministry of Information and Communications approached us through the Computer Clubs and started to offer us assistance. We even managed to get their support in setting up at least one GUTL office in each province. Later, they started hosting our current site.
Has this support increased or decreased over these past five years?
PMD: It’s decreased. What links us to the Computer Clubs is the fact our services are offered through their servers, but they don’t really have a true affinity with GUTL as institutions. Their program isn’t aimed at promoting the use of free technologies. With the exception of the occasional program installed in a given server thanks to the knowledge of a network administrator and a course here and there, the work of these clubs and most of the courses they offer the public are based on private software. There used to be a person who acted as our liaison at the institution, but, at one point, they started to replace them again and again, and, following these changes, there was less of an interest in working with us. It’s a relationship we’d like to get back.
Are you currently involved in any nationwide freeware migration projects?
PMD: No. In 2010, we offered to help all Computer Clubs (starting with their servers) migrate to freeware. I recall that, after we did this in the first three or four clubs, the project was discontinued – not because there was no available personnel (i.e. us), but because they stopped assigning us places to install the freeware.
We waited for things to pick up again and, in time, we noticed that the project had died.
If the country were to decide to migrate to freeware, we would be more than willing to help. What’s more, we can offer the experience that the members of our community have accumulated over more than 20 years.
What would you say are the main challenges GUTL faces today?
PMD: The lack of its own server, which has a direct impact on our ability to create software. One of the difficulties we came across at one point is that we were for the most part using freeware created by others, and our aim was not only to have the Cuban community use such software but also contribute with software, for Cuba and the world. In this connection, we asked the Computer Clubs to allow us to create a forge, which is simply a place where programmers upload their projects, where everyone can see them and make contributions. But we still haven’t managed to accomplish this.
We don’t have a programming team, not even a programs database, a projects database where people can find out what others need and start working on that. It works this way: someone has a specific need, they develop a preliminary solution, comments or publishes what they’ve done and, in response, people express their opinions and offer suggestions. That is how projects within the community have been developed and even published.
We haven’t been able to become a legally recognized organization either. There have been several unsuccessful attempts, for Cuba’s associations law requires that an official institution represent you. The Ministry of Justice requires us to be backed by a ministry in our sector, the Ministry of Communications, in this case. Unfortunately, what the Ministry has done is make the Computer Clubs intermediaries.
How do members of the community contact one another? How many members are there?
PMD: It is a virtual community, even though we set up spaces where we tried to encourage more personal encounters. Before, we used to meet on the last Saturday of every month, then we changed it to Sundays. But we don’t do that anymore. I get the impression people don’t feel much of a motivation to attend such meetings. It’s not that everyone has access to the Internet, but connectivity among members has improved. We have the list, the portal, the forum, and the files repository is set up at many places. That may have curbed the incentive to attend the meetings. We only have FLISOL now. The current support directory has 454 members, and I know less than 20 percent of them personally.
How does one become a member?
PMD: The only requirement is that you use, promote or divulge free technologies. There are people who are perhaps interested, but they can only use private software because the computers at their workplace have no freeware installed.
Many people in Cuba don’t even have access to the local intranet. Have you thought of any means of distributing freeware that does not depend on a connection, such as taking advantage of local offline networks or the “weekly package”?
PMD: We haven’t considered using those mechanisms, no, but, at one point, we created our own version of the “package.” It wasn’t something people delivered to your home. On the wiki, we created a space where people interested in sharing their programs would publish a list of what they had, and if someone was interested in anything, they could make arrangements and go copy it somewhere.
What would you say are the positive things the group has accomplished in this time?
PMD: We have prevented the applications developed by our members from remaining solely within a local context, such that they are being uploaded to the portal or being commented on in the directory. People aren’t working in as isolated a fashion as they were before. Before, people would program things at home and for themselves, or for their companies, and that was that.
Then we have FLISOL 2014, which far surpassed my expectations. I am especially grateful to the administration of Havana’s Planetarium and the people at the Information Sciences Department of the Office of the Historian, who helped us a lot. Unfortunately, not as many people as we would have wanted attended the festival, because we had very little time to promote the event (we got the venue only 15 days before the festival). At the International Book Fair, our community also demonstrated it has the ability to organize, promote and hold events without any support.
*This ministry has gone by different names at different points in time: Ministry of Communications (1980s-2000), Ministry of Information Sciences and Communications (2000-2013), Ministry of Communications (2013-present).