Artist Demands Internet Access for all Cubans

Isbel Díaz Torres

Aldo Menendez

HAVANA TIMES — Aldo Menendez is a Cuban artist who left Cuba in 1991 and currently lives in Spain. There, he has organized a campaign named Raul Castro Ruz: Libre acceso a Internet para todos los cubanos (“Raul Castro: Unrestricted Internet Access for all Cubans”). In Cuba, he was a member of the ArteCalle group and, in Miami, he created the visual arts space La Clinica del Arte (“The Art Clinic”). He is the author of the book La Obra Entornada (“Half-Open Works”) and the blog Castor Jabao.

During his visit to the island in December of last year, he agreed to offer Havana Times an interview on the issue of Internet in Cuba.

HT: Why ask for unrestricted Internet access in Cuba if the government has already opened its Nauta Internet locales, available to all Cubans regardless of their political affiliations?

Aldo: As I understand it, these locales, even if they were to run like clockwork (which isn’t the case) aren’t enough to offer services to everyone. What’s more, Internet rates are an insult to the people – an hour costs one fourth the monthly salary of the average Cuban.

On the other hand, people’s rights are being violated, for they have to provide identification to use these services – the connections are being monitored. They offer no printing services, they’ve blocked a series of keys and tools to prevent you from downloading videos and the connection is deliberately slow to limit transfers. I also know some pages are blocked.

It’s a joke, designed to tell the world Cuba has Internet. There are no home Internet services available. The restriction of Internet access is equivalent to the burning of books by the Nazis and Stalinists at different points in history.

The Internet is a new language. Cuba has an Internet connection from the previous century that has nothing to do with the type of connectivity abroad and the ways in which today’s Internet surfers think. I try to explain to my friends in Cuba how a 3-gigabyte home connection gives you a completely different lifestyle, the ability to interact with reality in startling ways, and that Cuba is being left behind because of this.

A number of ETECSA executives have said, off the record, that they may be able to start offering home Internet services by the end of 2014, but everyone knows nothing is being done in this connection. What’s more, fiber-optic connections are already obsolete – current satellite technology works much better. It doesn’t need much infrastructure, it doesn’t even require government intervention. All people need is permission to buy modems and dishes to be able to connect directly to the satellites.

HT: Cuba’s blogosphere grows every day. Doesn’t this contradict your petition? Do you know the blog platform Reflejos (“Reflections”) or Bloguea? Do you see changes happening in this connection?

Aldo: The blog explosion in Cuba is a step forward, but personal web-sites are already 20 years old. As Cuba begins to publish more and more blogs (which are slow), the world is already fully immersed in social networks with a broad variety of characteristics, particularly the ability to steer social reality.

If this were a civilized country, we could be broadcasting this interview through different channels right now – it wouldn’t be a semi-secret interview in a house whose tenants are about to be evicted. There is a serious technological divide here.

The next step is to make more affordable technologies available and for people to have these at home. In Cuba, this is being assessed from a political point of view right now, and the government, fearful of losing power, is quite capable of renouncing to the idea altogether, without realizing that the political question is the least important thing, that what matters is education.

The emergence of new technologies has torn down all of the structures and concepts of traditional education and pedagogy. The amount of information out there is such that no traditional structure can provide a student with all of the information they need to become a useful citizen. Linear education is no longer possible. We can’t continue to give everyone the same education either. We’re all different; we all belong to different ethnic, cultural and social groups.

Aldo Dmenedez and Arte Calle.

HT: What do you think the Cuban government fears?

Aldo: On the one hand, you have techno-stress. Somewhat jokingly, I would say Raul Castro doesn’t use the Internet. He has no idea how that world works, which is terrible because he is unable (for better or for worse) to understand what’s happening there.

Likewise, people are terrified of what they don’t understand. It’s a fear of technology and fear of what they cannot understand. They panic just from seeing the possibilities technology opens up, for they know they wouldn’t last five minutes in power.

Those in government here know nothing of economics. They’re not useful. They’re not even politically correct. Even though they know information is essential, they are willing to sacrifice the country’s development to remain in power.

HT: Are you for or against free, State-operated Internet services?

Aldo: In our campaign, “Unrestricted Internet Access for All Cubans”, we ask that all public libraries have computers where people can connect to the Internet free of charge. Countries like Spain have free Wi-Fi, and people can use these services sitting on the steps to their house, a roof or a park.

These services are also available in most parks around major cities, at airports, in nearly all public buildings, administrative offices, unions and other such places. Those governments aren’t out to get money from people through the Internet. What the Cuban government is selling the people as the “socialization of Internet” is yet another scam. To “socialize” would be to enable people to connect, to provide free Wi-Fi in public areas.

HT: Does Cuba have the infrastructure and technology needed to offer these services to the private and home sectors?

Aldo: No investment is required. These services aren’t offered via fiber-optic cables. You don’t need to install cables or set up other infrastructures or hire new personnel. The satellites are there. The only thing you need to do is talk with these companies. It is really a rather cheap infrastructure. The fiber-optic cable, those seventy million dollars that were allegedly spent, became obsolete even before it was installed, and it doesn’t work (or they’re not letting it work).

HT: Do all Cubans actually want Internet?

Aldo: That’s a very sad question to ask. When you don’t know something, you think you don’t need it. Since ninety percent of Cubans are still living in the 1980s, they don’t see the Internet as a real need, because they don’t know it. They don’t understand they can make a living through the Internet. It is not just a question of accessing information, it is also the ability to access education, to be up to date, to be financially independent and to grow as a professional. It’s practically everything.

HT: Don’t you think you’re assuming the same attitude as the State, which “knows” what the people need?

Aldo: I’d never looked at it that way. It’s clear that, when one tries to get people to understand and discover certain things, there’s a certain degree of paternalism involved. For me, however, this kind of paternalism is benign compared to the paternalism that consists in imposing and prohibiting things.

I don’t want Cubans to access certain information or become exposed to a given ideology, but to access information in general, to arrive at their own opinions and choose their own paths.

My campaign is not ideological. I am not trying to hammer an idea into people’s heads. I am quite simply asking Raul Castro to allow Cubans to have unrestricted access to the Internet, without censorship or technological limitations.

HT: Could you tell us about this campaign of yours?

Aldo: Its name says it all: “Raul Castro: Unrestricted Internet Access for all Cubans.” Nearly all of the signatures I’ve collected come from the émigré community or outside Cuba, from Argentineans, Czechs, Russians, people from across the world.

The campaign began in April of 2013 and I’m bringing it to Cuba now. It’s been a rather tragicomic experience: launching a campaign so Cubans can have access to the Internet and that Cubans are unable to sign because they have no access to the Internet…it’s a vicious circle. The only way to do it is to go back to analogic, to printed documents, and distribute these documents old school.

HT: How are the numbers so far?

Aldo: They’re bad. The most supportive people are Anglosaxons, then come the Europeans. Latin Americans come in last…and Cubans come in behind them. There’s much apathy surrounding this issue in Cuba’s émigré community, because this community hasn’t healed entirely. Miami is an ultra-conservative city where people are stuck in time, not for technological reasons, but because of nostalgia and the very trauma of exile. These people have a very antiquated way of thinking and they don’t see the importance of Internet for democratization or changes in Cuba.

We collected twenty signatures at our first campaign presentation in Cuba. We’ve been getting more and more. A very good opportunity for us would have been at the Estado de SATS gathering held on Human Rights Day. I’d been invited as a panelist, but the Cuban Ministry of the Interior detained me for 27 hours to keep me from attending. In all we’ve gathered more than two thousand signatures so far.

HT: What would happen if tomorrow Cubans had “unrestricted access to the Internet?

Aldo: All Cubans would start writing their relatives abroad to have them to buy modems and satellite dishes for them. A few days later, private networks would start to flourish. These exist already, but we’d see more of them, and they wouldn’t be illegal.

From that point on, anything the Cuban people want could happen. We’ll see all sorts of things: a first period in which a lot of people consume pornography (this always happens) and music. There’d be some brutal cultural changes across the arts.

Independent journalism would begin to flourish tremendously. The official newspapers and TV channels would change because of the country’s access to real information, not merely the accredited press agencies.

It would be an explosion of people’s awareness, a step up, thirty or forty years of development in a few weeks. It would be an authentic revolution, for better and for worse, because such intense changes can unleash many things. Generally speaking, however, it would be a very positive development, unlike any other.

I am positive many new businesses that no one else in the world has thought up would begin to appear. The curiosity and creativity of Cubans are unparalleled.

4 thoughts on “Artist Demands Internet Access for all Cubans

  • Aldo,

    While I share your goals and vision, I disagree with one statement: “fiber-optic connections are already obsolete – current satellite technology works much better”.

    Fiber has important technical advantages over satellite and Cuba would need a robust fiber infrastructure to become a modern Internet nation.

    That being said, legalizing satellite connectivity is the only feasible way for Cuba to begin widespread connectivity today, and I would love to see them begin immediately. In fact, I have written a proposal urging satellite connectivity as an immediate, but interim step for the Cuban Internet (see http://bit.ly/19MrMG3).

    The roadblocks to what you and I advocate are political (in both the US and Cuba), but I have reason to believe the US is willing to lower those barriers. Please share my proposal with those “off-the record people” you refer to at ETECSA and elsewhere — I am happy to lend my support to your campaign.

    Finally, note that the Cuban Internet pioneers, the predecessors of today’s ETECSA employees, fully shared your vision. (See, for example, http://bit.ly/1eXfyxb).

    Reply
    • Your proposal is a very positive contribution to the discussion. However, you do realize the one big reason the Cuban government does not want to expand internet access, especially satellite based systems, is that the State will lose control of the people. If the people gain access to greater methods of communications, then the State will lose one of their greatest tools of repression: the monopoly on media.

      Reply
      • You are correct — the Cuban barriers are both financial and political, and, while a change in satellite policy would be affordable, it would be politically risky. On the other hand, it would have significant economic and social benefit. (This tradeoff was debated in Cuba during the earliest days of the Internet there, see http://bit.ly/1igYwZQ).

        Maybe I am naive, but a poor economy, increased awareness of the Internet, the Cuban bloggers, the “sneaker net” distribution of content, the aging of the regime, etc. may be beginning to tip the balance toward opening of the Internet. One way or another, it will not remain as is forever.

        Reply
        • Your guess is almost certainly as good as mine. Like China, Cuba, by opening up the Nauta cybercafes and promising to offer its citizens ADSL-based residential Internet access by the end of this year (so far, according to one source [Diario de Cuba], ETECSA may start offering such residential Internet services by September; http://www.telecompaper.com/news/cubas-etecsa-to-introduce-home-internet-connections–1000881) is treading a fine line between allowing unfettered Internet access and keeping Internet out of the reach of the masses in the name of maintaining political stability, allowing widespread Internet use for economics’ sake while continuing to censor the Internet. They know that even if they continue censoring the Internet, putting Internet within the reach of the masses could benefit the regime economically.

          No one should be all worked up just because ETECSA intends to retain a measure of control over the Internet. Cuba is constantly afraid of political and social instability if it dissolves its monopoly on the Internet, and everyone has to accept this fact. Nevertheless, we can hope that someday, the regime will dismantle the mechanisms of control of the Internet if the cost of maintaining a grip on the Internet is no longer economically sustainable.

          Reply

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