CREDIT: Photo collage details <a href="">here</a>.
CREDIT: Photo collage details here.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Digital Rations

Feb 3, 2011

Fidel Castro has an acute understanding of the power of communication. It fueled his force as a ruler for over half a century, and was freshly evident last summer when the 82-year-old leader of the Cuban revolution reappeared in public for the first time since handing power to his brother in 2006. Castro gave televised press conferences to Cuban and international media, and granted an exclusive interview to Carmen Lira Saade, editor of the renowned Mexico City newspaper La Jornada. During the interview, Castro discussed international security, his own mortality, and one of the most pressing issues facing the Cuban government today: the Internet. The Internet has put the possibility of communicating with the world into our hands. We had nothing like this before. … We are facing the most powerful weapon that's ever existed… The power of communication has been, and is, in the hands of the empire and of ambitious private sector groups that have used and abused it… [A]lthough they've tried to keep this power intact, they haven't been able to. They are losing it day by day… as many other [voices] emerge each moment.

Castro said he admired alternative Latin American news organizations that advocate for government transparency, and was fascinated by the power that WikiLeaks has begun to wield over the U.S. government. Lira did not venture to ask him what would happen if a WikiLeaks organization were to surface in Cuba. Instead they talked about the challenges Cuba faces in obtaining Internet service (due in part to the U.S. embargo) and the government's peculiar system of providing Internet access to the public. Press freedom and the flow of information remained conspicuously absent from the conversation.

The advocacy groups Reporters without Borders and Freedom House label Cuba an "Internet enemy" along with China, Iran, Syria, and Myanmar. But while the governments of those countries are known to censor online content, there is no evidence that the Cuban government blocks more than a handful of websites on the island (among them the site of renowned blogger Yoani Sánchez). If you can get online in Cuba you can visit almost any website you want, but most people never get that far. Cuba's bandwidth is miserably narrow, its telecommunications infrastructure is poor, and citizen access to the Internet is highly regulated by state officials.

Rationing the Digital

The International Telecommunication Union reports Cuba's Internet penetration rate as 14 percent, placing it on par with other poor nations in the region such as El Salvador and Guatemala. Only a tiny fraction of Cubans have at-home connections—those who use the Internet typically get online at their places of work, or in hotel Internet cafés, where an hour of service can cost more than ten dollars, or nearly two weeks' pay on a state salary.

A reporter I spoke with in Havana compared government policy on Internet access to the nation's rationing system. "They dole out Internet access the same way they dole out rice," she said. "It's distributed according to necessity."

The nation's skilled professionals—doctors, academics, researchers of science and technology, and high-ranking government employees—are allowed access at their places of work because it is considered necessary to their professions. As such, they are expected to use their connections for professional purposes only. While some check their personal email accounts, read the news, or write blogs while at work, others are more cautious. Rumors of state-installed spyware and Cuba's longstanding regime of "soft" social control have conditioned most Cubans to self-censor their online behavior, even when they have open access to the global Internet.

For the millions of Cubans who do not fall into this elite group of high-skilled workers, the government has built an "Intranet," known as Red Cubana, which Cubans can use at universities, youth computing clubs, and post offices. Although it does allow Cubans to connect to the state email platform, Red Cubana is not connected to the global Internet—it connects only to sites hosted in Cuba, all of which are under constant scrutiny by the Ministry of IT and Communications.

Objective though it may sound, "distribution by necessity" politicizes access: Cubans do not remain in the upper echelon of "skilled professionals" if their political behavior falls out of line with government expectations. And those who engage in anything from black market transactions to critical expression online risk being labeled "counterrevolutionary," and can face greater obstacles to getting online as a result. But as flows of foreign capital and technological savvy increase on the island, many are able to connect through unofficial means.

Access Underground and Rumors of Blogostroika

Internet access has become a hot item within the island's expansive underground economy. Access cards used at hotel Internet cafés are sold at below-market rates, and many who have access in their homes allow friends and neighbors to use their connections for a fee. Telecommunications workers have been bribed to split at-home cables so that multiple households can get online using the same connection. Some Cubans have even experimented with pirating satellite connections from the rooftops of their homes. While authorities have attempted to clamp down on these activities, there is evidence of an internal debate among government officials: Some believe that the proliferation of unauthorized access may become impossible to control.

While the government has aimed for a stable (if highly restricted) balance in its policy of Internet access, it openly condemns critical voices within the island's nascent blogging community. Diplomatic cables sent from the U.S. Interest Section in Havana (an office that exists in lieu of an actual embassy), released by WikiLeaks in December 2010, suggest that government officials have come to view the island's bloggers as a "most serious challenge" to Cuba's political stability.

Bloggers like Claudia Cadelo, author Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, and Yoani Sánchez have become outspoken advocates for "Internet freedom," for freedom of speech and information, and for economic rights for Cubans. They have garnered immense recognition within the international human rights community and among foreign leaders, and their documentation of government repression has provided concrete data to hold the Cuban government accountable for its actions.

In January 2010, Cuba Study Group, a diaspora organization that advocates for the liberalization of Cuba, convened a meeting of Cuba scholars and policy experts to discuss the potential civic and economic gains that new technologies could bring to Cuban citizens. In a paper entitled "Empowering the Cuban People through Technology" they urged President Obama and the U.S. Congress to remove (embargo-related) restrictions on telecommunications companies so that the Cuban government could contract with these entities and increase service on the island. But before the Obama administration could muster the political capital to act, the Cuban government found another way to solve its problem.

The Chávez Solution

Over the summer of 2010, the government moved forward in an agreement with Venezuela to build a submarine fiber optic cable linking Cuba, Jamaica, and Venezuela's Caribbean coast. The cable will increase the island's connectivity 3,000 times and thus enable video, Voice over IP, and other high-bandwidth technologies that are nearly impossible to run on the island at present. The cable will reportedly be in place by March of 2011, but it will not, as many had hoped, create more opportunities for Cubans to get online. It will simply increase the quality of connection for those who already have Internet access.

Under the Castro government, the open, borderless, many-to-many form of Internet communication presents a serious challenge. Cuba's national stability depends upon centralized structures of bureaucratic and political power, substantial limits on civil and economic liberties, and a regime of social control that is deeply entrenched in collective psychology. The free exploration and expression of political ideas is not a part of civic life, and self-censorship is a natural, often unconscious practice. Bloggers like Sánchez and Pardo Lazo belong to a very small, risk-loving class of Cuban citizens who have rid themselves of these mechanisms of control. But they are the exception.

While the Cuban leadership is keenly aware of the potential power of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, government officials also understand the tremendous benefits of the network as a space for knowledge acquisition. They are determined to maintain excellence within the nation's medical and academic sectors, and they recognize that if researchers cannot use the web to connect with their international counterparts, they will swiftly become irrelevant.

In an attempt to balance this confluence of interests, the government has created a complex social hierarchy of network use: The well educated and highly skilled use the global Internet, albeit under state watch. Those with money log on at hotel Internet cafés, while those with black market savvy pirate their connections. Everyone else—the masses of workers who were once the collective soul of Fidel's revolution—can use Red Cubana. Or they can wait for the next revolution.

PHOTO CREDIT: Paul Keller, Martin Abegglen, Lars Kristian Flem, Pietro Izzo (CC).

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