Worldwide web for all - or the good of all? Cuba's internet policy explained

Campaign News | Thursday, 2 November 2006

By Jose R. Vidal *

We often hear the same voices calling for "open internet access" for all Cubans. They argue that Cuba is a country that could provide the majority of its people with internet, and, to a certain degree, they are right. Cuba does not have the educational limits that hold back billions of people from accessing the internet.

There are no illiterate people in Cuba and practically the entire population finishes ninth grade. The national education infrastructure is staffed with well-prepared teachers and has computers in classrooms across the island including in the most remote rural schools, some with only one student. Every Cuban municipality has a branch of the "Joven Club de computacion" where people of all ages have access to computer classes, computers and internet. High schools and universities offer computer science and communication classes and the recent universalization of higher education brought university faculties to every municipality in Cuba.

All of this has been achieved despite the 45-year economic blockade imposed by the United States against the island that impedes all and any economic dealings between U.S. and Cuban citizens and companies. The U.S. also interferes, persecutes and punishes citizens and businesses from other countries that dare violate any of the terms of the blockade and obstructs Cuba from accessing credit from international financial institutions.

Many of the briefly aforementioned Cuban successes have had an especially significant impact over the last few years as the country recovers from the profound economic crisis that was brought on by the disappearance of the former Soviet Union and the European socialist countries that had become the main economic partners with Cuba as a means of survival and development alternative to the blockade.

From all this we can draw two conclusions. Firstly, that Cuba could have been done much more in less adverse conditions. Secondly, other governments without our limitations could be contributing much more to the educational development of their people and to creating the conditions for more independence and in this way abate poverty in a world where knowledge is increasingly an essential factor for development and well-being.

But let’s go back to the initial demands of those voices that ignore these elements when making their claims. Why isn’t there "open access to the internet" in Cuba?

As a country, Cuba only gained internet access via satellite in 1996. Ten years later-as a consequence of the aforementioned U.S. blockade-Cuba still has no access to fiber optic cables that pass very close to their shores. Consequently, there is a lack of broadband space to fulfill development needs, and the cost of internet access is very high. Additionally, the national telephone service provider only very recently began digitalizing their services and installing fiber optic cables on the island, amounting to a further infrastructure obstacle.

What can be done in the face of these restrictions? Cuban institutions are betting on what is today called a model of social appropriation of information and communication technologies (ICT). This was how the very successful health network, Infomed, was established. Infomed provides physicians across the island with the necessary information to continue updating and furthering their education and a space to find online information based on the exchange of experiences and information. There are also informative networks and portals for Cuban artists and intellectuals (Cubarte) and for researchers and professionals in the different branches of science, production and services.

This is how scarce financial and technological resources are directed towards the essential interests of the country and the possibilities offered by the internet, in general, and how information and communication technologies favors the entire population and not only those that are connected to the internet. And so, senior citizens who have never sat in front of a computer benefit when they visit their doctor who uses Informed, or newborns who receive free vaccinations benefit from scientist who exchange experiences and information with their colleagues around the world or by accessing costly data bases.

This cannot be achieved by blindly following market logic, that is to say, by allowing those with the financial means to do so, to "freely" connect to the internet. Some other Latin American countries are beginning to put in place programs that foster this brand of social appropriation of ICTs. This concrete use of social appropriation in Cuba can also be seen in the country’s property infrastructure, the focus on social elements in the vision of development planning and in its allocation of financial and technological resources.

This rational and efficient policy for internet use is a practical model for what theorists have called "sensible use" and "social appropriation of ICTs." This model is not only valid in the case of Cuba, but to all developing countries that must concentrate their efforts on finding their own best methods of using the information revolution, instead of compulsively mimicking the patterns of use employed by those who created these new technologies.

Another important conclusion that can be taken from the Cuban experience is that investments in these technologies are not by themselves an end seeking at all costs to close the "digital divide." On the contrary, they are initiating programs to diminish the "social divide." These investments are not only an act of justice and recognition of the fundamental human rights, but also allow the euphemistically called developing countries to stop being dependent and impoverished nations.

In the Cuban case, determining the number of people connected to the internet is insubstantial and hard to establish accurately. But what can be said is that there is a massive use of the benefits of the digital technologies. This usage can be, and will be, even higher when institutions and professionals not only gain more access to information technologies but become more familiar with the ways of accessing, processing and using information. That is to say, the process of learning, which converts information into knowledge.

However, it must not be forgotten that the U.S. government is not only intensifying the blockade against Cuba, but it has also created a "commission for transition in Cuba" and has designated an official from the State Department to be the "coordinator" of that supposed transition. Moreover, the American government has a plan named after its sire "Mr. Bush," which gives millions of dollars for the subversion of the Cuban regime and contains a secret annex.

Taking all the aforementioned into account, can anybody who looks at Cuba in a cool and unbiased way call the security and control measures that the Cuban government has taken over the use of the internet totalitarian, unjustified, or set to isolate Cubans from the rest of the world, among several other accusations? Wouldn’t it be better to demand the cessation of that persecution and the creation of an atmosphere of respect for the sovereignty of Cuba and the recognition of the ability of the Cuban people to decide their own destiny without foreign interference?

The Cuban people do not need anybody to demand on their behalf access to the internet. What they need is an end to the unjust and criminal blockade and all the external pressures, which are attempting to alter the course of the history of the country. Then, we Cubans will know how we can continue building a more just, free and caring society.

*The writer is the coordinator of the mass communication program at Cuba's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center and full professor at the University of Havana. The article first appeared in Granma Diario on Oct. 31, 2006.

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