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    Digital Rations

    Internet Policy in Castro's Cuba
    By Ellery Roberts Biddle
    February 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

    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.

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