Cuba’s uneasy Internet connection
Last week, an Associated Press article, “US Secretly Created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest,” sparked an uproar. The U.S. Agency for International Development had funded a Cuban version of Twitter called ZunZuneo , the AP reported, that attracted more than 40,000 users before ending in 2012, according to the story.
Commentators have derided the program as boneheaded, dangerously absurd and disrespectful to Cubans. Analysts have discussed its pros and cons. The White House maintains that the program was not “covert.” USAID contests aspects of the AP story.
The article, however, is a propaganda windfall for the Cuban government, which tends to label bloggers critical of it as U.S.-funded mercenaries. Cuba’s media has been having a field day, running gleeful headlines like “ZunZuneo: the Sound of Subversion.”
The ZunZuneo debacle highlights the difficulty of bringing connectivity to Cuba. It has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the Western hemisphere. Only 5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, according to 2012 estimates. Some connect through hotels, schools, workplaces or illegally. A greater percentage of Cubans access a domestic “intranet.”
Though Cuba censors Web content, the public’s major obstacles are unavailability, slow connections and high prices. Cubans generally don’t have Internet access at home, and connecting at a hotel for an hour can cost more than an average state worker’s weekly salary.
The U.S. embargo doesn’t help, but it’s not entirely to blame. In 2009 the Obama administration loosened restrictions on U.S. telecom providers, allowing them to do some business in Cuba. But this did not ignite an explosion of connectivity. The reason may be some U.S. confusion about restrictions on operating in Cuba, or perhaps U.S. companies just don’t see Cuba as a lucrative market.
It’s also clear that the Cuban government is deeply wary of the Internet. Havana maintains tight control over the media and does not tolerate political dissent.
The Internet, however, is one place where ordinary Cubans can speak relatively freely. They can complain about low salaries and write about problems like prostitution and unemployment. Most important, critics of the Cuban regime learn that they are not alone. Cuban bloggers enjoy the solidarity of readers and supporters all over the world. So it becomes far harder for the authorities to make a Cuban troublemaker “disappear.”
If a Cuban blogger, or even an acquaintance of a Cuban blogger, is detained, there is now a good chance that the world will find out. Limited as Cuban Internet use may be, it is already transforming lives. Ordinary Cubans are transcending the fear, isolation and apathy that are among the most effective weapons for silencing dissent.
Yet foreign government intervention to help Cuban bloggers can often do more harm than good. Independent bloggers who express critical opinions or try to fight for a better country are now in greater danger of being labeled as U.S.-funded subversives. Washington could endanger and delegitimize the very people it is trying to help. In addition, foreign attempts to shape Cuba’s Internet culture are only likely to cause Havana to clamp down even more.
The good news is that Cuba won’t be able to resist the Internet forever. Raúl Castro is supposedly an advocate of modernization and economic reform. But how can Cuba truly be modern if only a tiny fraction of its people is online?
Havana, perhaps understanding this problem, opened 118 Internet salons last year. Though extremely expensive for the average user, the salons are at least an acknowledgment that Cubans need more Internet access.
Of course, Cuba will welcome the Internet on its own terms. Authoritarian regimes around the world face what is known as a dictator’s dilemma. They see the Internet as necessary for economic development, but fear its potentially destabilizing effects.
Cuban authorities are now looking to China as a model. As Internet use expanded in China, so did Beijing’s attempt to control it through censorship, surveillance and punishment of Internet dissidents. Cuba may follow this template.
Yet even in China, some information manages to slip through. The same is true for Cuba — if on a far smaller scale. Cubans use creative methods to make their voices heard. Bloggers will write their posts on home computers, perhaps built with black-market parts. They will then save their writing on flash drives and post them from hotels or foreign embassies with Internet connections.
The famous blogger Yoani Sánchez, for example, tweets by text message on her mobile phone. These methods are slow, pricey and cumbersome — but information still gets around.
As the Cuban blogger Reinaldo Escobar once told me, “In the world, information has to compete to attract attention. In Cuba, however, people have to fight for information.”
There is no silver bullet for spreading information in Cuba — and foreign governments’ attempts to support Internet dissenters can add to the problem they are trying to solve. Still, the U.S. government should continue to explore removing the barriers to connectivity caused by its embargo.
But the best bet for improving Cuban connectivity may be the Castro regime’s grudging acknowledgment that greater Internet access is an economic necessity. At which point it will finally become clear that programs like ZunZuneo are not only ineffective — they are not even necessary.
PHOTO (TOP): A man surfs the internet using a wireless connection in the lobby of a hotel in Havana, January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan
PHOTO: Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez works on her laptop in her home in Havana, February 9, 2011 REUTERS/Desmond Boylan/Files
PHOTO: An Internet user surfs the net at a branch of the state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA, in Havana, June 4, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer