The Great Debate

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.

A helping U.S. hand to Cuba’s market reform?

– Boston University Professor Susan Eckstein is author of “The Immigrant Divide: How Cuban Americans Changed the U.S. and Their Homeland” and “Cuba under Castro,” and past president of the Latin American Studies Association. The views expressed are her own. –

Raul Castro announced that 10 percent of Cuba’s state employees, half a million people, will be dismissed from their public sector jobs and free to pursue work in the private sector.  The near-fiscally bankrupt state no longer can afford to pay inefficient workers.  But the Cuban leadership remains a reluctant reformer.  We Americans have a vested interest in facilitating a deeper market transition 90 miles off shore.

This is not the first time Cuba under the Castro brothers has launched market reforms, having introduced minor openings over the years.  After paying nearly all workers equally and distributing most goods equitably through a ration system in the ‘60s, it began to tie earnings to work performance, expand private economic opportunities in agriculture and the service sector, and allow goods to be sold off the ration system on an ability to pay basis.  It has also permitted private foreign investment since the ‘90s.   But measures introduced during economic troubles proved too meager to fuel significant economic growth and many were reversed when priorities shifted.