by Marissa Dearing:
In July 2011, a fiber-optic cable from Cuba to Venezuela will become operational, offering Cuba Internet speeds up to 3,000 times faster than what is currently available. In a country where travel is severely restricted, open telecommunication is nearly nonexistent, and human rights are suppressed, discontent has long festered under the boot of the Castro regime. In this new era of “Facebook revolutions,” will Internet access finally mobilize the discontented, as it has across the Middle East and North Africa, and threaten the Castro brothers’ regime?
Unfortunately, many veteran observers of Cuban affairs believe the cable will have no beneficial impact on civilian use of the Internet. Carlos Eire, professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University and a Cuban exile, sees no change on the horizon for the Cuban people. “The only impact the cable will have on the is land will be on the tourists and the ruling elites,” he said, calling the cable “empty glitz and mere window dressing.”
The Cuban government itself has admitted to the state-sponsored newspaper Granma that, although the cable will improve information technology and communications and further cooperation among the region’s Latin American countries, it will not assure greater Internet access for the Cuban people. The regime claims widespread access would require a large infrastructure investment that will not be feasible in the near term. “The Cuban government has its own agenda for this cable,” said Damian Fernandez, former director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
That agenda includes attracting private investments, and the stakes are high for the Castro government. As Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, pointed out, “there’s a need to resolve the deep economic crisis or, frankly, they may not have a country to rule.” The government seems to have judged that greater governmental access, increased communication with the Latin American region, stronger ties between Cuba and Venezuela, and possible economic benefits offset the political risk of bringing greater Internet speeds to the island.
The Cuban government’s hopes for the cable also include improved internal operations and tightened national security. According to Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, greater bandwidth means greater power, and the government intends to use the cable to counter outside information, disseminate propaganda, and more effectively police the people. Far from liberalizing or opening up the island, the Cuban government is looking to the cable to advance its own interests.
The Cuban government has been remarkably successful in controlling Internet access up to this point. Only about 3 percent of Cubans have a web connection, and many of those who do are government workers with access only to an intranet that does not allow free access to the wider Internet. Social media are almost nonexistent, as are free printed media. According to Javier Corrales, professor of Political Science at Amherst College and co-author of “Democracy and the Internet,” in Cuba there are a “select few who are wired and the vast majority who…face government-imposed barriers.” This makes Cuba “much more draconian” than other authoritarian regimes, like China, which restrict only Internet content.
Beyond simply blocking access to the Internet, the Cuban government vigorously attempts to counter any information Cubans do find with its own online messaging. The government has taken a preemptive strategy of dispatching its own employees to post pro-government comments on blogs and media sites. They comment on Cuba-related stories, write their own blog posts, and put a spin on every story that appears about Cuba, ensuring that all information is, in some form, manipulated. This complicates the commonly held belief that technological advances inevitably serve as stepping- stones for greater democracy and freedom of speech. Bilbao explained that although technological advances “can be a weapon for greater liberalization,” as the government recognizes and fears, they can also “be used for greater repression” by the government.
Such repression may well prevent uprisings like those recently witnessed across the Middle East. The Cuban security apparatus acts the moment they hear about any sort of gathering: “They will let you talk, but they will not let you form conversation communities,” Corrales explained. Every block has a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution watching with whom people meet, and Corrales emphasized that freedom of association is “the freedom that has been most systematically repressed” in Cuba. Because freedom of speech does not necessarily lead to political action, the opinions of a few isolated online rebels may not amount to much until the Cuban government allows for groups of like-minded people to gather.
Eire sees Cuban society, like that of Orwell’s “1984,” as dominated by the government’s masterful spinning of information and controlling of language, and infused with citizens’ paranoia and desire for self-preservation, both of which suppress political action. In response to the unrest in the Middle East, the government has intensified these efforts, often throwing dissidents in jail for a few days. “If you decide to stick your neck out, chances are you’re going to be the only one…or there’s going to be so few others that you’re all going to pay a very heavy price,” explained Eire. “It’s very difficult for people to get out there and start shouting ‘down with this, let’s have change.’”
Mariolys Goenaga, an exile from the province of Pinar del Rio who still has family on the island, claimed that Cuban people are beaten down by an omnipresent security organization that is aided by many citizen informants. Told by the government what to think, Cubans live with the little information provided because there is no alternative. According to Goenaga, Cubans “have a bandage over their eyes.” The government has “taught [the Cuban citizen] to be quiet, and if he talks,he talks softly.”
Still, some expect the new cable to bring limited benefits, thanks to the ingenuity of the Cuban people. In a telephone interview—over a bad connection and through half a dozen dropped calls—Yoani Sánchez, famed Cuban blogger and critic of the Cuban government, shared her conviction that the ruling elites intend the new submarine cable to benefit the Cuban government, not the Cuban public. Nevertheless, Sanchez pointed out that there has been black market access to the Internet for years and that the Cuban people will not pass up the opportunity to take advantage of increased bandwidth. “We have found ways to have ourselves heard, even when access is rationed and controlled,” Sanchez explained. “We have the creativity and talent to make it happen.”
According to Bilbao, government employees already spend up to 90 percent of their Internet time on Facebook, making it clear that the Cuban people want to connect with the world and that they will take advantage of any opportunity to do so. He applauded improved Internet access for academics, universities, and researchers in the government since “there is quite a bit of diversity of thought within those centers.” As academics engage in increased public dialogue, their access could help break down the walls that keep the average Cuban citizen from information.
For the time being, though, Cuban creativity and determination may not be enough. “There is a technological chasm between Egypt and Cuba,” explained Sanchez, and those organizational technologies that aided Egypt’s Revolution are still inaccessible to most Cubans. “Change,” she continued, “will happen very slowly in Cuba.”
This cable is the infrastructure that in the future will fulfill Cubans’ hopes for connections and communication with the outside world. But that future will have to wait until the old guard fades away, until death or disability drags the Castro brothers from power, until cracks form in the iron control of the authoritarian elite. Then, on the Internet and in the public square, the bandage will finally fall from Cubans’ eyes, and the Cuban citizen will speak again. Loudly.
Marissa Dearing ’14 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at email@example.com.