Not since the U.S. government’s initiation of Radio Martí in 1980 has such a broad opportunity for uncensored information been available to Cubans. The difference now is that instead of attempting to prohibit access, the government is increasing it.
“Knowledge is power.” Originally attributed to Sir Francis Bacon in the 16th century, the famous proverb is a timely mantra when it comes to promoting change in Cuba today.
Several weeks after the death of Fidel Castro, the Cuban government is expanding Internet access to private homes in Cuba. Up until now, home Internet access has been limited by the state to roughly 5 percent of the Cuban population, mostly for academics and doctors.
After launching Internet hot spots in public parks throughout the island’s major cities in June of 2015, the Cuban government has now expanded that access to 2,000 designated residents in the historic Old Havana neighbourhood.
Keeping this new access so tightly restricted to one geographic location is not surprising to anyone familiar with the revolutionary state’s historic tight grip on the flow of information on the island.
However, Google recently opened a “cutting edge technology center” in the studio of Alexis Leiva Machado, one of the most celebrated artists in Cuba, which he in turn, allows other Cuban artists to use for free. The usual cost for an hour of much slower internet access at government hot-spots is $2.00, a prohibitive amount for most Cubans who earn an average of $20 a month.
The Castro regime says it wants the Cuban people to have more access to the Internet, and blames the U.S. trade embargo for the exorbitant costs that have made connectivity impractical. But with the reestablishment of diplomatic ties and other changes in U.S. policy with Cuba under President Barack Obama, the Castro regime is finding the internet difficult to resist.
Since 2008 when it finally became legal to own a computer in Cuba, dissident bloggers and many artists on the island have suffered harsh censorship, and frequent disruption of internet connection for work which the government has deemed critical of the state.
Like the proverbial crack in the dam, increased access to the Internet in Cuba is inevitable. And that can only be a good thing when it comes to instigating political reforms in Cuba.
As a Cuban-born American citizen who has collaborated with theatre artists in Cuba known for the metaphorically subversive nature of their work, and as a Northwestern University professor who last summer created a study abroad course in Havana, I know firsthand the potential for change that increased Internet access could bring.
Not since the U.S. government’s initiation of Radio Martí in 1980 has such a broad opportunity for uncensored information been available to the Cuban people. The difference now is that instead of attempting to prohibit access, as the Cuban government historically has, it is expanding it.
Certainly, what is granted can also be taken away. Citing a variety of reasons from national security and terrorism, to containing dissident groups, many countries have recently blocked particular sites and applications, and in some instances disrupted their public’s internet service altogether. This is in spite of a 2011 United Nations declaration that such disruptions were a “violation of human rights.”
But there is, to be sure, an economic cost to such manipulation, and it seems likely that with a struggling economy, Cuba is willing to reconcile the risks of increased internet access with potential economic growth.
No doubt some Cuban American hardliners would argue that Cuba’s economic hardships are preciously why the restrictions of the half-century-old trade embargo should be maintained, and that tech companies like Google are only providing the Castro government with more revenue sources.
That view however, disregards the many dissident bloggers and artists in Cuba who are already censored, and see the internet as their most effective way to challenge the state.
From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Arab Spring, history shows that once economic and communication reforms are instigated, change is inevitable.
Ironically, though Karl Marx once labelled religion as the “opiate of the masses,” the Internet has arguably become the 21st century’s truly irresistible opiate, particularly for today’s social media addicted society.
Americans, like the majority of the developed world, love their Internet. As of June 30, 2016 88.6 percent of Americans were internet users, compared with only 33 percent of the Cuban population.
With the flood of American tourism to the Island, the Cuban government may be finding that sunny beaches and a famed cultural scene may not be enough to satisfy people so heavily dependent on their mobile devices. And it’s telling that the availability of Internet service is now often at the top of the “things you need to know” list, when it comes to travelling in Cuba.
With the proliferation of “casas particulares,” private homes in Cuba that are now legally allowed to rent rooms or even their entire house, almost everything that feeds the new tourist boom, depends on Internet accessibility.
Ironically, the will of the American people, and their insatiable need to be constantly connected to the Internet, may well be the inevitable strange bedfellow of Raul Castro’s revolutionary government.
Given the unpredictability of president-elect Trump, and his willingness to pander to a shrinking conservative Cuban American vote, the window of opportunity presented by internet advances in Cuba, must not be closed.
Though it would sadly herald the end of a kind of age of innocence that currently exists in a Cuba free of commercialism, if not propaganda, what the U.S. should do is eliminate barriers to the spread of Internet accessibility to every Cuban home.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of American democracy, said in 1817 that all persons need to: “…possess information enough to perceive the important truths, that knowledge is power, that knowledge is safety, and that knowledge is happiness.”
More Internet connectivity in Cuba does not guarantee happiness. But it’s a powerful start.