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Cuba and New Technologies

By Daphne Morrison
December 18, 2009

While the administration of Raúl Castro has resisted change in many areas, Cuba is undergoing a quiet and insipient revolution whose mainstays are text-messages and a rapidly expanding blogósfera, or online blogger community.

Still, technology has yet to sweep the entire country by force, and its introduction has produced something of a paradox. “It’s the country with the least access to modern communication and yet everyone in Cuba is aware of its potential force,” said Dan Erikson, director of the Caribbean program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

The discussion was led by Ted Henken, assistant professor at Baruch College (CUNY) and author of Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook, and Carlos Lauria, Americas program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of a recent report on bloggers in Cuba, at a Dialogue event on December 18, 2009. Uva de Aragón, of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, moderated the panel with Erikson.

For the Cuban politburo, advancements in technology have been bittersweet and the government has done its best to minimize the extent to which the population has access to modern technology while making use of new media when they deem prudent. The government continues to maintain strict control over what the Cuban people can and cannot access on the internet, but it was, after all, an internet posting that first broke news of Fidel Castro’s official resignation in 2008. 

According to Henken, Cuba’s relationship with technology is less a paradox than a vehicle for change. To explain, Henken offered a few different models which underscore the importance of perspective. The internet can, for example, be understood as a tool for democratization whereby information technology functions like the “Roman Senate.” Or modern communication can be viewed as a means of destabilization. Henkon added that infrastructural deficiencies coupled with the U.S. embargo have effectively kept Cuba out of the technology game.

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Much of the conversation centered on Yoani Sánchez, the 34 year-old, philologist-turned-blogger who has spearheaded the Cuban blogosphere, winning accolades abroad for her courage and ingenuity. Sánchez’s blog, Generacíon Y, has been operational since October 2007, explained Lauria, and today there are an estimated 25 regular Cuban bloggers.

Still it is not clear that Generacíon Y, or any other blog, has much impact in Cuba.  Part of the problem is that Sánchez, and her coterie of 25, cater to an international audience, since their blogs are censored by the Cuban government. Not surprisingly, their international renown may have saved them from arrest and imprisonment. “The bloggers beat the government to the punch,” said Henken.

Lauria added that Sánchez’s blog is not exactly “politically motivated.” “She critically examines issues that Cubans face daily,” he said, including food shortages, healthcare, education and lack of internet access.

For its part, the United States government has engaged in active promotion of technological activity in Cuba, mostly initiated at the recommendation of the two Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba reports issued during the Bush administration. 

When an American USAID sub-contractor was arrested on December 5 in Havana for distributing technological devices, including cell phones and laptops, the nature of this policy rose to the forefront. 

The arrest put the spotlight on Washington’s policy of technological promotion vis-à-vis Cuba.  While some argue that enabling Cubans by providing access to the outside world is proper under the mantle of democracy promotion, others have stressed that such actions have little in the way of tangible result and only contribute to diplomatic backsliding between the decades-old enemies.     

Henken said when it comes to democratic change that the best way for Americans to help Cubans, “is to do nothing at all."