When Yoani Sánchez started blogging from Cuba, she probably did not anticipate the worldwide impact that her vibrant portrayals of life in Havana would have. In 2004, Sánchez became a pioneer by using the internet to spread her voice globally from inside a closed-off Cuba. Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University, and Ted Henken, professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College, discussed the current state and future of Cuban internet access at an event hosted by Inter-American Dialogue on August 3.
Both scholars drew on their extensive research of internet development on the island. Press’ analysis has a technical focus, exploring issues such as Cuba’s real connectivity capacity and the difficulties that the population faces in accessing the internet. He explained that in the 1980s the country was a leader in “pre-networking.” The government even created special offices such as the Academic Network Center for Messaging and Electronic Information (CENIAI) to broaden the technological capacity of the island before the internet took root. “Now their application’s sophistication is stuck in the mid-nineties. Cubans are living in the Web 1.0 era,” Press remarked.
Press attributed this change to three main factors: the US embargo that continues to isolate Cubans, the Soviet Unions’ collapse that launched a deep economic crisis on the island and, finally, what he called the “dictator’s dilemma.” By the latter, Press means the Cuban governments’ calculation that the costs of free access to information to the regime’s control of society outweigh the potential economic benefits of embracing the internet.
Henkens’ research focuses on the Cuban blogosphere and includes interviews he personally conducted with twenty bloggers on the island, who are divided into two categories: “officialists” (supporting Fidel Castro’s government), or “mercenaries” (against the regime). He met with representatives from some of the main groups, among them Voces Cubanas, Havana Times, and La Joven Cuba. According to Henken, all of these projects “have their own history, personality, levels of critical orientation, degree of independence, ideological orientation and style. However, all of them face similar challenges in establishing their legitimacy to maintain their authorial or editorial independence.” Since access to the internet is granted only through public institutions like universities, schools, hotels, and certain embassies, all of these groups have been blamed for responding to particular interests instead of expressing independent views.
Additionally, trying to reach a domestic audience in Cuba has been a test. Not many people have access to the internet, and cyber centers are too expensive for most of the population to afford. In February 2011, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez vowed to construct an underground internet cable from Venezuela to the island with China’s technical support. He claimed this new technology would enhance Cuba’s connectivity.
During the dialogue with the audience, Robert Guerra, project director of Freedom House’s Global Internet Freedom Initiative, explained how the construction of an underground cable could affect the future of free internet access in Cuba. He mentioned that a probable scenario would be a move toward a model similar to China’s, where access to certain content on the web is restricted. Other participants contended that the announcement is far from reality due to lagging technical capacity. However, the future of the internet in Cuba is still uncertain. Despite dramatic economic changes, such as the introduction of private property, which stands in stark contrast to previous Castro regime policies, the course the Cuban government plans to adopt with regard to internet access remains unclear.