People frequently ask me to compare Cuba and China on the question of Internet use, and just about everything else. Fine. They’re both remote, exotic, Communist (flashing red light) countries that people are very curious (but know relatively little) about. Yet there are many fundamental characteristics that set them apart, though some are more obvious than others.
On the question of the Internet: China has poured untold amounts of money, human capital, and legislation into restricting Internet use among its citizens, while Cuba, as far as foreign researchers know, has gone the cheap route: Internet access is so hard to come by (and expensive to provide) that extensive content filtration simply isn’t necessary, and Cuba’s chillingly effective regime of social control keeps many Internet users from using the Web freely anyway.
When I wrote my last post, “Internet access is not the same thing as rice,” I had intended to follow up with a second post explaining some of the more basic, fundamental differences between Internet restrictions in Cuba and other countries that are understood to be “enemies” of open Internet use. Cuba routinely appears next to countries like China, Iran, Syria, and Myanmar, where broad-reaching Internet filtering (censorship) regimes exist, yet there has been no evidence indicating that the Cuban government engages in extensive filtering of any kind. Some reports have hinted that the Intranet is the only form of network that is accessible in Cuba, suggesting that the island is protected by a “tropical firewall” of some sort, but there’s simply no evidence that this is true, and much to the contrary.
Internet use is severely restricted for most Cubans, but any person there with a pocketful of cash can easily circumvent this problem by walking into a hotel Internet cafe and forking over the equivalent to seven or eight U.S. dollars in exchange for a login and password combination that will allow them to spend the next hour browsing all but a handful of sites (most of which are Miami or Cuba-based dissident) as they please.
Of course, if they decide to start a blog, or engage in online activities that go beyond simply consuming information, they may encounter serious repercussions. But I think it’s important to recognize that the Cuban government has created a relatively reliable system of control in which lack of access (rather than technical blocking) is the primary obstacle to open Internet use. It is also worth noting that the main loophole in this system exists only for those with some degree of wealth. Wealth in Cuba? Isn’t that ironic? Yes. But that’s a post for another day.