Category Archives: Technology in Cuba

Take a closer look, freedom-lovers

Around this time last year, I had a meeting with a graphic designer who had come to my former office to bid on a project. The designer’s name was Bob. Eager to get our business, he asked me about my research and we discovered that we had something in common. Bob had also been to Cuba. A former jiu jitsu master, he had traveled to Havana with the US jiu jitsu team.

When I asked about his impressions of Cuba, he skipped straight to the end of the trip. The team’s return flight had departed late, and for reasons that went unexplained, the athletes had been made to wait for their aircraft on the tarmac, as opposed to in the shady, humid environs of Jose Martí International Airport.

I quietly take pleasure in the perennial challenges and inconveniences of travel in underdeveloped countries. When no amount of complaining or haggling will improve the situation, you give up. You get a chance to watch the people around you, think about where you’re going and about where you’ve been. What began as a harrowing rush becomes a laid back affair. But Bob had no such appreciation for the experience.

“They had us sittin’ out there, in the blazing hot sun,” he told me. “We had our bags with us and everything. And you know what? After a little while it was like, I started feelin’ like a political prisoner.”

I let out half a laugh.

“Really,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just terrible there.”

He meant this in earnest. Bob believed that the extremely temporary inconvenience suffered by the jiu jitsu team, which seemed to have caused no actual harm to anyone (with the potential exception of the fairer-skinned members of the team), was apt for comparison to the reality of politically-motivated incarceration in Cuba.  The results of US mainstream media mythology about that country turn up in the darnedest places.

As bizarre as it was, I figured Bob was not all that different from most Americans. He didn’t claim to have any expertise on Cuba–he was just giving his impressions of the place, which is fine, drenched as they were in preconceptions. I expect the Bobs of the world to continue thinking this way.

I’ve been thinking of Bob lately because I’ve begun to encounter people in the digital rights community who claim to have some knowledge about Cuba and the politics and policies of Internet use there, but whose understanding of the political and human rights situation on the island is not much deeper than Bob’s was. In the mainstream world, this kind of ignorance is disappointing, but it’s tolerable. In the digital rights community, it’s not. It is a problem.

I attended an event recently at which the speaker described the situation of Internet access in Cuba. In addition to getting certain facts wrong, he compared Raúl Castro to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and various other commanders-in-chief around the world who, to quote George W. Bush, are best known for “hating freedom.” Rather than simply mentioning these ‘freedom-haters’ by name, he showed a series of slides depicting each leader cowering in a corner of a room, opposite a piece of communications technology–a computer monitor, a smart phone, a mouse. Dictators are afraid of technology because it threatens their power. This was the main thrust of the presentation–there was no deeper argument, no new insights or information.

I think there is no gain to be reaped from surface-level Cuba research that leads to the same simplistic conclusions that we hear uttered on the evening news from time to time. Cubans are helpless. Cubans have no Internet access and no knowledge of the outside world. Cubans ache for freedom. Similar narratives are familiar to anyone who studies China, sanctioned countries in the MENA region, and a range of other places.

It is perfectly true that political leaders of various persuasions see technology (in the hands of citizens) as a potential threat to their power and stability. Fine. But the kind of rhetoric that I’m referring to typically stops there. Somehow, we are made to assume that once a country is “not free” on some imaginary “fundamental” level, there’s nothing more to know. Somehow, it is assumed that this is the only thing that matters. There is no legitimate consideration of what is happening there or what one can do to learn more. Not very progressive, not very thoughtful, and not very Internet-y, is it?

If in any given country the Internet acts as a mirror, a space that reflects certain truths about the ways and wants of the nation, then I think it is irresponsible to claim expertise on the Internet in any country if one does not know a good deal about it economy, its politics, and its culture.

Like any society, Cuba is complex, and yes, its unique political and economic systems make it particularly difficult to understand how things work there. But this should be all the more reason to dig deeper: do careful research, consult a range of sources, and be discerning in what you believe. And there has never been a better time to do this: the Internet allows people off the island to learn about life in Cuba in ways that simply weren’t possible a decade ago.

If digital rights advocates want to be supportive of on-island efforts to increase access to technology and information, they must listen carefully to Cubans in Cuba, and they must listen to a diverse range of individuals. The members of the fragmented dissident community, or those of the most combative corner of the nation’s diverse blogosphere, have important perspectives. But they are not the only Cubans bringing their ideas to the table, nor are they the only Cubans who are active online.

I do not defend the human rights record of the Cuban government, nor do I defend its abuses of Cubans’ civil and political rights. But I know enough about Cuba to say that I think it’s counterproductive and actually harmful to perpetuate such overly simplistic narratives. If advocates want to take a stand against government practices, they must understand how they work, where they come from, and what effects they really have on people. And they must think strategically about what kinds of pressure could bring change, and what kinds of pressure will do nothing but exacerbate the status quo.

There is so much to learn about what is happening there, and unlike in the past, we have an amazing new tool that allows us to do this. Many people in the space, both in and outside of Cuba, are working on citizen media projects that are having a marked impact on interconnections and public knowledge about civil society in Cuba. I hope our colleagues will soon begin to do the same.

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Filed under Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

The cyberwar continues

Two weeks ago, AP’s Desmond Butler obtained copies of several reports filed by USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on his ultimately ill-fated “tech support” mission to Cuba and wrote a long piece detailing his findings. Gross is now serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba after being found guilty of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” for bringing a large amount of tech equipment into Cuba without obtaining authorization to do so.

According to Butler, Gross coordinated the transport of “12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three phones to make calls over the Internet, and networking switches” from the US into Cuba. All told, these numbers are substantial—I have to imagine that immigration authorities in any country would look on such actions suspiciously. Only an extreme few would go so far as to call this a threat to national sovereignty. But this is Cuba—and Gross was sent there by the US government.

The reports also describe the lengths Gross went to in trying to cover his tracks. In the eyes of the Cuban government, Gross’ good intentions of bringing technology to a needy community were irrelevant: he was bringing in communications technologies that are highly contested in Cuba, and are increasingly characterized as “weapons” in the ideological war against the US.

I believe that increasing Cubans’ access to technology has become vital to civil society on the island, but Gross’ experience has shown that US-based organizations, particularly those receiving public funds, must find a new and more transparent way to approach this kind of work.

While the case has brought a terrible set back to US-Cuba relations on a number of levels, it also has coincided with an increasingly belligerent conceptualization of the Internet and social media in official discourse.

While authorities there have rarely lauded the Internet as a space of information exchange and connection, over the last year there has been a noticeable hardening of official rhetoric about the web. In press statements, “leaked” videos, and television news programs, the Internet has been portrayed as a space of conflict, an ideological battlefield where the “ciberguerra” being fought is simply a virtual rendition of the “war” in which Cuba and the US have been engaged since 1961. I imagine that many Cubans, particularly those living outside the capitol, have been introduced to the Internet in this way. And I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accept many of these ideas as fact.

I had held out hope that Cuba’s fiber optic cable would bring some degree of change to the nature of Internet use for at least some Internet users on the island. But we haven’t heard an official peep about that cable since March of 2011—just days after Gross’ trial.

The covert nature of his mission, to which the reports attest, does little but reinforce the idea that ICTs are a new, powerful weapon in the ideological battle between Cuba and the United States. This nasty paradigm has dominated relations between the two countries for decades; perhaps the Internet piece of it is simply a new iteration of the same argument. But it’s upsetting. There have been moments of progress in US-Cuba relations in recent years, many of which have been associated with family relations as well as cultural and scholarly exchange. Fundamentally, these moments have reflected the importance of connection and mutual understanding across borders. The potential for the Internet to allow Cubans and Americans to build on these kinds of connections is immeasurable. But I’m not sure what it will take for Cuban leaders to begin to see it this way.

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In Cuba, art is a public good (but the Internet will have to wait)

In addition to triggering the greatest civic hell-raising in Internet history and inspiring numerous nonsensical quips about Latin cuisine and Kate Middleton’s younger sister, the SOPA/PIPA laws have touched a nerve in Cuba’s digital community. Bloggers from a diverse range of political perspectives are interpreting the proposed legislation not merely as a law on piracy, but as a powerful statement about how the US values culture and creativity as part of society.

Voces Cubanas blogger Regina Coyula’s post on SOPA was particularly moving. She wrote of the FBI’s partial shutdown of file locker site MegaUpload, which took place shortly after Wednesday’s Internet blackout, describing the event as follows:

“‘The bad guys,’ those who wield freedom as a paradigm, with allegations of piracy, encroached [upon] the also alleged right of millions of citizens of the global village to download content that they know they should not — or cannot — pay for.”

Note: the freedom-wielding “bad guys” are U.S. officials who plead for reforms in Cuba by offering the (perhaps empty-seeming) promise of the inherent good that democratic values could bring to the island. She continued:

“The issue is extremely complicated for me, a semi-surfer from a semi-connected country. I assume that the technologies have developed faster than the copyright laws and I assume that these illegal downloads don’t affect the artists themselves so much, as it geometrically multiplies the distribution of their work (provided there is no plagiarism and credit is given) as a form of advertising.

It’s true that there is a symbiotic relationship between art and the marketing that puts it in the hands of the consumers. But to see art as a commodity has resulted in the promotion of products of dubious quality at the expense of other values. I don’t consider myself an elitist or an expert; the simple perception of success and popularity reveals very aggressive publicity campaigns. […] At some point, a balance must be achieved between both interests.”

Coyula makes two very important points: first, file-sharing sites provide something akin to a public good—they benefit people who otherwise cannot access or afford their contents in other ways. Second, these are laws that ostensibly favor commercial interests over the cultural commons and the “gift economy” in which art is created, re-created, and circulated. Most Cubans writing on the issue agreed on this point, and reason for this seems clear: in Cuba, culture has been legally enshrined as a public good since the triumph of the revolution.

In 1961, the revolutionary government made a bold, robust commitment to supporting artists and writers and making art accessible for all Cubans. While this wrought bitter controversies over what it meant for artists to join their fellow citizens in the trenches of an ideological war, it also led to the creation of a strong system of support for artists and cultural institutions that remains highly active today. In Cuba, one can attend the national ballet for just a few pesos more than it costs to buy a movie ticket. Access to culture is not a privilege of the upper classes—it’s a right that all Cubans share.

Yet most Cubans are far worse off than any American when it comes to accessing information and media online. There, the Internet remains a battlefield, a contested space where government authorities and the official press denounce the United States’ cyberwar on Cuba, and the boundless universe of culture and knowledge online is scarcely mentioned. Cuban authorities have elected to limit Internet use presumably in order to dampen the effects of political speech and economic activity online—they feel they must control such activity in order to preserve the socialist project.

If things had played out differently last week, and SOPA/PIPA were looking inevitable for us, we would have to get used to the idea of our government that limiting Internet use in order to placate content (music and film) industries. SOPA or not, we are far better off than Cubans when it comes to Internet use. But the question of what motivates our government to limit the Internet is still worth earnest consideration: are we a society that is okay with commercial interests trumping those of public goods? Congress may be, but last week’s uproar suggested that millions of us are not. I hope people are willing to keep sending this message to Congress, because it may take more than an Internet blackout to truly win this one.

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Filed under Art community, Blogs out of Cuba, Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

Free isn’t easy

As I study Internet use and human rights in different parts of the world, I am routinely struck by how difficult it is to make speech truly “free,” even when policymakers and citizens seem to agree that this is a good choice.

Last spring I wrote about a video interview conducted by journalist and fellow blogger Tracey Eaton with John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for developing respectful diplomatic and political relationships between the US and communist/post-communist countries.

"Your URL is blocked!" Screenshot by tonystl. CC BY-ND.

McAuliff spoke of how we must understand rights not as static illustrations of what is good or moral, but rather as products of history. As he spoke to Eaton about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, he invoked the Civil Rights movement in the US, pointing out  that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society. He said to Eaton:

“If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.”

Many of us think of free speech as an unquestionable good—it sits at the level of ethics or morals and it seems indestructible as an idea. But clearly it’s not. Yesterday, Global Voices, Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites participated in a strike in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two very bad pieces of anti-piracy legislation in the House and Senate. If passed, these bills could severely hinder free speech and innovation online, in the name of protecting copyright holders. I think it’s fair to say that since the First Amendment was written, lawyers, policymakers, and the US judicial system have worked very hard to interpret, protect, and apply this law as time has worn on and technology has evolved. We have come a long way. But the bills currently in Congress show that we may still have a long way to go.

As I juxtapose SOPA and Cuba’s limitations on free speech, it may sound like I’m comparing apples and mangoes—on several levels, this is true. But my point is that high-level political rights don’t come easy, and that even when you have these rights, you have to work hard to uphold them. For Cuba, it is hard to imagine when free (or even free-er) speech will become a possibility. The good news for people in many other parts of the world is that we have the power to act in support of good laws. If you vote in the US, and you want the Internet to stay open and free, visit americancensorship.org and give Congress a piece of your mind.

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All politics are local, and maybe personal too

When I met Roger, a blogger and IT specialist in Cuba, we sat and talked in a little park in Old Havana and then walked down Calle Obispo, a bustling commercial walking street. A man called out to Roger and he recognized him immediately. They hugged and talked and Roger gave him his phone number. They made plans to get together later in the week. We said goodbye, and continued walking.

“He’s an old friend,” he said to me. “He went to Germany six years ago. This is the first time I’ve seen him since. But then we got in touch on Facebook last year.” Roger talked about how for his entire life, when friends left the island, it was as if they had disappeared or died.

“You would expect never to hear from them or see them again,” he told me. This has been a common experience of Cubans for many generations. But it has begun to change as Cubans have gained more opportunities to communicate online. Friends who had “disappeared” suddenly have begun to reappear as Cubans on and off the island have built (or re-built) their social and familial connections, often with the help of social networking platforms. Roger was not the only Cuban person who told me stories of using social media to reconnect, and in some cases reconcile political differences, with friends and family members who have emigrated or sought exile to other countries.

There is no question that while Facebook remains inaccessible for most Cubans, it is another example of how technology is helping to repair connections between people on and off the island. While it’s often exagerrated in popular rhetoric, Cuba’s isolation from much of the world, and particularly the US, has had a powerful impact not only on the nation’s economy, but also on its social fabric. This has, in turn, impacted public sentiment about Cuba in a powerful way.

As families and friends find more ways to communicate and reconnect, this eventually reverberates within a broader discussion about policy, particularly in places like Miami. I understand that this isn’t seen as being important in way that the critical blogosphere is, but I think it deserves to be included in the broader discussion about how new media is impacting change in Cuban communities, both on and off the island.

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This Cold War isn’t over yet

This week on Global Voices I interviewed Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger who recently began the Cuba Money Project, a non-profit research and reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater transparency and accountability to US federal spending on ‘pro-democracy’ programs in Cuba.

I focused on the Cuba Money Project’s Vimeo channel, a telling archive of interviews that Eaton has conducted with people on all sides of the opposition movement, both in Cuba in the US. The interviews defy the common assumption that there is a single narrative, or a black and white, to the relationship between Cuba and the US today. Cubans that Eaton interviews express a diverse range of emotions about politics on the island—there is frustration, ire, ambivalence, and among some, fervent support for the revolutionary government.

Tracey Eaton interviewing a man in Baracoa, Cuba. Posted with permission of Eaton.

¿Cambio con qué?

In practice, the majority of these funds are allotted for opposition groups, but the range of recipients is impressive—on one end of the spectrum, there are initiatives to support important causes like LGBT rights and benefits for the physically disabled, and on the other, there are Miami-based groups manufacturing condoms with the word “cambio” (change) printed on them and shipping them off the Cuba.

In another example, a youth group in Havana received help from a USAID subcontractor to organize a rap concert. I question the value of this. Scholars like Sujatha Fernandes have done well to document the political role of rap and hip-hop in Cuban society, which the government has come to accept and sometimes support since the late 1990s. In brief, she argues that these art forms function as a socio-political “release valve” or space where Cuban youth can express and share their frustrations through music, rather than through much more dangerous and controversial activities of political demonstration.

My sense overall is that some of the programs that USAID funds are fine, and probably providing much-needed resources to Cubans. Others are misguided, and reflect a significant lack of understanding of life on the island. But all of these are overshadowed by the funds allocated to opposition groups.

What is certain, and what Eaton’s research speaks to, is that programs funded by the US in Cuba are politically untenable from the start. In most (if not all) cases, it is illegal under Cuban law for Cubans to accept financial support from US government agencies, because this money is seen as a means of supporting subversive activity on the island. Government agencies can say all they want about helping Cubans to “freely determine their own future,” but the fact is that these programs have not changed very much since their express, stated purpose was to undermine the Castro government. In Cuba, ‘pro-democracy’ is just another way of saying ‘counterrevolutionary.’

“Rights come out of histories”

One of the most powerful commentaries in the Cuba Money Project interviews comes from John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for ending the embargo. McAuliff, who has worked on issues related to US-Cuba relations for over twenty years, seems to be one of few voices on the US side that understands what it may take for the relationship between the two countries to change.

[The US] seems to insist on [carrying out programs that provoke] the most basic nationalist reaction…[this] discredits the US, discredits the Cubans who work with the US…[And these programs] are tied with the legitimate Cuban suspicion that US policy is still grounded in an effort to create system change if not regime change in Cuba.

“Rights come out of histories,” McAuliff says. He talks about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, and invokes the Civil Rights movement in the US, calling on viewers to think about how strange it is that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society.

If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.

Eaton asks McAuliff how the US should proceed. We must begin, McAuliff says, by respecting Cuban sovereignty, no matter how strongly we disagree with Cuban law and policy.

You have to do it starting on the premise of their history and respecting who they are. […] [The US] has to say, ‘we’re not going to put programs in your country unless you find them acceptable.’

Opposition support as political discrimination

I can’t overstate the irony here: the supporters of these programs are desperately seeking ways to funnel money to Cuban dissidents, while we simultaneously cling to a failed trade embargo that makes it impossible for most Americans to spend any money in Cuba at all.

If we really want to help Cubans “freely determine their own future,” we may need to take the long road and find a way to lift the trade embargo. This would drastically impact the Cuban economy and the ability of all Cubans to access capital, goods, and technological tools. Right now, by sending money and supplies only to those who are openly involved in opposition work, we are stoking the anger of the Cuban government, and simultaneously carrying out a policy of discrimination.

What of those Cubans who simply want better lives? Or those who want information technologies because they want to learn more about the world, or to share information with one another? It seems unfair, and politically ignorant, to focus our efforts on a marginal sector of the population that has never been able to consolidate broad support on the island.

This would take time, but it would bring change to Cuba in a way that ‘pro-democracy’ programs never will. The US Congress should find a way to shift its focus from politics to policy: discontinue programs that send money to Cuba in violation of Cuban law, and lift the trade embargo. Then we just might be looking at a clean slate.

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Sleeping at Martí’s feet

Last Sunday, people celebrated International Worker’s Day around the world, and in Havana. Seven years ago on May 1, I saw Fidel Castro speak for the first time in my life.

Late on the night of April 30, my American friends and I had walked to the famous steps of the University of Havana’s main campus, where we had been told to come before the big day. We arrived to find hundreds of students dancing to reggaeton in the darkness, and passing little boxes of rum from one mouth to the next. Around 2 a.m., the party transitioned into a chaotic scene of student leaders distributing tiny leaflets with revolutionary chants written on them, small paper flags, and red t-shirts for everyone to wear. And we then began our march to the Plaza de la Revolución, a sea of red moving steadily down the avenue.

Plaza de la Revolucion, la Habana. By Reno Massola. Labeled for reuse. http://renomassola.blogspot.com

When we arrived, we found the section reserved for university students and moved towards the front of the area. As if waiting to buy tickets for a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the year’s most coveted Christmas toy—both things they surely had never done—our classmates laid their jackets on the ground, curled up, and went to sleep. No one had warned us about this part of the event. We watched for a while, perhaps overly fascinated by the sight of several hundred young Cubans sleeping before the larger-than-life statue of José Martí that sits at the Plaza’s center.

Early the next morning, the loudspeakers that marked the perimeter of the Plaza began to boom with the energetic voice of a man who we could only assume to be a charismatic Caribbean incarnation of Big Brother. This was the official state wakeup call. The plaza was now filled with battalions of soldiers and servicemen, delegations of PCC party members from each province, and countless habaneros, already fanning themselves in the early morning sun.

We listened to speech after speech, watched unusually patriotic salsa dance numbers between speeches, and observed the crowd, until it was time for Fidel. Those who were not standing, stood. Children were lifted onto shoulders. The plaza became a shimmering field of little paper flags, waving vigorously in the humid spring air. Fidel moved gingerly, but without assistance, to the lectern, his green comandante uniform making him almost indistinguishable from the rows of soldiers in the foreground. He spoke for two hours, periodically reaching peaks at which the crowd would shout, ¡Viva la revolución! ¡Viva Cuba libre! I don’t remember much of the speech now, and I don’t know that it was particularly remarkable, as his speeches go. But I remember that I understood every word he said. Fidel’s voice and diction were impeccably clear, clearer than any Cuban I had heard speak since I’d arrived four months before. His ruthless, unflinching commitment to the triumph of this Revolution seemed palpable as ever. One could see that like a great performer, he understood how to move people.

Though he went on for about two hours, people began to leave thirty or forty minutes into his speech. When he was finished, the applause quickly faded and the crowd began to flow outward, down the many streets that lead to the Plaza. As we made our way home, my American friends and I listened as the speeches continued. Aging loudspeakers (that I had never noticed until that morning) hung from the telephone poles on each street, emitting the tinny sound of every speaker, and each and every slogan. You could hear the revolution for miles.

Today marks the inauguration of embedded photos on half-wired! I certainly won’t be able to do this with every post, but I’m hoping to add some color once in a while from now on. Enjoy.

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