Of cables, computer fairs, and cyber thugs

As I noted briefly last week, Generación Y has been unblocked in Cuba. Voces Cubanas and DesdeCuba, both platform sites where feeds for Gen Y, Octavo Cerco, and many other Cuba-based blogs appear, are also back. Yoani’s description of the moment when she connected to her blog, for the first time in three years, was poignant.

“With just a click I manage to enter the site that, since March of 2008, has not been visible from a public place. I’m so surprised I shout and the camera watching from the ceiling records the fillings in my teeth as I laugh uncontrollably.”

You can almost see the state security official watching her from the other side. Sites may be unblocked, and cable may be laid, but the presence of the people and machines of the state hold steady in the lives of citizens like Yoani. She is probably right to assume that this may not last for long, and not to mistake this for an innocent act of benevolence by the Cuban government. But still we should ask: why were these sites unblocked?

There is a strange confluence of Internet-related events going on in Cuba right now. Yoani suggests that this may be related to the international computer science fair, Informática 2011. This irony of ironies that took place in Havana last week brought telecom policymakers and representatives from IT companies from several other countries to discuss IT innovations and present their products. The fair also celebrated the arrival of the Bolivarian fiber optic cable from Venezuela, that will be operational very soon, but will not provide greater Internet access opportunities for Cubans. There is also the strange video of Eduardo Fontes, or the “ciber policia,” that all but achieved meme status after it was allegedly leaked (but probably intentionally released under the guise of a leak) on Vimeo two weeks ago. And then there’s Egypt.

With the arrival of the cable, and the presence of foreign business people and techies on the island, the politics and policy of Internet use are being watched more closely than usual. It is a great time for the government to relax the controls a little bit, and give the impression that it’s not entirely against, or afraid of, new media.

My guess is that Egypt’s revolution, and the role of technology in uprisings there and in Tunisia, put a hex on this plan. The blogosphere has been alive with speculation in recent weeks on whether or not Havana’s Parque Central could become the next Tahrir Square. This comes on the heels of the cybercop video, in which Fontes lectures a group of MININT officials on the dangers and imperialist motives behind blogs and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The Egyptian example is probably making the Cuban government nervous, and putting out a video like this is one way to say, “we’re still in control here.” But it is also very typical of the state’s rather shrewd PR strategies. Sending mixed messages helps to reflect reality (and there is evidence of internal controversy over the Internet access question within the Cuban government) but it also keeps people wondering what the Cuban government really thinks–sympathizers can focus on the cable, anti-Castrists can focus on the video. People like me can speculate about PR strategies.

A similar thing happened this summer. After the Spanish foreign ministry successfully negotiated with Raul for the release of 52 political prisoners, who appeared on the scene but Fidel, the only person who could effortlessly trump the historical enormity of the release by simply making a public appearance. The foreign media flocked to listen to the living legend’s musings on environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation, and a war that he believed the US may want to wage on Iran. Reporters swooned over Fidel’s ramblings, his plaid shirt, and the fact that he attended a dolphin show at the Havana Aquarium. Fidel managed to steal the spotlight from the political prisoners, and to remind everyone that he is still here. That the revolution is not over. I think the Fontes video serves a similar purpose.

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