Cyber Cuba

I’m singing
When the cat’s away
The mice will play
Political violence fill ya city
Don’t involve rasta in your say-say
Rasta don’t work for no CIA

Bob Marley + Wailers

On October 29, the Cuban magazine Temas held its monthly meeting/debate, which has come to be known as “Last Thursday [of the month].”  The discussion was to be about the Internet and Cuban culture.  This in itself is an enormously complex topic in today’s world, and still more complicated in Cuba’s case since all access to and use of the Internet has been politicized by those in opposition to the island’s government.  The Internet, at the same time, has become just one more instrument used by the United States government to project its foreign policy and influence internal processes in the rest of the world. [1]

During the discussion on Internet and culture held by Temas, Yoani Sánchez asked for and received the opportunity to speak.  Her first question was in regard to whether broadband has anything to do with not allowing the majority of Cubans to have access to the Internet.

I’ve dealt with the subject of Internet and Cuba before. [2]  In that essay I presented the thesis that the bandwidth is an essential element in shaping the topology and architecture a country’s connectivity will have and that in itself affects the number of users and the speed of data transmission. This is now well known by the general public, but it was not as known years ago. The thesis, of course, is based on the cost of connectivity (digital lines, servers, routers, etc.) and furthermore, the consideration as to whether the access is obtained by satellite or another medium.  In highly industrialized countries, the per person user cost would be much lower, since the necessary infrastructure would be within reach for people with sufficient resources – in other words, economies of scale would reduce the per user cost.  For a smaller population with lesser income, the cost of connectivity tends to increase drastically.

These economic factors are usually not considered in the debate over Cuban connectivity.  However, there is a “digital divide” on a global level.  This same inequality is also found within societies.  The inequality in high-speed Internet access can be found even in the most developed societies.

The user model of the capitalist world that is based on individual usage, through a household or handheld computer – that the majority of the world’s poor does not possess – must also be taken into consideration.

Furthermore, it must be noted that the Internet, by its nature, breaks with an entire series of old parameters.  First, it breaks with logical and sequential thought and argumentation.  Hyper-connection destroys historical sensibility.  There’s no beginning, middle or end.  Now the jump is made from one side to another without rhyme or reason – connectivity provides no real judgment of sources. It’s not easy to determine whether or not an information source is reliable.  Most all of the information is commercial.  Someone has to pay to post, send or receive it.

There’s nothing surprising in thinking that this technology would be liberating.  Technological determinism is nothing new.  The same was thought of the radio, the television, the telephone, the telegraph, and now it’s said of the PC, Twitter, Bluetooth, etc.; that they will contribute to the democratization of societies.  Such projections conquer the logic of the naive, politicians and opportunists alike.  The inherent implications of the Internet are not as clear-cut as with political, social or economic systems, but they do affect our own epistemology and cultural values.  The social and personal relations between people occupying a common geographical space and the already famous “social networks” in virtual space are not the same. Calling someone by telephone is not the same as reaching out and “touching someone” no matter what the ads try to sell us.

It’s clear however, that the debate over the Internet inside and throughout Cuba assumes premises inherent to highly developed countries.  The question about broadband should be answered by Cuban authorities charged with such matters.  However, it’s worth mentioning that the Obama administration has decided to spend no less than $6.3 billion dollars toward improving the broadband penetration. Although the US has the largest broadband market in the OECD countries, about 70 million subscribers, but as a proportion of its total population with broadband it ranks 15th.[3]

A single person using YouTube, HDTV, and others require bandwidth of 8 megabits per second in both directions to be functional. All of Cuba, using its present infrastructure, can download 65 megabits and upload 124. The virtual dissidents, therefore, can only be sending their images using a connectivity that is not depending on the Cuban state resources; otherwise, all of Cuba would have to stop to allow them to upload their materials in YouTube and the like.

There are some pertinent questions that we ought to ask of the virtual Yoanis found in Cuba, and who evidently have been able to access the Internet even though the entire country’s broadband access is insufficient. Their experiences might have a positive impact on those with lesser resources.

What is broadband?  What is its importance?  And how much does it cost? [33% of U.S. Internet users do NOT have broadband. However, in the US high speed cable modem is available to 96% of end-users and 79% of them have DSL. In the majority of poor countries neither of the three is widely available. Steve Song, a specialist on the subject of broadband from the International development Research Center noted in 2008 that “the average university in Africa has the same aggregate bandwidth as a single home user in North America or Europe.” He also noted that the typical university in Africa “pays more than 50 times for this bandwidth than their counterparts in Europe or North America do for much more capacity.” [4]

What is the relationship between broadband, its use, and cost?  This is a cost that Cuba might not be able to provide to everyone as an entitlement or as Cubans say “me toca”. Finland, this past October, made 1 megabit broadband a legal right to begin July 2010. France, on the other hand, has established that Internet access is a “basic” human right [speed does not count]. But you have to pay for it.

As the Mexican comedian Cantinflas used to say: “En el detalle está la diferencia” – It is the little detail that makes the difference. The French initiative says nothing about affordability; the private person has to pay. The Helsinki Times reports that the meaning of a “legal right” is that no household “would be farther than 2 kilometers from a connection capable of delivering broadband Internet with a capacity of at least 100 megabits of data a second.” Thus, the superhighway will be nearby, it is up to you, nonetheless, to pay for the connection.[5]

On November 6th, Business Week, approvingly, noted that the European Parliament has “abandoned a bid to declare Internet access a fundamental right.” Five months earlier, Cuban dissident bloggers issued a statement proclaiming the right of access to Internet.[6]

The foreign press stationed in Cuba claims that a dissident in Havana has a blog that is translated into 16 or more languages and has from 1 to 14 million visits a month. That is impressive for anyone worldwide. For someone in Cuba it borders on a Fatima-like miracle.[7]

From a logistical standpoint, this is an unusual accomplishment. Is it possible for such traffic to be handled by Cuba today? Who is/are the administrator[s] of the web pages in all these languages?  Translation is complicated, time-consuming, and a worldwide translation team is costly. How is this work done? How is it paid for?  And what is the mechanism for transferring this payment?

In Cuba, it’s not possible for a person to earn enough to maintain these costly services and systems.  Yet, the  blogs exist. Someone or some institution has to incur costs to access the Internet, Twitter, etc. Perhaps there are good Samaritans. Perhaps..

We do know that the  USAID Cuba Program financially supports “independent journalists” within the island.[8] Is this also the case with the “independent bloggers”?

In fact, United States foreign policy has as one of its foundations the premise that the Internet could elicit regime change. That is why the US Treasury Department has informed Google and Microsoft to allow chat services into Cuba. [9]

The U.S. Department of Defense provides some indication that the Internet should be utilized to fulfill United States government objectives – i.e. targeting “regime change”.  This includes, “develop[ing] a global web site supporting U.S. strategic communications objectives” where “contents should be primarily from third parties with greater credibility to foreign audiences than U.S. officials.” Moreover, the same report notes that the Pentagon should “identify and disseminate the views of third party advocates that support U.S. positions. These sources may not articulate the U.S. position the way that the USG would, but they may nonetheless have a positive influence.” [10]

There are numerous US private contractors and universities around that are more than willing to serve the interests of empire although claiming “complete independence” from Washington’s foreign policy. [11]

Which Internet, then?

Is Internet the technology with the capacity to enhance and liberate human potential, knowledge, understanding and cooperation among nations? Or, is it one more  instrument to be used, as in the past, to maintain and extend the unequal exchanges and power relations that have existed between the nations of the world? That is a struggle that is presently fought throughout the world. Is Internet a public forum or is it a commercial enterprise? That is the debate going on in the United States and other capitalist societies.[12] It is a struggle within Cuba itself, where national self determination and American hegemony confront each other in numerous and not so obvious ways.

I would like to thank Machetera, Rafael Hernandez, Saul Landau, Robert  Sandels and Louis Head for their assistance with translation, editing and  offering numerous comments.

NELSON P. VALDÉS is the Director of the Cuba-L Project.

This commentary was written for Cuba-L Analysis and CounterPunch.


[1] New Inequality Frontiers: Broadband Internet Access by Economic Policy Institute, 2006].

[2] 03/09/08 – Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque) – Cuba and Information Technology – 2001[Part 1] http://cuba-l.unm.edu/?nid=45032&q=Nelson%20P%20Valdes%20and%20Internet&h= 03/10/08 – Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque) – Cuba and Information Technology – 2001 [Part 2] http://cuba-l.unm.edu/?nid=45055&q=Nelson%20P%20Valdes%20and%20Internet&h= 03/09/08 – Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque) – Cuba and Information Technology – 2001[Part 3] http://cuba-l.unm.edu/?nid=45100&q=Nelson%20P%20Valdes%20and%20Internet&h= 03/12/08 – Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque) – Cuba and Information Technology [Final] http://cuba-l.unm.edu/?nid=45151&q=Nelson%20P%20Valdes%20and%20Internet&h=

[3] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, broadband Growth and Policies in OECD Countries, Seoul, Korea, 17-18 June 2008. OECD Ministerial Meeting. http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/32/57/40629067.pdf and Bill Schrier, Third World Broadband – In the United States. See: http://www.digitalcommunitiesblogs.com/CCIO/2009/03/third-world-broadband-in-the-u.php

[4] IDRC, Acacia news, february 2008. http://www.idrc.ca/en/ev-122116-201-1-DO_TOPIC.html and Indrajt Basu, “Not All Americans View Broadband as Necessity, But Finland’s Another Story,” [October 26, 2009. See: http://www.digitalcommunitiesblogs.com/international_beat/

[5] http://www.helsinkitimes.fi/htimes/domestic-news/politics/3179.html

[6] http://www.businessweek.com/globalbiz/content/nov2009/gb2009116_710422.htm and the bloggers statement: http://bottup.com/200906014676/Internet/comunicado-para-defender-los-derechos-en-cuba.html

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoani_S%C3%A1nchez

[8] http://www.usaid.gov/locations/latin_america_caribbean/cuba/photogallery/cu01.html

[9]”US Wants Microsoft to End Message Ban in Iran,Cuba” Bloomberg, October 29, 2009. http://news.yahoo.com/s/bloomberg/20091029/pl_bloomberg/afpeerwgcyla_1

[10] U. S. Department of Defense, Information Operations Roadmap, 30 October 2003, p. 27. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB177/info_ops_roadmap.pdf

[11] A case in point is the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and its Internet and Democracy Project which has a 2 year grant of $1.5 million from the US Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative. http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/idblog/the-internet-and-democracy-project/

[12] “FCC Set To Take On Aggressive Role As Internet Traffic Cop,” SlicomValley.com, October 20, 2009. See: http://www.siliconvalley.com/sectors/ci_13603357


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Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.

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