Cuba’s Digital Revolution

March 2, 2017 |

By Fernando Ravsberg

Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — I’ve been watching a series from the “Weekly Package” these days, and I found an episode of Black List that was dramatized in Cuba. It’s a very US depiction of Cuba, with Colombian-style violence, corrupt police Mexican style and Haitian poverty.

I thought about the irony there is in keeping an expensive censorship apparatus up and running, which is obsessed with monitoring TV, movies, theater and music videos recorded in Cuba, while series like this one manage to find their way into Cuban homes, which adults, teenagers and children all share.

The battle to control Cuban cultural, news and recreational shows has already been lost. Those who were committed to this comfortable task for decades should take up other professions which have a better outlook in the future.

According to a report reviewed at the Cuban legislature, 60% of university students already read digital documents and over half of them don’t go to libraries. The vice-president of the Cuban Book Institute, Edel Morales, calculates that 90% of young people in Cuba will be reading off of screens by 2020.

I connect up to the Internet and on the Cuban trade website “Porlalivre”, I find ads which offer “Selling all kinds of digital books – Be the one to read the best!!! – Learn about the new and best authors of today, don’t just read the ones you already know about.”

Mientras la censura planea sobre los periodistas, artistas y escritores en Cuba, desde el exterior entran todo tipo de materiales informativos. Foto: Raquel Pérez Díaz

However, ideological officials play dumb, they continue to monitor and place restrictions. Foreign diplomats tell me that they still walk past stands at book fairs banning copies, even those written in other languages.

Cuba is experiencing a technological revolution with new phenomena which make old solutions outdated. Surely, when Pope John Paul II asked Cuba to open itself up to the world and the world likewise to Cuba, he didn’t imagine that this process would play out in cyberspace.

New communication technologies are putting every book, newspaper and recreational show at the Cuban people’s fingertips and nobody can stop them. They can only trust that five decades of educational and cultural progress wasn’t in vain.

Banning became impossible when the government authorized the Cuban people to use mobile phones, allowed them to access the Internet, created Wi-Fi spots across the country, legalized the “Weekly Package” and it let go of its bitterness for parabolic antenna (to capture US television). And the government did this knowing quite well what exactly they were doing.

Now, they can only take a chance and create mechanisms which allow Cuban citizens to use everything they have learnt to analyze the world in a critical way, so that they don’t consume ideas without chewing, so they don’t become passive consumers.

Cuban children should be taught to think and not to repeat what they’re told, starting in primary school. Let universities be a source where people are worth more for their own observations than the ones they learn, just like Jose de la Luz y Caballero taught.

The government could opt for making TV more educational, which doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be boring. A TV where film or literary critique shows are put on again, where there aren’t any taboo subjects and the only thing that is banned is censorship and superficiality.

Enough of the censuring.

The problem – or maybe I should say the advantage? – is that it’s impossible to develop a critical spirit within the Cuban people and restrict it to only seeing what comes from outside. Inevitably, this in-depth look would also help us to analyze what is going on within the country.

Then, neighborhood representative meetings would become real assemblies for public debate. And there would be different opinions about all subjects dealt with in parliamentary sessions, knowing that the unity of a nation is threaded together with the strings of diversity.

The hands on the clock continue to move forward relentlessly and censorship is becoming less and less efficient as each day passes. With a simple VPN or Proxy service, you can pierce through the hardest of firewalls a thousand times, without anybody being able to cover up so many holes at the same time.

It’s useless to try and contain a river of information which is flowing on the internet by building dams. The country would come out on top if these resources were instead used to teach Cubans how to surf the web, giving them the tools they need to navigate through even the greatest of lies.

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  • CUBAQUS

    What “revolution?”. Stone age.

    • Moses Patterson

      Exactly. The baby steps that the Castros have taken towards a more technology-literate society far from constitute a “revolution”. Cuba remains the least ‘connected’ country in the hemisphere.

      • CUBAQUS

        Correct and the “excuse” of being blocked by the US is a lie. The Venezuelan Cable is up since 2013 and Cuba had internet access through the US in the past. They refused US connections.
        http://cubainternet.impela.net/history/

      • Eden Wong

        “… Cuba remains the least ‘connected’ country in the hemisphere…”

        I think you meant to say, “one the least ‘connected’ counties on the entire Planet Earth.” ;-)

        • Moses Patterson

          Both are true.

          • Eden Wong

            Moses, do ever crack a smile, or have a chuckle?

          • Moses Patterson

            Twice, no wait….once.

    • Sky

      It’s all relative. Think back to what it was like just 5 years ago.

      • CUBAQUS

        OK. The Venezuelan cable arrived in Siboney in 2013. That is 4 years ago. Since then about 50 to 60 WiFI points were set up. A “project” in Havana Vieja only (0,05% of the population) with access. Now prices between 15 CUC (60% of an average wage) for a 256Kb connection to 115 CUC (4.6 times the average wage) for a 2MB fixed connection for those that have a fixed line (currently a 10 year waiting list). Stone age. Get educated. I have been online in Cuba in the late 1990’s in hortels for $8 an hour (crappy connection). Even after the recent price reduction to CUC 1.5 (6% of an average wage) per hour for crappy WiFi in very limited areas (big towns) most of Cuba is in darkness: stone age.

        • Sky

          please don’t patronise and tell me to get educated. I am aware of the prices. I am aware of the restrictions. I am aware of the frustrations all round- it’s not just Cubans in Cuba it’s the diaspora who want to be able to be free to communicate with family and friends without paying through the nose for crappy telephone calls. Believe me I have had 25 years of that. But there is no point in comparing apples with oranges. it is Cuba and the situation is undoubtedly way better than it was a few years ago especially with all the illegal wifi access guys with their wheelie bag routers who charge less than the official rate. (Interestingly, they are ignored by the police/authorities) Rural connection in many western countries is very poor or non -existant.

          • CUBAQUS

            No intention to patronize. Would “get informed” be better?
            I guess you feel happy with a nearly non-existent improvement for the very few that can afford it. I am not. Lots more could have been done even with the existing equipment.
            I can post a “history” of Cuba’s connection from from the first (US Sprint) cable to the double undersea cable connection today (Venezuela and the Jamaica extension). Like you I have also suffered the abusive prices of lousy phone connection and a 20 year waiting period to get a fixed phone (currently 10 I am told). I know the system of people renting out their fixed lines to neighbors with relatives abroad that have to provide the wireless phones to make it work. I knew the “improvised” local networks (WiFi) that often worked pretty well. I also spent lots of time to get the best VOIP app for Android (IMO by the way).
            Cuba is connected up by cable: the old excuse of “narrow bandwidth” of the satellite is no longer valid. From sources within ETECSA I know that lots of larger and midsize towns have phone systems that could provide ADSL over landlines. It never happened. I look at what could have been and what real “digital revolution” Cuba could have had. I am not “comparing apples with oranges”. I am comparing what was technically possible with what is. As “revolutions” go this is a “bar-fight” at best.

          • CUBAQUS

            What I forgot to mention: small satellite systems connected up to WiFi are the prime solution for internet access in rural areas. Even in France for a long time local companies connected remote villages (Alps, Pyrenees) to their networks with satellites that plugged in to ground stations in larger areas. The technology would provide continuous cover that is actually cheaper and faster (on a monthly basis) than the ETECSA offer in Old Havana. Review the ownership of ETACSA and the economic – as well as political control – reasons for outlawing this will be very clear. ETECSA could also offer good 3G (some areas 2G) access at good prices and people could use a “mobile router” to share it. The technology is there. the will isn’t.

        • Eden Wong

          “… Since then about 50 to 60 WiFI points were set up…”

          I agree with your entire point, but don’t be so condescending to other posters to “get educated” when you throw out made-up numbers like that.

          The situation is bad enough. No need to exaggerate/lie.

          • CUBAQUS

            I have no intention to be condescending. I want people to get informed / educated about Cuba using lots of sources. From Havantimes over Diario de Cuba to the Miami Herald.
            As far as your comment that I would be “exaggerating” or “lying” I find that strange as you first say you agree with everything I said. That comment is extremely condescending and false. I can back up anything I post with hundreds of sources. I have access to databases with between 120 and 24 thousand articles or links.

          • Eden Wong

            I specifically quoted and referred directly to your claim of, “Since then about 50 to 60 WiFI points were set up.”

            The real number is 325+. That’s what I mean about making up stuff.

            The situation is Cuba is bad enough without posting fabrications.

  • N.J. Marti

    Running a nation in a controlled bubble is getting harder. Cuba is one of the least connected countries, but already millions are hooked on the Internet and want more. The outside world has arrived, expelling it is not an option in a country that needs tourism. Tourism will require modern connectivity. Americans will stop comming if phones and Internet service does not catch up to world standards.

    • Sky

      Haha. The government is missing a marketing trick – I know parents choosing to bring their kids to Cuba precisely because there is no easy internet access. Everything will eventually and sadly require modern connectivity but Americans have to suck the current situation up. Best not to come if they can’t. Europeans don’t seem to have an issue.

  • Sky

    What I want to know is if el paquete is authorized by the government, why aren’t foreign tv stations/film companies up in arms at the flagrant flouting of copyright laws at such a high level? Not a peep of protest – that I know of…

    • editorht

      Possibly because they would be in violation of the US embargo on Cuba if they received any payment from Cuba. If and when the embargo is lifted the situation of cross-border pirating and copyright laws may change.

      • Sky

        Yes good point.

        • CUBAQUS

          Mute point. If the “embargo” is the problem that could – but doesn’t – explain the problem with the US. It does not explain the massive pirating of Latin-American and Spanish soaps and music. Poverty and disdain of the Cuban government for foreign copyrights explain the why.

    • CUBAQUS

      The paquete is tolerated and censored at the same time.

    • CUBAQUS

      On copyright: note that the copying and reselling of DVD is actually allowed as an independent activity. Most discs they sell are illegal copies.

      http://www.juventudrebelde.cu/cuba/2010-09-24/actividades-autorizadas-para-el-ejercicio-del-trabajo-por-cuenta-propia/

      • Sky

        My query about Copyright is not about whether the paquete sellers are allowed by the Cuban authorities! it is about the intellectual/commercial ownership of the films/tv shows etc. Editorht made a good point which probably explains it given the bulk of the material comes from the US.

        • CUBAQUS

          Copyrighted material from lots of countries (US films, Latin American soaps, …) circulates widely in Cuba. The US is a main source of programs, music, films, … that Cubans truly want to watch, but it is not a “target” of a “massive criminal effort” nor are copyrights not paid because of the “sanctions”. The fact that Cubans have very low income and can not afford to pay “full prices” combines with censorship has led to this situation. If, as Editorht suggest that the “embargo” blocks payment to the US that doesn’t explain why artists and production companies from other countries aren’t being paid. They can receive their dues “embargo free”.

  • Consejo Anonimo

    Cuba has ‘largest pool of untapped IT talent in the Americas’

    Very positive article from the Miami Herald:

    http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/cuba/article135249259.html

    One must never throw away the baby with the bath water!