The Impact of the Internet on the Politics of Cuba
First Monday


The Impact of the Internet on the Politics of Cuba

In this paper, I examine the dramatic growth of the Internet and look at how this new communication paradigm has presented the government of Cuba with an opportunity to overcome the hegemony of the Western media and promote its own views on the world stage. I will also look at how the Internet is being used to promote Cuba as an upmarket tourist destination, tourism now being Cuba's most valuable source of foreign currency and, therefore, critical to its ailing economy.

Cuba's telecommunications infrastructure is poor and outdated which, when combined with the severe restrictions placed on the Cuban population, makes Internet access beyond the reach of most Cuban citizens. Cuban opposition groups, based mostly in the United States, do not face these barriers and, in the second part of this paper, I will examine how a number of these organisations are using the Internet to promote their anti-Government agendas and counter the state 'propaganda' machine.

Contents

Introduction
Historical Perspective
Areas of Impact
Conclusion

Introduction

In this article I will explore at a macro level how the Internet is used by the Government of Cuba, blockaded and silenced by its powerful neighbour, the United States (La Asamblea Nacional, 1999), and the people of Cuba, who face restrictions on publication and free association (Amnesty International, 1999). I will also discuss the use of the Internet by those who have left Cuba in the years following the 1959 revolution (Szulc, 1986).

The Internet has become a major global tool for communication and information sharing (CERN, 1998). As of September 1999, 201 million people worldwide had access to the Internet and this is increasing dramatically (Nua, 1999). The volume of information published matches this growth in access, making it difficult to validate what is written. Also, maintaining control over what you do not want others to read becomes virtually impossible without resorting to draconian measures (Amnesty International, 1999). According to Ni hEilidhe (1998):

"The Internet is in danger of becoming yet another instrument of cultural and political hegemony ... It's not unfeasible that like its forebear, the newspaper, the Internet will metamorphose into a forum for maintaining the political status quo."

If Ni hEilidhe is correct, then the Internet will become another voice of the powerful; of governments and multi-national corporations. Mander (cited in Tuhiwai Smith, 1998) supports this stance, arguing that the unrelenting imperative of corporations and governments to promote technology as a solution to our lives results in the suppression and the destruction of an indigenous alternative. However, as Vidal (2000) observes, "the globalisation of business and governance is being matched by the globalisation of opposition." The Internet is becoming a battleground for this war, the stage for what Guevara (1986) described as "the practice of proletarian internationalism" and the struggle against poverty and neo-colonialism, whether by corporations or governments. The true potential of the Internet is that it becomes a place for dialogue, defined by Freire (1970, p.108) as "an encounter amongst men in order to name the world." Unfortunately, as Ni hEilidhe suggests, it risks becoming a place where the oppressed continue to be controlled through propaganda because, as Freire observed, the oppressor must divide the subjugated and maintain this division in order to survive.

Okri (1997, p.60) stated "writers are dangerous when they tell the truth. Writers are also dangerous when they tell lies." He adds that writing is always a form of resistance and, according to Reporters Sans Frontières (1999), at least forty-five states appear to agree with him by controlling access to the Internet, just as they do many other forms of media. Reporters Sans Frontières reports that twenty nations actively restrict access to the Internet for their citizens, including Cuba. As Ni hEilidhe (1998) points out, the Western model of capitalism epitomised by American society (and pervasive on the Internet) is not universal and is in fact an anathema to other societies. One such society is Cuba (Szulc, 1986), however, there is an interesting juxtaposition between the Cuban Government's use of the Internet for its own propaganda purposes and the restrictions it in turn places on its citizens accessing the propaganda of others, which is summarised well by Okri (1997, p.128):

"The oppressed always find themselves in paradoxical waters that both show up their presence and render them invisible."

Historical Perspective

In this section, I will briefly document the recent history of Cuba and then look at the history and phenomenal growth of the Internet as a mass-media tool. I will then connect the two by looking at the history of the Internet in Cuba.

Cuba

Cuba is an island in the Caribbean Sea, situated some ninety miles south of Florida (Symmes, 1998). Originally colonised by the Spanish and under U.S. military control from 1898, Cuba gained independence in 1902, retaining close economic and military ties with the United States from that time until the revolution of 1959 (Szulc, 1986). In 1953 the rebel army of Fidel Castro challenged the leadership of President Batista with an attack on the Moncada Barracks. Although, as Szulc reports, this attack was unsuccessful, the incident is held in the same high regard and is still celebrated today. Castro seized control of Cuba in January 1959, turning the country into a Communist state and has ruled the country since (Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 1999). From the 1960's, Cuba openly courted support from the former Soviet Union and was an active supporter of revolutionary movements across Africa, Latin America and Asia, sending troops to Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan (Duncan and Grunwald, 1980).

Cuba's post-revolutionary relationship with the United States has been turbulent (Szulc, 1986). Szulc catalogues incidents ranging from CIA assassination plots, the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The U.S. still places restrictions on Cuba, including trade curbs and other economic limits.

The U.S. has legislated to economically blockade and destabilise Cuba, including the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Society Act (known as the Helms-Burton Act) (La Asamblea Nacional, 1999). The latter was introduced in response to the shooting down of two civilian planes by Cuban fighters but was effectively an entrenchment of the United States' attitude of the last forty years (Richardson and Weiss, 1997).

The American obsession with its Communist neighbour is revealed in a search of the Library of Congress, which shows fifty pieces of legislation referring to Cuba in the last (106th) session alone (Library of Congress, 2000).

The Internet

The Internet is a network of networks (Choi, Stahl and Whinston, 1997), where computers are connected together using a standard protocol that allows them to communicate. The primary difference between the public Internet and a private network is that the Internet is not owned or managed by a single entity, although its component networks are (Choi, et al., 1997). The Internet has become a dominant infrastructure not because it is unique but because it offers distributed computing and openness.

According to Sterling (1993), the Internet originated at UCLA in early 1969, where the project became known as ARPANET. By December 1969, there were four nodes operating and this had increased to 37 nodes by 1972. Sterling notes that by ARPANET's second year of operation its power had started to become used as:

"A dedicated, high-speed, federally subsidized electronic post-office. The main traffic on ARPANET was not long-distance computing. Instead, it was news and personal messages."

Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau invented the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1990 while working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva (CERN, 1998). Berners-Lee and Cailliau created the first Web server, editor and browser and defined the protocols used today, such as the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

It was the development of usable browser software to take advantage of the WWW that has led to the Internet explosion today (CERN, 1998). By July 1999, there were over 56 million registered Internet hosts (Zakon, 2000) and by September 1999 the Internet had 201 million users, accounting for 4.78 percent of the world's population (Nua, 1999). However, access to the Internet is unevenly biased in favour of developed countries: A recent International Data Corporation (IDC) survey (IDC, 2000) reports regular Internet usage in New Zealand is 34 percent of the population and in Singapore is 32 percent. This compares with six percent of the population of Columbia (Nua, 2000) and, according to research by The China Internet Network Information Centre (CNNIC, 2000), 3.5 million out of China's population of over one billion who have access to the Internet at present.

Barriers to access for many developing countries include cost, particularly the cost of the associated telephone call (Arnum, 1999), the quality of the telephone network (Symmes, 1998; Broersma, 1998a) and restrictions placed by governments, stating concerns about protecting citizens from "subversive ideas" and "dangerous" sites or defending "national security and unity" (Reporters San Frontières, 1999). Language can also been seen as a barrier to access, given that Arnum (1999) reports that 77 percent of published content is in English. Cuba suffers all of these barriers.

The Internet in Cuba

An October, 1996 press release from Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (cited in Symmes, 1998) reads:

"Cuba has been connected to the Internet since last Friday, turning into reality what had been a dream for so long: having access to an international patrimony of knowledge used by some 36 million clients of 160 nations."

The Internet had arrived in Cuba, a nation that guarantees free speech and civil rights (Symmes, 1998) yet which has numerous political prisoners and where opposition political parties and media are banned or highly restricted (Amnesty International, 1999). Symmes notes that the Cuban Government initially declared access to the Internet to be a "fundamental right" of the Cuban people. He suggests that the Government almost immediately changed this, making it impossible for the average Cuban to own or even access a computer. Indeed, the Cuban Government itself has realised the dangers of the Internet: Politburo member Carlos Lague (cited in De Motta, 1996) noted the need to "preserve and defend against risks." However, as Martinez (cited in Symmes) observes:

"The problem of the Internet in Cuba has never been technical or economic. As in any country, it's 70 percent political."

Martinez is head of the Centre for Automated Exchange of Information (CENIAI), the Government agency responsible for the Internet in Cuba. Symmes clarifies this comment by saying that it does not necessarily refer to domestic, Cuban, politics. He observes that access to U.S. sites was blocked under a National Science Foundation (NSF) "route-filtering" policy. However, Cuba was removed from this list because of political pressure in the U.S., not because of any interest in human rights or freedom of expression but rather to ensure that anti-Cuban propaganda had as great a chance of crossing the short distance to Cuba as possible.

Cuba recently established a Ministry of Technology, which will take over CENIAI and responsibility for the Internet in Cuba (ZDNet, 2000). Because of U.S. restrictions, Cuba's international link appears to go via Canada, a country whose government openly disagrees with the U.S. position and which encourages communication with Cuba (Reuters, 1999). Indeed, the majority of Web sites registered under Cuba's '.cu' domain are in fact hosted on Canadian Web servers (NY Transfer News, 2000a).

Within Cuba, access to the Internet is tightly controlled and is only made available to approved Government employees and academics (Symmes, 1998). CENIAI is the official Internet Service Provider (ISP) in Cuba (Broersma, 1998a; Symmes, 1998) although there now appears to be six ISPs operating all apparently under Government control (cuba.cu, 2000). Broersma observes that the cost of Internet access is the equivalent of US$250 per month for individuals and double for businesses. Set against an average monthly wage of US$10, he argues that this makes the Internet unaffordable to the average Cuban, although government sponsored computer clubs do exist (Symmes, 1998). Access is further hampered by Cuba's poor and outdated telecommunications infrastructure, which leads to slow connections and poor quality of service even if one is able to connect (Symmes, 1998).

Areas of Impact

In this section I will look at how Cuba is using the Internet to promote itself politically and ideologically and also how Cuba uses the Internet to promote itself as a tourist destination. Secondly, I will look at how U.S.-based political opposition to the Cuban government uses the Internet to promote its cause.

Internet Publication within Cuba

Fidel Castro (cited in Duncan and Grunwald, 1980) noted that, despite Cuba's cooperation with the U.S. over drug trafficking, there was little it could do to enhance this image overseas. Right-wing politicians in the U.S. continue to criticise and legislate against Cuba (Richardson and Weiss, 1997), restricting its access to the mainstream media (Symmes, 1998 and NY Transfer News, 2000a). So, does the Internet at last offer a channel for Cuba to get its voice heard on the international stage?

Cuba's main Internet portal - www.cuba.cu - is run by CENIAI and began operating in 1997. It is published only in Spanish and contains links and references to information published in Cuba and to other "official" Cuban Web sites. Other Web sites include CubaWeb - www.nnc.cubaweb.cu - run by ISP Notinet. This site hosts a wide range of news and information, primarily in Spanish with some articles translated into English, French, German and Italian. As is common, this site reports officially approved information and, like all Cuban news-oriented sites, it presented the Cuban side of the Elián Gonzáles case. CubaWeb also contains a serialised online biography of Ché Guevara, the Argentinean born doctor who became one of the heroes of the Cuban revolution (Gerassi, 1986).

U.S. restrictions make it difficult if not impossible for Cuba to promote itself and its views on the international stage (NY Transfer News, 2000a) and the only mainstream U.S. media organisation with offices in Havana is CNN (Symmes, 1998). The Internet has, therefore, presented Cuba with an opportunity to promote itself and for Cuban-based news sites to carry their own version of the news to the world. While such reporting might be considered propaganda, it is vital for any country (or organisation) attempting to state an alternative view to that of the U.S., since there is ample evidence that American media is heavily influenced by corporate, political and military sources and is not impartial in its own reporting (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), 2000).

Granma is Cuba's main newspaper, reporting the official Cuban position and its weekly online version - www.granma.cu - is no different. Published in a number of languages, Granma has been recognised by Editor and Publisher as one of the Top 100 Web sites (NY Transfer News, 2000b). A review of a recent edition (Granma, 2000) again shows the particularly Cuban slant placed on its headlines: All four relate to the Elián Gonzáles case and it includes a statement from President Castro about the case. Granma (2000) also uses international media sources to support its own arguments, reporting the New York Times as critical of U.S. Vice-President Al Gore and quoting the paper as saying that the Gonzáles case was "yoked to a destructive combination of cold-war animosities and politics." This theme is continued in Portada - www.nnc.cubaweb/portada.htm - another official news source published online and on a Web site dedicated to the Gonzáles case - www.elian.cu.

Radio Havana Cuba (RHC) broadcasts on short wave and now in HTML format and RealAudio in Spanish and English (www.radiohc.org) (NY Transfer News, 2000b). This article reports that the Internet has provided RHC with a vastly increased audience, overcoming the limitations of short wave radio and states that this service has opened up information on Cuba to an entirely new audience. Like most Cuban Web sites, RHC's site is maintained from Cuba and hosted in Canada, although this does not mean it is without vulnerability to unexplained and prolonged outages. NY Transfer News (2000a) reported that RHC's Web site was lost on 6 January 2000 and not restored until after 15 January 2000. According to the source, the Canadian ISP hosting the site reported router failure. However, NY Transfer News (2000b) claim this was not supported by their own research and the article considered it to be unlikely, given the length of time the site was unavailable and that this outage coincided with a visit to the U.S. by the grandmothers of Elián Gonzáles, a high profile event focusing world media attention on Cuba.

Most of the news sites reviewed present a modern online news interface, however, the same cannot be said of Cuba's official government Web sites. In addition to the official Internet portals and news sites, which are government run (Broersma, 1998a), many government departments now operate their own Web sites. These range from the Ministry of Finance, through to the Ministry of Culture (www.cult.cu/cultura/default.htm) and the Customs Service (www.cubaweb.cu/teledataos/). Most of these official sites are uninspiring reproductions of manual publications, although the Meteorological Office (www.met.inf.cu), which includes online weather forecasts for the island is perhaps a modest exception. The content of these sites appears to be exclusively in Spanish. Cuba has only one official political party, the Communist Party, and its Web site (www2.cuba.cu/politica/webpcc) is hosted by CENIAI. It is entirely in Spanish and contains party proclamations and political manifestos.

Since the majority of Government agency sites are in Spanish, it must be assumed that their target audience is one or more of the small number of local Internet users, Cubans located overseas or Internet surfers in other Spanish speaking countries (presumably Latin America). One assumes that if, like the news services, these sites were targeted at an American and European audience, translated content would be provided. However, there is no evidence on audience demographics.

When asked what Cuba is famous for, few would answer tourism, yet this industry brought in revenues of US$1.8 million in 1998 and is growing rapidly (Reuters, 1999). Reuters reports that visitor numbers are expected to rise to two million in 2000. The U.S. now permits limited access for U.S. airlines and Cuban officials estimate a full lifting of the U.S. embargo would cause tourism figures to soar. Tourism is now Cuba's biggest revenue earner, overtaking the Sugar industry in 1999 (Reuters, 1999).

An ISP, GET Teledatos (www.teledatos.cu), has been established to provide an Internet service to tourist resorts and hotels in Cuba (cuba.cu, 2000), although the exact nature of the service is unclear. A number of Web sites promote Cuba as an upmarket tourist destination and are themselves publicised on a number of the Cuban portals and news Web sites. These tourism Web sites primarily target European visitors but also Canadians and Americans (according to Reuters (1999), with U.S. travellers going via Mexico or the Bahamas. Web sites include CubaVIP (www.cubavip.com) and GoCuba (www.gocuba.com), aimed at the U.K. market and FlexiVacations (www.flexivacations.com), a French Web site, which waxes lyrically about Cuba as a tropical paradise of sun, enchanting beaches and cultural richness, where music plays at every turn:

Cuba: île reine des caraïbes, vous offre son soleil, ses plages enchanteresses, ses richesses culturelles, et sa musique omniprésente. Vous tomberez sous le charme de cotte île magique. Votre hotel est situé dans la prestigieuse Marina Hemingway de la Havane. lnfrastuctures trés compléte .

Could this possibly be the same Cuba described in the rhetoric of American politicians (Richardson and Weiss, 1997) and human rights statements that decry its record (Amnesty International, 1999; Reporters Sans Frontières, 1999)? Can the excellent facilities of the Marina Hemmingway be the same as those described by Arnum (1999), Broersma (1998a) and Symmes (1998)?

Internet Usage by Political Opposition

Non-approved sources of information simply do not have access to the Internet from within Cuba (Symmes, 1998) and so information from these sources is channelled via overseas opposition groups (Reporters Sans Frontières, 1999). Miami has become a centre for opposition to the Castro government and these groups have been using the Internet for organisation and communication as well as for publishing their own propaganda (Broersma, 1998b). Okri (1997, p.128) places this Cuban diaspora in context when he writes:

"Conquerors are transplanters. So are the conquered and exiles. They take their earth with them, carry with them their rituals as codes of continuity in the new world."

These groups demonstrate a passionate opposition for the current Cuban regime that is reflected in their online offerings. Many of these groups are considered to be ultra-conservative in the American political context and Oppenheimer (2000) reports that some consider that the U.S. and international media is failing to report their viewpoint, which could partially explain an increased use of the Internet. Oppenheimer notes that media interest in the Gonzáles case is in contrast to their failure to report the sinking by the Cuban military in 1994 of a boat carrying refugees.

Two of the largest anti-government Web sites are CubaNet (www.cubanet.org) and the Free Cuba Foundation (FCF) (www.fiu.edu/~fcf/). CubaNet is run by volunteers as a "community service" (Adams, 1996) and describes itself as:

"A non-partisan and non-profit organisation that fosters free press in Cuba, assists its independent sector develop a civil society and informs the world about Cuba's reality."

Although not all content is openly critical of Cuba, CubaNet does publish information from within Cuba as well as reproducing relevant comment from U.S.-based sources. The Cuban-originated news comes from pro-democracy and media organisations and is almost exclusively reporting information not released by the Government (Adams, 1996). CubaNet does not claim to be unbiased, as Broersma (1998b) observes, quoting a CubaNet representative as saying "[CubaNet offers] millions of readers worldwide the perspective of the Cuban Opposition."

Like CubaNet, the Free Cuba Foundation (FCF) is a Florida-based organisation dedicated to the overthrow of the current political regime in Havana through non-violent means (FCF, 2000). FCF uses the Internet to communicate its own purpose as well as to provide news and background information on Cuban opposition groups and human rights violations. FCF describes the purpose of their Web site as:

  1. Provide information on the situation inside of Cuba and the international community's relationship with the island.
  2. Provide a platform for human rights and democracy activists to get their message out to the rest of the world.
  3. Provide a means for the Internet community to engage in campaigns to obtain the release of political prisoners or improve their conditions inside Cuba's prisons.

Both CubaNet and FCF use the Internet successfully to carry a bilingual message to a wide audience, their target audience appears to be Cuban exiles and the public and decision makers of the United States. They two of the more relatively liberal émigré groups publishing over the Internet: Although openly anti-government in their approach, they publish a broad range of information originating from many sources. There are a number of more outspoken organisations in the U.S. using the Internet to get their message across, for example:

The Cuban American Democracy Project - New York City
(www.cadp-nyc.org)
An organisation campaigning for "the attainment of freedom in a Cuba held hostage by the communist dictatorship of Fidel Castro" (CADP-NYC, 2000).

No Castro
(www.nocastro.com)
Publishers of un-attributed and often sensational articles, such as (No Castro, 2000):

"Elián's father lives under a totalitarian communist regime, he does not exercise the powers which normally correspond to a father. It is the totalitarian regime that takes over such functions."

They neglect to balance such statements with information on Cuba's free health care and education systems nor do they see it necessary to report that Cuba now boasts some of the world's most respected medical researchers (ABC News, 2000).

La Voz de Cuba Libre! (The voice of free Cuba)
(www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/Congress/9592)
A Miami-based "network of truth on Cuba and a voice against Cuban propaganda" (La Voz de Cuba Libre, 2000).

The Institute for Democracy in Cuba
(www.somosuno.org)
This is a grouping of pro-democracy and human rights activists, founded in 1996 by nine Cuban exile organisations in the U.S.

Conclusion

Truth is subjective and often difficult to discern, particularly when published on the Internet and even more so when it relates to Cuba. As Okri (1997) stated, writers are dangerous, making the point that everything becomes a truth of sorts once published. Cuba generates strong emotions and extreme positions because no true dialogue exists. Whilst protecting its citizens from the Internet, the Cuban Government paradoxically uses it to promote Cuba abroad. In doing so, it bypasses the mainstream U.S. media that it has been excluded from. Ironically, this same media appears increasingly uncomfortable with the ultra-conservatism of Cuba's political opposition, who themselves are turning to the Internet as a tool for communication and propaganda.

Ni hEilidhe (1998) asked whether the Internet would become "another instrument of cultural and political hegemony?" In this instance, my answer is no. Literature on Cuba supports Vidal's (2000) observation that all sides are motivated and have access to the medium. Although the powerful attempt to exercise control over the Internet, as they do with other media, they will ultimately fail because the Internet lacks centralised control (Choi et al, 1997).

Freire (1970) asserted that dialogue is necessary to eradicate oppression; the Internet offers us an opportunity for dialogue. Standing in the way is the political maturity to trust society with free access to information, regardless of ideology and self-interest, so truth can be self-determined and oppression exposed. As nineteenth-century Cuban poet and revolutionary, José Martí, said "only oppression should fear the full exercise of freedom".

About the Author

Andy Williamson is Principal of Auckland, New Zealand-based Wairua Consulting, an e-commerce and new media consultancy, and a Director of The iE3 Group Ltd, a management and IT consultancy. With a background in development methodologies and strategic consulting in Europe and Australasia, Andy's work currently involves the development of architectures and system development methodologies for e-commerce. He carries out team building and mentorship programmes that enable organisations to transform themselves from the traditional IT environment, ready for the transition to the Internet world. He lectures on e-commerce and information architecture and is Chair of the IT Qualifications Advisory Committee at Unitec, Auckland, New Zealand, a Fellow of the Institution of Analysts and Programmers (UK), and a member of the ACM and the Internet Society.
E-mail: andy@wairua.co.nz

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Editorial history

Paper received 15 June 2000; accepted 4 July 2000.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

The Impact of the Internet on the Politics of Cuba by Andy Williamson
First Monday, volume 5, number 8 (August 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_8/williamson/index.html





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