Internet in Cuba: reason to be skeptic?

On: September 13, 2010
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About Mathijs Voordenberg
I’m Mathijs, a student New Media at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). In 2009 I finished my bachelor Media and Culture at the University of Amsterdam with a thesis about the public sphere of Youtube. In 2009-2010 I worked as vice-president of the Amsterdam student union (ASVA), As vice-president I was responsible for the human resource, the promotion and a couple of projects among which the election of the teacher of the year at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (the Amsterdam university of applied science). Next to my study I work as freelance photographer and filmmaker.

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Last month Reuters and LA Times publicized articles about the Cuban Internet use. Both articles were skeptical about the use of Internet in Cuba. Less than 14.2% of the Cubans make use of the Internet, and most of the use was for government purposes only. They also both make a comparison with other Latin American countries where the Internet use is much higher, for example Haiti with 23%.

The question is if you can judge the Internet use and its progress purely on some statistics. The answer to that of course depends on the question you ask, but for a country like Cuba it is more interesting to look what Internet can do for the people. Cuba is a country without any form of free press. Cubans are only able to read one newspaper and watch television broadcasted by the state. The government policy on internet is, especially if you compare it with other communist countries like China, quite open; in some cases even more open than in the “real world”.  A week ago Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez for example received the Prins Claus prijs for her blog Generation Y, a critical blog about daily life in Cuba. Another example is the Cuban band Porno para Ricardo, which was able to post critical “anti Fidel” movies on YouTube without being arrested like other dissidents. Those are only two examples of critical Cuban voices.

Fact is that more and more Cubans become active on the web, especially students and young adults. Just a hand full of Cubans own a computer with Internet themselves but those who have share it. Besides, there are some public places where Cubans are allowed to use the computers. All of the Cubans I met on my trips have a facebook profile and are not just passive facebook users. They have a lot of friends, post status updates and share links. Some Cubans also use the Internet to make some money. Every adult Cuban receives the same amount of money, restricted by the government. This amount is too low to make an actual living; that is why Cubans became very creative in earning extra money on the “black market”. The Internet became one of those new ways to earn extra money next to their official job. Some build websites while others translate existing websites.

It is true that only a few have their own Internet connection which is expensive and slow. In that way we definitely can speak about an digital divide but compared to other countries with few Internet users, we can’t speak of a participation gap in Cuba. They have the knowledge to use it and are aware of their potentials. In Wired Magazine Clive Thomson is even talking about ‘Cuba’s potential Tech boom’ caused by the combination of geographic location, low costs, mentality and level of education. In 2011 the fiber optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba should be ready. The question is if this will cause the tech boom Thomson is predicting. Fact is that Internet give Cubans more rights and chances than they had before.

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