by Anne Nelson, April 14, 2010
It wasn't your typical keynote address.
Earlier this month, at an event held on the campus of Cornell
University, a room of people gazed at a blank screen in rapt attention,
listening to a woman speak over a weak cell phone connection originating
The speaker was Cuba's 32-year-old star blogger, Yoani Sanchez. The
event was the seventh annual meeting of Roots of Hope, an organization
founded by Cuban-American students that aims to promote cultural
exchanges with the island. Its April meeting was specifically focused on
new media. (I was invited as a panelist.) Attendees had been told that
the keynote speaker would be a surprise. After a nail-biting series of
dropped calls, the attendees were thrilled to hear Sanchez finally come
on the line.
Sanchez told her U.S. audience how she had assembled her personal
computer by foraging for discarded components, and devised an online
publishing strategy that relied on scarce computers, cell phones, and
flash drives. Last year, her blog posts and tweets earned her a spot on
Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Sanchez epitomizes the Cuban online community's ingenious response to
the dual restrictions of government censorship and the U.S. trade
embargo. Some call it the "hacker mindset." In the same fashion that
Cubans manage to keep the chassis of 50 year-old old Chevys on the road,
a small but growing Cuban tech community has learned how to go online
against the odds.
Thanks to cooperation from other countries in Latin America, a new
attitude in Washington, and the work of NGOs, Cuba may be poised to make
big online strides.
The Cuban Paradox
When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba 51 years ago, he launched a
revolution that has been fueling controversy ever since. Supporters
lauded Cuban advances in health care and education, while detractors
condemned the government's heavy-handed measures against everything from
private enterprise to gay rights.
The Cuban paradox extends to the media. Although Cuba has achieved one
of the highest literacy rates in the hemisphere, it also has earned the
most dismal record on freedom of expression. The government controls all
news media, and takes harsh measures against any domestic or foreign
journalist who steps out of line.
It's not surprising that digital media have been slow to get off the
ground in Cuba. They have been woefully hampered by Cuban government
censorship, but another major factor has been the decades-old U.S.
embargo, which has starved the island of the technologies necessary for
Something of a double standard has been at work: At the same time
Communist countries such as China have been transformed by economic
investment and educational exchanges with the U.S., Cuba has been left
as an isolated backwater. Only 3 percent of Cuba's 11 million citizens
have cell phones, giving it the lowest cell phone penetration in Latin
America. It also has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates. The
government's restrictions on cell phone ownership and Internet access
have further limited communications, often making them a privilege for
the party faithful.
Fiber Optic Cable in Cuba
Today a new wave of online media is promising to challenge the Cuban
status quo -- and surprisingly, some of the changes are the result of
government initiatives. The first one is a fiber optic cable currently
being laid between Cuba and Venezuela. It's expected to be completed
within a year.
Another new development is arriving by way of Brazil's "Telecentro"
program. Telecentros are public computer labs that use open source
software and provide free Internet access. They are designed for poor
and under-served communities and have been a wild success in Brazil. Ten
thousand of them are scheduled to be in service in that country by the
end of the year. Brazil is now exporting the model to Ecuador,
Venezuela, and Cuba, aiming for a total of 52,000. The Cuban Telecentros
are mainly designed to support primary education, but they are available
after hours to other community members.
nxs-logo2.jpgOpen source software is playing a key role in the
Telecentros. Ryan Bagueros, the owner and founder of NorthxSouth, a
software development company that describes itself as a "network of open
source developers from all over the Americas," said Brazil and other
Latin American governments are unenthusiastic about the high cost and
security leaks of U.S.-made proprietary software. (Bagueros joined me on
a panel at the annual meeting of Roots of Hope.) He noted that these
Latin American countries are investing heavily in developing open source
alternatives, and expanded via email about the value of open source
Marcos Mazoni (the head of Brazil's federal committee to migrate to
open source), conducted a survey last year and, from the free software
migration that has already been completed, Brazil is saving $209 million
USD each year. When the migration is complete, Brazil should be saving
around $500 million USD each year. Brazil, as a whole, spends about $1
billion USD on software licensing each year.
The emphasis on open source is helping to stimulate a Latin tech boom,
with the Brazilian tech industry poised to reap substantial advantages.
It's too early to predict the impact, but the initial signs are
intriguing. Not only have the Latin governments saved millions of
dollars on software, but the open-source Telecentros are creating new
generations of pre-teen software developers in the favelas.
During our session, Bagueros predicted that this phenomenon could be
particularly interesting in Cuba. He reported that embargo restrictions
have created a generation of "engineers who are good at 'reverse
engineering' software for donated medical equipment" and other devices.
The combination of hacker ingenuity, loosened government control, and
dramatically increased bandwidth and access could lead to big things,
fast, in Cuba.
New Winds from the North
In the past, tensions between Cuba and the United States have
complicated every development in communications. The Bush Administration
has been criticized for politicizing media development by supporting
groups seeking to overthrow the government. One private contractor,
dispatched to secretly hand out cell phones and laptops in Cuba, was
arrested for espionage last December
The Obama administration is experimenting with a different approach. In
March, the Treasury Department modified trade sanctions to allow the
export of social media and related technologies to Cuba, Iran, and the
Sudan. In combination with the upcoming technological advances, this
move could energize online Cuban freedom of expression, and provide the
first real alternative to Cuba's geriatric official news media. (Though
it's important to note that the administration recenlty took something
of a harder line with Cuba.)
At the same time, new initiatives are appearing in the Cuban-American
community. One of the initiatives supported by Roots of Hope is an
ongoing cell phone drive called Cells4Cuba.
"[Politically,] I'm to the right myself," said Miguel Cruz, a Cells4Cuba
activist from the University of Texas. "But these cell phones are for
any youth in Cuba, no matter what their politics."
Roots of Hope has enlisted the support of Cuban-Americans ranging from
Gloria Estefan to Perez Hilton, and its membership represents a variety
of political perspectives. Its stated goal is to open a dialogue between
youth in Cuba and the U.S., and the organization sees social media as a
Social media won't change the contentious nature of the Cuba debate, and
the new developments raise as many questions as they answer. Will the
Cubans and Venezuela's mercurial Hugo Chavez attempt to control the data
stream on their fiber optic cable? Will Cuban officials try to emulate
China's army of Internet censors to control content, trace dissidents,
or conduct online espionage? Will Latin American tech initiatives find
new ways to harness digital media for social goals? What role will Latin
America's open source initiatives play in shifting political alignments?
However these issues play out, it's clear that so far, Cubans have
energetically taken advantage of every new online opportunity that's
come along -- and that's not likely to change.
Image of Yoani Snachez by blogpocket via Flickr
Anne Nelson teaches new media and development communications at Columbia
University's School of International and Public Affairs. She consults
for a number of foundations on media issues, and serves as senior
consultant for the Salzburg Global Seminar initiative, Strengthening
Independent Media. She was a 2005 Guggenheim fellow for her recent book,
"Red Orchestra: the Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of
Friends Who Resisted Hitler."