Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New weapon against regime: Immediacy

Posted on Tuesday, 09.21.10
New weapon against regime: Immediacy

Along line of people waits in the sun outside the telephone office on
Obispo Street in Old Havana. Some passersby ask about the latest news
for those hoping to open a cellphone contract.

Many of them carry some old device with a monochrome screen, bought in
the black market or sent by relatives abroad. But there are others with
a sophisticated iPhone, Blackberry, or the latest model Motorola. Such
modern phones and all their features can barely be used on the island,
because of the technical limitations of the country's only
telecommunications company, ETECSA. But this doesn't paralyze us, as we
Cubans have a marked predilection for circuits and little flashing
lights even if we can't use their full capabilities.

The appetite for electronic gadgets feeds off precisely material
shortages and the control maintained by the State over their
distribution. What's remarkable is that even with rudimentary technology
we have been able to do so much. Imagine what we could do if Cuba's
isolated citizens had access to the technology and innovation that
spawned the Internet revolution across the Florida Straits.

We have always been able to turn to illegal market networks, which offer
everything from computers and all their accessories to electronic
messaging. It is in this underground market -- persecuted but essential
-- where every type and model of cellphone is offered today. Phones are
the most common product on the censored webpage Revolico.com, a sort of
Cuban Craigslist where the ads are free.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Havana, it is rare to walk a hundred yards
and not see someone texting. According to official statistics, by the
end of the year the number of mobile phone users nationwide is expected
to exceed a million. Considering the growth in cellphone use in other
Latin American countries, it is a low figure, only about one Cuban in
twelve. Nevertheless, one could say that no element of our economy has
grown as fast, in recent months, as mobile phone use. Moreover, despite
the technical limitations and the difficulties in purchasing modern and
inexpensive phones, the symbol of modernity represented by this little
gadget has begun to change our lives.

When, Raúl Castro allowed us to contract for prepaid mobile phone
service in 2008, no one would have imagined that two years later these
devices would be used to broadcast news censored by the official press.
Through text-only messages we inform ourselves and send news out to the
world. Since August 2009, some in Cuba have begun to use Twitter for
small alerts, or S.O.S. calls sent from cellphones.

And independent journalism and the alternative blogosphere have realized
an old dream, long deferred: immediacy. Once the Cuban networks were
ready to transmit multimedia messages, the vast World Wide Web welcomed
the first videos, audio and photos able to travel from the ``Island of
the Disconnected'' to the world at large. This, despite the fact that
none of the people sending these dispatches had a cellphone connected to
the Internet, not to mention that the cost of sending a text message
abroad exceeds the salary a professional earns for four days work.

An added difficulty is that this explosion in cellphone use is not
matched by a corresponding development in ETECSA's infrastructure. The
number of clients grows, but the number of antennas and the satellite
capacity does not keep up. Thus, we get frequent messages telling us
``there is congestion on the lines,'' and on holidays it becomes
impossible to send or receive messages. Trapped between excessive costs
and poor services, users cannot choose to switch to a more efficient
company, because the state monopoly does not allow other companies to

Thus, the request to President Obama from the firms Nokia, AT&T and
Verizon, asking for an easing of the embargo and trade with Cuba, is a
ray of hope for us.

If we have managed to do so much with so little, what will happen when
having a cellphone, sending a text, connecting to the Internet, all
become as easy as talking, walking, shouting a slogan?

Yoani Sánchez is a Cuban dissident blogger. The Cuban government
recently once again denied her request for an exit permit to attend an
event in New York City supporting the nomination of the Internet for the
Nobel Peace Prize.


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