Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cuban government, dissidents, move battle to the internet

Cuban government, dissidents, move battle to the internet
By Shasta Darlington, CNN
February 17, 2011 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)

* A leaked video appears to show an intelligence briefing about the internet
* The lecturer says the government must use the internet to its advantage
* Only a small percentage of Cubans have unrestricted internet access

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- For years, small groups of Cuban dissidents have
taken their demands to the streets, calling for political freedom as
they get pushed around and shouted down by swarms of government supporters.

But a recently leaked video suggests the war between the Communist
government and its opponents has shifted to a new battlefield: the internet.

The video shows what appears to be an official intelligence briefing, in
which a lecturer talks about the dangers and possibilities of the web.

"We aren't fighting the new technology," he tells his audience, who are
dressed in the military uniforms worn by Cuba's Interior Ministry
officials. "We simply have to get to know it and use it in our favor,
but also know what the enemy is doing."

The 54-minute video was posted on the video-sharing website Vimeo by
someone identified only as "Coral Negro" and has since appeared on
dozens of blogs, many of them critical of the Cuban government. CNN
wasn't able to verify the authenticity of the video.

Although it was leaked this month, the video appears to have been
recorded last summer, well before the social-media-fueled uprisings in
North Africa and the Middle East. But for Cuba¹s dissident bloggers,
there are plenty of parallels.

Yoani Sanchez followed via Twitter the upheaval in Egypt that ultimately
led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and responded with her own

"What a great lesson the Egyptians are giving us!" she wrote.

Sanchez has won a huge global audience with her blog "Generation Y,"
which criticizes the Cuban government and comments on daily hardships.

"There are a lot of similarities with Egypt," she told CNN Wednesday.
"The dissatisfaction of the people, a single voice in power for so long.
And that's why I was so enthusiastic about what was happening there."

But she said there are also very important differences -- namely Cuba's
low internet penetration. Recent figures show an estimated 1.6 million
people there are internet users, out of a population of 11.2 million.

According to the leaked video, the Cuban government's fear is that
U.S.-backed dissidents will use social networks like Twitter and
Facebook to incite unrest.

"Technology in itself isn't a threat," the lecturer says. "What can be a
threat is the person behind the technology, in the same way it can be an
opportunity for us to do something with it."

Cuba has jailed American aid worker Alan Gross, who was a subcontractor
for USAID. Cuban officials have accused him of distributing illegal
satellite equipment to dissidents to help them connect to the internet.

The State Department and Gross' family say he was working with Jewish

Gross has been formally charged with "acts against the independence and
territorial integrity of Cuba" and could face up to 20 years in prison
when his case goes to trial.

In the leaked video, he's called a "mercenary."

"It's just like the Bay of Pigs invasion," the lecturer says. "But this
man is coming with different weapons. He didn't come on a boat with a
gun in his hand, but it's the same story."

Nonetheless, Cuba isn't turning its back on the internet. Dozens of
pro-government blogs have also appeared, many of them written by
journalists who work for state-run media.

"They have their bloggers and we have our bloggers," the unidentified
man in the video says at one point. "We'll see who comes out stronger."

For years, the government blamed the U.S. embargo for restricted access
to the internet, but this month, it completed an undersea fiber optic
cable connecting the island to Venezuela.

When that network goes online this summer, Cuba's bandwidth will
increase by 3000. But the question remains whether Cubans will be
allowed unlimited access to it without restrictions.

Cuba currently accesses the internet via expensive satellite
connections. As a result, the government has said it cannot offer
internet access to the broader population, lacking the money to create
the necessary infrastructure to support it. It has given priority to
education and health workers, who often can only access a limited
intranet. The government also provides connections at very high costs to
foreign diplomats, businesses and journalists.

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