Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cuba's Internet repression equals groupthink

Posted on Sunday, 02.27.11

Cuba's Internet repression equals groupthink
By José Azel

Cuba remains one of the world's most repressive environments for the
Internet and information technologies. The Cuban government has created
a dual system with a national intranet and the global Internet. Most
Cubans have access only to the national intranet which consists of an
in-country e-mail system, a Cuban encyclopedia and websites that are
supportive of the government.

Cuba's only two Internet service providers are state owned and
surveillance is extensive. Less than 2 percent of the population (mostly
government officials) has access to the Internet. Whatever connectivity
is available costs about $12 per hour in a country where the average
monthly salary is less than $20.

Additionally, Cuban regulations state that e-mail messages must not
jeopardize national security; forbid the spreading of information that
is against the "integrity" of the people; provide that all material
intended for publication on the Internet must first be approved by the
National Registry of Serial Publications; and prohibit service providers
from granting access to individuals not approved by the government.

The extent of Cuba's political cyber police efforts was vividly captured
in a recently leaked video of a 2010 behind-closed-doors lecture to an
audience mostly in military uniforms. The lecturer, a
counter-intelligence cybernetic specialist, defines the Internet as a
field of battle that the government must use to its advantage. He boasts
of a new group created within the Interior Ministry to work against
bloggers. He warns of the dangers of "classic combat networks" such as
Facebook and Twitter and notes how protests in Iran and Ukraine were
"created" when social networks were used to incite people to protest.

What must the Cuban leadership be thinking of the events in Tunisia,
Egypt and elsewhere?

The Cuban government has been remarkably successful in sealing the
consciousness of the Cuban people from the outside world with a doctrine
of intellectual isolationism and an all encompassing revolutionary dogma
of intellectual autarky. Fidel Castro made it explicitly clear in a 1961
speech in which he famously warned intellectuals: "Within the Revolution
everything, against the Revolution, nothing."

But this intellectual autarky has also produced a classic case of what
social psychologist Irving Janis called "groupthink," a type of thought
characteristic of cohesive in-groups whose members try to minimize
conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and
evaluating ideas. In a groupthink environment decision-makers ignore
alternatives and tend to follow irrational programs of action.

A case in point is General Raúl Castro's new economic program
formulated, in his words, "to save Cuba from the economic abyss" and
outlined in a 32-page economic platform for the upcoming Communist Party

A centerpiece of Castro's program is the firing of up to 1.3 million
government workers — about 20 percent of the workforce — and allowing
them to become self-employed "outside the government sector." In the
Cuban version of Orwellian doublespeak, that stands for the unspeakable
private sector.

This assumes that everyone is temperamentally suited to become an
entrepreneur and to do so without access to cash, credit, raw materials,
equipment, or technology. Groupthink is also evident in how those
selected for dismissal will be chosen. A commission of experts will
decide the optimal number of personnel required for each state entity
and workers' commissions will decide the positions to be cut.

But perhaps most illustrative of the Cuban government's groupthink (and
as Dave Barry might say, I am not making this up) is the specificity
with which the Cuban "reformers" have decided to allow those being fired
to solicit permits to become self employed in 178 activities such as:

Trade No. 23, the purchases and sale of used books; 29, attendants of
public bathrooms (presumably for tips); 34, pruning of palm trees; 49,
wrapping buttons with fabric; 61, shoe shining; 62, cleaning of spark
plugs; 110, box spring repairs (not to be confused with number 116);
116, mattress repairs; 124, umbrella repairs; 125, refilling of
disposable cigarette lighters; 150, tarot cards fortune telling; 156,
dandy (technical definition unknown, male escort?); 158, natural fruits
peeling (separate from 142, selling fruits in kiosks).

In his economic dreamland of surrealist juxtapositions, Castro and his
team believe that allowing this bizarre list of self-employment
activities is the way to save the communist system. This surrealistic
disconnect — the product of incestuous intellectual inbreeding — flows
from Cuba's doctrine of intellectual isolationism where Cubans are
unable to receive information freely and exchange ideas openly.

In Cuba, long-held Marxists-Leninist assumptions will not be swapped for
another set of beliefs without a democratic leadership that, inspired
and sustained by freedoms of speech, press, assembly, petition, and
religion, can defeat the tyranny of groupthink.

José Azel is a senior scholar at the University of Miami Institute for
Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and the author of Mañana in Cuba.

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