Monday, March 26, 2012

Why Socialist Cuba Prohibits Social Media

Updated March 25, 2012, 6:31 p.m. ET

Why Socialist Cuba Prohibits Social Media
The regime fears Cuban-to-Cuban chatter even more than it does
communication with the outside world.

'There's a reason the people in Cuba don't have access to the Internet.
It is because the government [couldn't] survive it."

That was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio last week at a Washington conference
titled "Cuba Needs a (Technological) Revolution: How the Internet Can
Thaw an Island Frozen in Time." The event was sponsored by Google Ideas,
a for-profit venture of the giant Internet search enterprise, and the
nonprofit Heritage Foundation. I was asked to kick off things with a
Rubio interview. So I began by asking him what he makes of the Cuban
military's reference last year to technology that allows young people to
exchange thoughts digitally as "the permanent battlefield."

Columnist Mary O'Grady on her interview with Marco Rubio at the Heritage

Mr. Rubio responded that it isn't communication with the outside world
that the regime fears the most, but Cuban-to-Cuban chatter. "I think
Raúl Castro clearly understands that his regime cannot survive a Cuban
reality where individual Cubans can communicate [with] each other in an
unfettered manner." He called "unfiltered access to the Internet and
social media" Cuba's "best hope" of avoiding "a stagnated dictatorship"
for "the next 50 years that would survive even the death of Raul and Fidel."

Mr. Rubio would like to see the U.S. go after the goal of turning Cuba
into a Wi-Fi hot spot—that is, finding a way to provide wireless
Internet access to Cubans so they can both receive and send data in real
time. "That's what U.S. policy should really begin to focus on, a
21st-century effort."

It won't be easy with today's technology. While Internet experts tell me
it is possible to expand two-way Wi-Fi communications to those that the
regime has not approved to use its new fiber optic cable, access would
likely be quite limited. Nevertheless, Mr. Rubio's proposal goes to the
heart of the Cuban government's vulnerability.

The pope on his visit to Cuba today will see and hear what the military
dictatorship wants him to see and hear, not the kind of public debate he
would witness in a normal country. He will not see what Mr. Rubio is
talking about—emboldened Cuban dissidents who have no use for the
"revolution" of a half-century ago and if given access to real-time
communications would endeavor to overthrow their oppressors.

"If Cubans were able to communicate with each other, if Cubans in
Santiago [de Cuba] were able to figure out what was happening in Havana
and vice versa," Mr. Rubio said, there would be a real chance for
change. "If these groups were able to link up with one another and
coordinate efforts and conversation and so forth, the Cuban government
wouldn't last very long. It would collapse under the weight of that

Some of Mr. Rubio's comments suggest that he is over-optimistic about
whether technology can create island hot-spots from afar. But if and
when it can, there is little doubt that social media would play a role
in bringing about change, as it did, for better or worse, in the
overthrow of Egypt's Mubarak.

Closer to home, Mr. Rubio pointed out, it has already made a difference.
Referring to the tea party movement, he said, "Fifteen years ago if you
wanted to organize a group of people to do anything politically, you
needed a big, burdensome organization to coordinate it. Today anyone
with access to Facebook and Twitter can be an organizer, and it's
happening all over this country, it's happening all over the world, and
it will happen in Cuba."

Conventional anti-embargo wisdom holds that hordes of Americans
traveling to the island would undermine the regime. The pro-embargo
crowd, including Mr. Rubio, counters that foreigners, like everything
else in Cuba, are tightly controlled. I mentioned that thousands of
Americans are already going to Cuba every year on "educational" travel.
Mr. Rubio responded dryly: "Conga dancing [and] ethics briefings from
the Castro government, that's the itinerary."

It's a good point. "Educational" tourists to Cuba are herded like goats
to pre-approved destinations. Their vacation spending goes straight into
the pockets of the military and they return home glowing with praise
about the literate peasants that they met. U.S. businesses also are now
engaged with Cuba, selling all the food and medicine it can pay for. Yet
this engagement has done nothing to influence change.

The regime can physically attack public displays of resistance, like the
Ladies in White who are beaten by Castro's hired hands. But it would be
much tougher to put down protests that go viral. That's why Mr. Rubio
wants us to "imagine what would happen if all of a sudden Havana became
a Wi-Fi zone."

It's not a bad thought experiment, even without the technology at hand
today. As Mr. Rubio said, if the Cuban people get access to the
Internet, "the Internet will take care of everything else, I believe
that with all my heart." So too do the Castros, judging from the lengths
they are going to keep it from happening.

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