In Cuba, young people long for a way to access Facebook
By Franco Ordonez
PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba -- The 24-year-old volunteer shows off the seven
computers sitting on wooden desks under a painting of Saint Juan Bosco
in a small, 6- by 10-foot cement room at the back of the church.
Adalberto Malagon has taken several classes here. He learned how to
write book reports on Word and crop photos using Photoshop. But what he
really wants to learn is how to surf the Web.
Like many young Cubans, Rojas is frustrated that he can't access
Facebook and Google like his peers around the world.
"We're ready," he said. "We have so much culture and education in Cuba.
There are many Third World countries with much less culture and
education than Cuba that have had the Internet for many years."
That may not come for years. Cuba, with its authoritarian communist
government in control of the Web, has the lowest Internet-penetration
rate in the Western Hemisphere, with just 16 percent of its population
online. Even earthquake ravaged Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country,
has a higher percentage of its people on the Internet.
In Cuba, only government officials and foreigners can set up the
Internet in their homes, and the vast majority of Cubans can't afford
the fees charged at tourist hotels, where an hour of Internet equals
about a quarter of the average Cuban's monthly salary.
"Think about it," said David Gonzalez, 20, who sometimes sneaks onto the
Internet at the hotel where his mother works. "For $5 an hour, it's not
Since taking over the presidency from his ailing brother Fidel, Raul
Castro has moved to liberalize the country's economy. He's slowly
introducing modern technology. In 2008, islanders first received the
right to have private cellphones.
But the government has been more cautious with the World Wide Web. An
undersea fiber-optic cable now connecting Cuba and Venezuela will
increase the country's bandwidth, but service has yet to begin.
The Cuban government is concerned about the online potential for dissent
and social mobilization, according to experts such as William LeoGrande,
a Latin America specialist and dean of the American University School of
Public Affairs in Washington.
The government feels confident that it has control of the traditional
dissident community, LeoGrande said, but it's less familiar with the
techniques of a new crop of younger dissidents who've been inspired by
the revolutionaries who used social media to start anti-government
movements across North Africa and the Middle East.
The most famous Cuban blogger using social media to foment dissent is
Yoani Sanchez, who publishes "Generation Y," which is translated into 16
languages. She sends out regular tweets about activism and her life on
the island using text messaging from her cellphone. She has nearly
250,000 Twitter followers. She posts regularly each day.
"It's possible that I don't get there, that I don't have enough health
or life, please tell the youth of the future that their irreverence is
welcome," she recently wrote on Twitter.
Opponents call her a fraud and an agent in the United States' political
and economic war against Cuba.
The greatest challenge bloggers like Sanchez face isn't censorship, but
getting online. Despite the restrictions, she and others bloggers are
finding new ways to broadcast their reporting, by saving posts onto
flash drives and sharing them to friends with access to the Internet.
In 2007, Ramiro Valdes, then the interior minister, called the Internet
"one of the mechanisms of global extermination," but he added that it
was necessary for continued economic development.
"This concern is exactly why Alan Gross is sitting in prison," LeoGrande
Gross, an American from suburban Washington, was arrested and accused of
being a spy two years ago for bringing satellite phones, laptops and
Blackberry cellphones onto the island. Gross worked under the umbrella
of a pro-democracy project of the State Department's U.S. Agency for
International Development. He said he was bringing the equipment to the
island's Jewish community, but he was accused of trying to subvert the
The island does have a limited intranet service that is more widely
available. Cubans can surf local sites and open email accounts.
Yaremis Guerra, 18, takes classes twice a week at the Youth Computer
Club near her home outside Havana, where she looks up music sites and
exchanges emails with cousins in Texas.
"I get lost in that world," Guerra said.
Jakeline Diaz, 25, has access to email through work at a local hospital
near Pinar del Rio. But she really longs to get on Facebook. A colleague
recently returned from a medical mission in Angola, where she had access
to the Web and created a Facebook page.
"She has a lot of friends," Diaz said. "She puts up photos. I'd love to
have friends from around the world."
On a recent afternoon, Gonzalez was walking with two friends through Old
Havana to watch a televised soccer match that he'd learned about on the
Internet at his mother's hotel. Since traveling outside the country
isn't an option, the Internet is the best way to learn about the outside
world, he said. If you asked every young person, he said, they'd tell
you their first or second desire is to be able to have more access to
"No one has the Internet," he said. "Not the young people. Not the old
people. Really the only people who have the Internet are the people with
email: email@example.com; Twitter: @francoordonez