Cuba, Getting On-line to be Informed: This is the Dilemma / Iván García

Connecting to wifi in a park in Cuba. Source: Cubanet
Connecting to wifi in a park in Cuba. Source: Cubanet

Iván García, 27 October 2015 — Roberto, age 47, is a balding athletic type who usually has earphones hanging around his neck, he’s an engineer, an expert in bridge construction. For a decade now, twice a year he goes to Miami where his children live.

Four hours before his most recent trip to the Sun City, Roberto went first to a wifi point in Central Havana, to upload photos and chat on Facebook. At the end, he inserted this message: See you in Miami.

The war against ISIS, the fifteen years since the terrorist attack against the Twin Towers in New York, or the intense debate now taking place in Cuba, with regard to the role of the national media, are not topics of interest to Roberto, a hyperactive man who, before boarding the plane to Florida, constantly looks at his watch.

And, believe me: his case in no exception on the island. According to a specialist in internet data traffic who works for ETECSA, the Cuban communications monopoly, through which, in way or another, more than half a million people connect with some frequency.

“Between some 15% and 20% of the population accesses the internet occasionally and some 80% do it two to three times a week, and in some cases daily. But their principle interest is to speak with their family and friends living abroad, to manage the process of emigrating, or to navigate the social networks,” said the specialist.

On September 12 and 13, numerous of us journalists, academics, and human rights activists traveled from Havana to Miami to attend the Internet Freedom Conference, organized by the United States Office of Broadcasts for Cuba, and we have been attacked in the official media — and also by a former State Security agent — as Talibans.

In the two days of sessions, we debated, not without a dose of passion, the present and future of the internet on the island. I recall a phrase of Norge Rodriguez, a swarthy looking basketball forward, with a degree in telecommunications engineering, who said:

“In the 19th century, Cuba was the 6th most advanced nation in railroads. But in the 21st century, we are last in line in internet access. What needs to be understood, is that the internet is about much more than communications or information. It is a vital part of the development of the country. This backwardness is caused by the Cuban government, and we will pay the bill for that,” said Norge at the event, held at an art school in a Miami neighborhood where the walls are covered with graffiti.

Those of us who came from Cuba to participate in the conference had a flood of ideas in our heads. How to use the internet without internet, or how to strengthen the wifi signal through nano devices. Because if there is something that we are convinced of it is that sooner or later the network of networks will land on the island of Cuba.

But what we also discussed, among the attendees, is what the priority will be for Cubans who want to have full access to the internet, taking into account the perennial economic crists and the hardships suffered by the population for half a century, above all the scarcity of food, drinking water, housing, public transport…

Having the latest technology in hand does not necessarily make a citizenry modern and well informed. In Miami I met compatriots who only use the internet to learn about sales in the stores, put up photos, or make snappy jokes on Facebook.

In the most connected nation in the world, I met several people who are atrociously uninformed, who barely know the work of the independent or alternative press, nor the work of the Cuban dissidence.

I fear that the Cuba of the future will follow this weedy path. A little intellectual segment interested in promoting the best tools on the internet and the new technology. And a majority who prefer to consume frivolities. Just like the rest of the world.

Translated by Jim