Internet, is it worth it or not? / Miriam Celaya

In the last couple of days, a friend e-mailed me several interesting articles that generally revolve around the issue of Internet use and its role in social movements. Since that topic interests me and is part of me in many ways, I wanted to share with the readers some considerations.

The internet, blogs, social networks and citizen journalism are part of a phenomenon of our times, when the flight of information, technology, and communication invades every aspect of daily life, more directly in countries with greater access thereto. About the events in North Africa during the so-called Arab spring, there are many who have overstated the importance of the digital media as a release vehicle in the overthrow of dictatorial regimes. There have also been critics who have claimed it’s been used fraudulently by “outside interests” and may not reflect the aspirations of the masses involved, which determined that the rebellions took place as an epidemic. Is the internet or are the civic forces the current triggers of the processes for change? Are the two mutually exclusive or complementary? Clearly, when it comes to measuring the impact of a factor in social processes, opinions often reach opposite extremes.

However, in the case of Cuba, a country with a very minimal level of connectivity, what is the significance of social networks, blogs and Internet use in general? None and much. Can the new technologies help chart a course and determine democratic changes in Cuba? No and yes.

The contradiction is only apparent. Regarding the first question, and given the negligible level of access to networks available to the Cuban people, it would seem that they are equally invalid in the face of changes we need to promote in Cuba. However, it can be said that the relevance of the emergence of an alternative blogosphere and the sudden proliferation of social networks, despite the difficulties of connection and backward technology-including limited and primitive cell phone service- are practically the only possible challenge to the monopoly of the press and media information and dissemination on the part of the government.

The lack of freedom of expression, press and of association has led to a wave of online expressions of independent thought with relative success. Additionally, these venues for online freedom (indirect, impersonal, or whatever you want to call it) have been the precursors of other types of meetings which are becoming permanent: personal and direct links between different players and civil society groups that are creating democracy bubbles in the midst of a society suffocated by the apathy derived from the accumulation of scarcities and frustrations. A sign of their importance lies precisely in the contradiction between our low connectivity and the growing interest stemming from awareness of the networks and their usage.

This brings us to the second question: it is clear that the internet places a very useful tool in our hands. Just five years ago, most of those of us who are bloggers today could not even imagine the level of response that we would get –not only from our readers, but also from official zealous censors and from our repressive government- or the commitment that we were assuming with the introduction of our respective blogs. The harassment of the alternative networks and blogs by the authorities and the creation of an official blogosphere with the express mission to counteract the effects of independent bloggers demonstrate that internet use is not so harmless for the dictatorship. On the other hand, in a very short time, the networks have allowed us to establish ties and build bridges with Cubans everywhere, to get closer, thus overcoming mutual mistrust; to do away with audiences and authorities, and to find, on our own, the necessary preconditions for reconstruction of a civil society, virtually extinct from decades of totalitarianism. The willpower for change in some social sectors became clearly visible only by the grace of internet use.

Nevertheless, the use of new information technologies and communications does not in itself imply the key to success in the pursuit of democracy. This tool cannot replace human qualities, and its use does not, in any case, represent an end, but barely a means to have access to the full exercise of freedom in an indefinite future.

The web will not have the ability to mobilize where there is no determination to make changes, so the use of the internet and social networks is not condition enough to achieve democracy, but its use does not lessen its importance as a democratizing tool. Having greater access would not constitute a definitive solution, but it would represent a path to seek solutions needed to foster information among Cubans; to facilitate encounters, the exchange of ideas and views and promote something that has undoubtedly allowed a growing number of free thinkers overcome virtual limits set by bytes, and to find ourselves face to face when discussing our proposals and strengthening our hopes. We have started to jump out of the networks and have continued to grow in and out of them.

Perhaps this is a necessary phase for us: using the networks not only as an information tool and free flow of ideas, but to reproduce hope. And that is why the internet and the networks are also possibly the most subversive event that has been taking place in Cuba in recent times. Nothing is as dangerous for a decrepit dictatorship as hope reborn in a zombie population. While it is true that freedom will not return to Cuba only by the hand of the internet, we will definitely not be able to talk about a democratic transition in Cuba in the future without mentioning the role played by independent digital journalism, by the blogs, and by the social networks.

Translated By Norma Whiting

(Article originally published in the Journal of Cuba on May 28th, 2012)
Published on SINevasion June 4 2012