It’s 10:00 am at the Plaza Hotel a few yards from Havana’s Capitol building. A smell of moisturizer wafts from the bodies of tourists rushing through their coffee so they can go out and explore the city. On one side of the lobby several people line up at the entrance to a small office where there are six computers connected to Internet. Inside the room, anchored to the wall, a security camera focuses directly on keyboards and the faces of people who use the service. No one speaks. Everyone seems very focused. Any web page can take several minutes to open and some give up after an hour without being able to read their email.
But most surprising is that most of those sitting there are not foreigners, but Cubans seeking the oxygen of information and communication. They seem willing to sacrifice even one third the average monthly salary for sixty minutes of surfing on the great World Wide Web.
While outside our borders there is increasing debate between permissibility versus control on the web, 11 million Cuban citizens wonder if 2012 will be the year that we will finally become Internet users. We feel as if we’re abandoned and motionless by the side of the expressway, with ever faster and unattainable kilobytes speeding by us. Again and again the announced deadline for providing us with mass access to cyberspace has failed, leaving us isolated from and behind the rest of the world.
July 2011 was the last official date for the fiber optic cable laid between Cuba and Venezuela to began to function, and to multiply by 3,000 times the Island’s scant connectivity. But for now, the status of implementation is one of the country’s best kept secrets, second only to reports of the health of former President Fidel Castro.
Some say corruption, technical incompetence and mismanagement have left the modern cable — laid at a cost of $70 million — not functioning. Others murmur that is already operational but only available to “very reliable” agencies and institutions, such as the Ministry of Interior. The most credible version, however, appears to be that the Cuban government has stopped its implementation for fear of the flow of information it would bring to the nation. A fear, it seems, that the house of cards of government power — held up at the expense of secrecy and censored news — would come tumbling down.
Official journalists have been warned not to touch the subject of the cable, and prices for access from the hotels continue to vary between 6 and 12 dollars an hour, or more. Having a home connection is a privilege given only to the most politically reliable, or the result of the audacity of those who pirate a state account.
Instead of opening up to social networking and other interactive tools, the authorities have offered in vitro versions of Facebook or Wikipedia style sites to schools and workplaces. They spend thousands of dollars from the national budget to create highly controlled programs and interfaces — for local use only — that will keep local readers far from the hubbub of the democratic Internet.
Each day they postpone our entry into the virtual village, the country’s academic and professional capital plummets a little more. In addition, they thereby delay our development as citizens, and keep us oblivious to the debates and trends that are occurring in the world today.
Right now the controversy between intellectual property and free exchange of files across the network gains strength far from our ears. While news headlines all over the planet announce the arrest of several directors of the Megaupload site, it’s embarrassing to know that the vast majority of Cubans do not even know the existence of this portal.
Echoes of the criticisms over the new content controls on services like Twitter reach us, but lacking any framework, we can’t decipher their real implications. When we do manage to read the critical analysis of the so-called SOPA Law (the Stop Online Piracy Act), or of Spain’s controversial Sinde Law (that country’s version of an online anti-piracy act), we wonder what the name of the ministerial — or presidential — directive is that keeps us far from the great World Wide Web. Worst of all is that we can’t even complain about such limitations by filling the forums with texts or images of protest, or decreeing a blackout day on the social networks.
They have reasons to suspect web surfers and many motives to remain vigilant and active before what is happening. Because not only the times of sharing music, movies and software may be coming to an end. The fight against piracy has become the fight against the Web 2.0 itself, putting at risk the most public and dynamic part of this advance. But the doubt that assaults Cubans is whether the Internet — as it is known today — is going to die before we ever experience it, if it will become a cage before we could have used it as wings.
13 February 2012