Despite all the restrictions and impediments, a growing number of Cubans are finding their way on to the internet and joining social networks. The Cuban government has also joined the cyber revolution and has a cautious presence on line. Unfortunately for the government, the people it’s meeting online cannot really be called friends.
On the eve of a major conference on internet freedom in The Hague, Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal called on the world to support bloggers and cyber dissidents. Rosenthal says free access to the internet is a form of free speech and is therefore a human right. He called on governments to support free speech and specifically mentioned Egypt, Syria, Vietnam, Thailand and Cuba.
Jorge Landa is a Cuban national but he has been living in Spain for the past 25 years. He says he’s still in love with Cuba and this prompted him, along with a few childhood friends, to start a Facebook group a few months ago. “Facebook is lively, and with the time difference, there’s always someone online, talking about what they did at work, what they’ll do later or talking about their kids,” he says.
Being able to find out how family and friends are doing abroad is hugely important to Cubans. If you left the island 20 years ago, then you were forced to leave everyone behind but now it’s different; distances have shrunk. Landa: “There are 170 people in our group and we live all over the world; Spain, Israel, the US, Argentina, Uruguay, and Curaçao. A large group still lives in Cuba. The most important thing is to overcome our differences, whether they are religious or ideological. Through old photos, stories and memories, we can re-live the old days.”
Internet in Cuba
Havana has blamed the US blockade of the island for the expensive and very limited number of internet connections.
In order to increase Cuba's connection to the rest of the planet, in February of this year, Venezuela laid a glass fibre cable on the ocean floor between the two countries.
This increased Cuba's internet capacity by about 3,000%.
Looking for clients
Even though getting an internet connection is difficult, a growing number of Cubans are getting online and many of them are entrepreneurs. Esperenza Pérez decided to launch her business online two months ago. She says “it is a very efficient way to promote the business and attract clients. Lots of people running private companies are on Facebook.”
Access to social networks is increasing and Cubans use them - just like the rest of the world – to find information, get advice, offer help, do business, meet people and find old friends. Last month, everyone on Twitter was able to follow the confrontation between Mariela Castro – the president’s daughter - and Yoani Sánchez, a dissident blogger.
They were Castro’s first tweets and she was clearly shocked that her words were challenged in no uncertain terms. “It was quite a surprise for her,” says Sánchez, adding, “That’s one of the reasons that I think social networks are so important, they’re horizontal, they’re not hierarchical and everyone is equal. The exchanges with Mariela were very revealing; in the real Cuba we’re not equals but in cyberspace, we speak the same language, face to face, and we have to listen to each other.” Minister Rosenthal named Sánchez’ blog when he called on governments to support cyber dissidents.
The number of Cubans who have an Internet connection is quite limited. Havana only grants internet licences to professionals who need it for their work and for foreigners living on the island. Large hotels also have internet connections. Some Cubans have developed their own methods of hitching a lift on someone else's internet connection.
Sánchez: "My fellow Cubans are very creative and you can buy a cracked internet connection on the black market. People also use text messaging to upload messages online much the same way as I do with Twitter. There are also people who illegally sell their business internet connection to others or go to hotels and pay high prices for a connection. An hour online in one of the big hotels costs between six and ten euros."
She continues:"If this generation of young people gets access to social networks, there'll be all sorts of different things going on. I believe that if we practice in a virtual Cuba, the meetings in the real Cuba will be less violent, less traumatic. I have the illusion that the social networks are a sort of practice room or proving ground in good citizenship and we’ll be able to work things out in real life later on.”
The Cuban government is watching the growing popularity of social networks very carefully. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez called for a political strategy to develop independent social networks in order to create a real alternative to the dictatorship of US companies such as Microsoft and Apple. Havana has launched RedSocial as a Cuban alternative to Facebook. It has more than 7,000 users but you can only login from inside Cuba.