After seeing how mobile and social networking technologies led to popular revolutions in places like Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year, is it possible that we’ll soon see a similar type of revolution in our own backyard? On May 9, Raul Castro and the Cuban Communist Party released over 300 new measures designed to loosen control over the state. For the first time in more than 50 years, Cubans will be allowed to buy and sell houses and new automobiles, as well as travel abroad as tourists more freely. More importantly, Cuban dissidents are increasingly turning to the Internet to share their thoughts about everyday life in Cuba.
For now, the ability of everyday Cubans to leverage the Internet as part of a grassroots revolution is marginal at best. With only 10% of its citizens having access to the Internet, Cuba is the country with the lowest Internet usage in the northern hemisphere. Connections are slow, and at a rate of $2/hour, the Internet is incredibly expensive in a country where the average income is $20/month. Moreover, the sale of computer equipment is strictly regulated, Internet access is widely filtered, and e-mail is closely monitored. The Cuban authorities carefully control the news that reaches its citizens and ruthlessly cracks down on "counter-revolutionary" journalists. Sounds a lot like Tunisia or Egypt, right?
Despite these obstacles, a brave band of Cuban bloggers led by Yoani Sánchez have already made progress. Sanchez, named by TIME Magazine as one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2008, has created an Internet-powered dissident movement that continues to attract new adherents. Last summer, the New York Review of Books brilliantly outlined how these brave voices are trying to effect change on the island nation by cobbling together makeshift Internet connections and relying on supporters outside of Cuba. (In some cases, the extent of censorship is so great that these bloggers have never actually even seen the blogs they have created!)
The loosening of rules on buying and selling goods in Cuba is a nice first step. Certainly, similar types of thaws under the Soviet regime eventually created the pre-conditions for Gorbachev’s perestroika and the end of Soviet-style Communism. However, real change needs to leverage the power of mobile technology and social networking connectivity –- and that requires bandwidth.
There's good news on this front as well. The current issue of Monocle points out that Cuba’s Internet capacity is set to increase by 3,000% thus summer (no, that’s not a typo!), as the result of a new 1,600 kilometer-long fiber-optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela. That’s a lot more bandwidth capacity to carry photos, voice and images of life in Cuba. By the time the cable is finished, it will stretch from Cuba to Venezuela to Jamaica.
What remains to be seen is whether the increase in connectivity will represent greater freedom of expression and change the dynamic of the public debate over Cuba. Over a nice round of Cuba Libres and music by the Buena Vista Social Club, U.S. policymakers should consider whether the current U.S. embargo – in effect for almost a half-century – is actually doing anything to bring about democratic freedom to this island nation. Many Cuban bloggers actually make the point that the embargo hurts – not helps – their cause. At the end of the day, making the Internet and mobile technology more widely available to the average citizen in Cuba could be far more effective than a nationwide embargo in preparing people for revolutionary change.
[image: Cuba Libre by Flippinyank]