one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, and while the
government has significantly improved technical infrastructure and lowered
prices in recent years, regular internet access remains extremely expensive,
connections are poor, and authorities both monitor usage and work to direct
traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The state engages in
content-manipulation efforts while blocking a number of independent news sites.
Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, including Decree
Law 370, which has frequently been used against online journalists. However,
despite heavy restrictions, Cubans continue to circumvent government censorship
through grassroots innovations.
Cuba is a
one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, bans independent
media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The
government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit
some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not
changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018
and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.
April and the sun rises over Havana at 7:07 a.m. People are already sitting
outside their homes chatting about the weather reports coming from a TV that
caters to multiple families. Each day, 2 million Habaneros invigorate their
city’s economy by running unpaid errands, selling basic goods to people who
have received dollars from relatives in Miami, or getting to work for a
government-fixed wage in a state-run enterprise.
recently, Cuba was mostly stuck in the past. But it’s changing fast. Over the
past two years, increased
internet access has transformed the lives of Cubans. Cuba has become home
to a thriving tech scene featuring YouTubers, influencers, artists
selling NFTs, filmmakers making movies about social media, and a large
group of local programmers shaping the digital conversation. They gather across
dozens of mobile applications, e-commerce outfits, and digital enterprises.
García Cruz is one of them. He is a 34-year-old programmer and pioneering
YouTuber who wakes up around 11 a.m. every morning to his two kids and wife at
a home in Havana’s Santos Suárez neighborhood. He makes breakfast — and plenty
of coffee — while he begins his day by checking his phone. García Cruz is lucky
because he’s one of just over 4.4 million people out of Cuba’s 11 million who have
accessed the internet on their mobile devices. Mobile data did not exist for the island’s inhabitants
until 2019 and SIM cards cost $40, a sum an average Cuban cannot spare. The
government-controlled monthly wage is just under $88.
access to the internet came late compared to the rest of the world. But fast
forward to 2021, and these digital pioneers are experimenting with virtual
reality and toying with ideas of cyborgs. They are led by people like García Cruz
and a growing tech crew of young crypto-users, AI explorers, and experimental
techno DJs. They may be over 1,000 miles away from Washington, but this digital
lobbying strategy is proving fruitful. It could potentially prompt companies
like Google and big tech to seize the opportunity and advance their corporate
García Cruz chats over buttered toast with his family, a few blocks away, an
old-fashioned radio tunes into the Communist Party-run Radio Reloj. The
station provides live round-the-clock news updates. “Eleven fifteen minutes
Cruz has been a digital entrepreneur since 2015, when the internet was barely
arriving on the island. Back then, he hacked the state-controlled network
through leaky internet protocols and began navigating his very own internet
experience. Six years later, he knows this is only the beginning of what could
be a massive economic opportunity for the island.
a large segment of people in Cuba, who are seeing the internet as a platform
for entertainment and one in which they can chill or simply build human
connections. But I see the internet as a very powerful tool for entrepreneurship,
to do business, to automate processes in real life, and to make money,” García
Cruz told Rest of World. His mission is for everyone in Cuba to prosper
financially from the internet instead of being glued to it as if it were a
superfluous gaming console or a Facebook feed.”
his optimism, García Cruz is aware of the limitations that he and millions of
other internet users on the island face. They cannot fully access an array of
virtual products and services provided by American companies — like Venmo or
Google Earth — because of restrictions imposed by what they call
“counterproductive” U.S. sanctions.
born in 1986 and I never thought I would reach the point in my life where I am
at now. I have achieved many things in Cuba and I’ve become an influencer,”
García Cruz said. After spending years online, though, he is frustrated with
the way that sanctions limit his internet experience. “It’s mind-boggling that
I am personally prohibited from accessing hundreds of thousands of resources on
the internet because of restrictions imposed in 1962.”
García Cruz, the equation is simple. The only reason he can’t access a world of
resources is because he is a Cuban citizen. When he tries to register for
PayPal, Cuba is not among the list of accepted countries. He thinks that’s
wrong — and sad. “We’re entrepreneurs, not political activists,” he said.
previous generations born under the embargo, García Cruz may hold a tool that
can pry open the blockade from within the island: his fame. With almost 2.4
million video views and nearly 59,000 followers, his YouTube channel, Bachecubano,
is arguably the most-watched tech channel in Cuba. His videos are also featured
in the island’s iconic paquete,
Cuba’s answer to pre-internet digital multimedia spread across the island
through hard drives hand-delivered to subscribers.
Lusson is another influencer in Cuba’s tech scene. He hosts a Telegram channel
where thousands of Cubans — both on the island and across the Florida Straits —
are planting the digital seeds for the 2020-born generation to reap.
internet is the strongest tool I have,” Lusson told Rest of World. “The
internet right now means money, it’s investment – I benefit from it.” He lost
his job as a DJ during the pandemic and credits the internet to his survival.
Lusson hosts a YouTube channel featuring the latest in tech available to
Cubans; TecnoLike Plus has over 1.6 million views and over 18,000
Telegram group, which Lusson manages, is home to conversations all about the
latest tech gadgets popular among young Cubans. They talk about products like
the OnePlus Watch, the recent Apple Event, and about sending money to Cuba via
ETECSA. There are long audio conversations about how best to make the most of
gadgets locally. It’s a side effect of decades of scarcity; Cubans are the
ultimate resourceful collaborators.
of collaboration has led to speedy innovation at scale. In February 2019, Karla
Suárez and Rancel Ruana founded Bajanda, a Havana-based ride-sharing app. They launched
just two months after the Cuban state internet company ETECSA made data
services available to mobile users — before then, Cubans could only access the
internet from city hotspots and ETECSA-run internet cafes.
“The Internet is like a Pandora’s box: once you open it, there’s no turning back,” Ruana told Rest of World. “Cubans are seeing the cases of success and saying: If someone like him can develop a ride-sharing app, why wouldn’t I be able to create an app? They are seeing it’s possible to thrive from the internet.”
than two years, homegrown apps that are common in most other Western countries
— ranging from food delivery to ride sharing — are now available to Cubans. And
though Ruana is confident about his business model, he requires better services
than the ones provided by ETECSA. “We have the privilege of having home
internet services called Nauta Hogar,” he said, “We are lucky to live in an area
where we can get that service.”
Ruana, Adriana Heredia, another Habanera entrepreneur, runs Beyond Roots,
her Afro-Cuban products enterprise, solely on mobile data. It is an extremely
expensive endeavour for the young Afro-Cuban economist, who promotes Cuba’s
Afro-descendant culture and builds on the heritage of 3.8 million Afro-Cubans.
Internet prices are a recurrent setback for many, because the price to access
the internet bears no correlation when compared to the money an average Cuban
can make. Everyone wants cheaper connection prices.
In March, Lusson gauged the opinion of his more than 2,000 Telegram subscribers by asking in a poll: “Do you want the blockade to end so that more of Google’s services can be accessed in #Cuba?” Of the 431 that answered, the overwhelming majority –– 88% of votes –– responded “Yes”, 2% said “No,” and 10% chose “I don’t care!” (Most likely those members residing comfortably in the U.S.).Frustration about the internet access restrictions has boiled into action. Cuba’s tech crew is more cautious about its approach to lobbying than other politically-motivated activists. García Cruz made this clear in a March 23 Telegram message when he wrote: “Politics CANNOT be allowed to go hand in hand with ONLINE BUSINESS.”
In that same post, García Cruz went on to make a digital call-to-arms,
asking fellow members of the Cuban tech crew to tweet out against the blockade
that left Cubans without online payment solutions. He took special care to ask
people to “TAG THE CEOS of big companies, especially @BrettPerlmutter.” The
Cuban Twitter community quickly jumped on board and the hashtag #EEUUnblockMe
The campaign was a success: Brett Perlmutter, head of Google Cuba, publicly
championed it later on Twitter the next day and invited García Cruz to tell him
more on 90 Miles, a podcast hosted by Susanna Kohly, co-founder of
“This is something that’s very painful for me, personally,” Perlmutter told
García Cruz on 90 Miles. “I’m sure it’s painful for every Cuban who lives in
Cuba and has to face the reality of the fact that many internet services that
are available to users around the world are not available to the Cuban people.
And they’re not available by way of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, which actually
censors information from reaching the hands of the Cuban people.”
Since 2015, Google, along with broader U.S. business coalitions, have been
working together with Cuban entrepreneurs to cross this divide. Today, Cuba is
connected to the internet thanks to a single submarine cable that runs from
Venezuela to the island. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has provided the
government with the majority of the network’s infrastructure, including cell
towers and 4G.
With increased internet access, the tech crew feels their hands would
suddenly be let loose to create, innovate, and prosper. Cubans — who are
hackers by nature after decades of shortages — are trusting that the
internet will be their endless economic opportunity provider.
While there have been numerous efforts to normalize relations between both
countries, including a September 2018 meeting in New York City between Google and
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, rapprochement stalled when former president
Donald Trump took office.
But Cuba’s tech crew appears to be taking an alternate route. By
intensifying their contact with Google via Perlmutter, instead of looking to
pressure Washington directly, their hope is that the tech giant will lobby the
U.S. on their behalf. It is an effort they will have to continue pushing with
the current administration; on April 16, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki
said that President Joe Biden is not considering a change in policy towards
In spite of diplomatic uncertainty between the island and Washington,
Google’s annual programming competition, Code
Jam, is going forward uninterrupted. “It’s true that Google Code Jam is
available in Cuba,” Perlmutter tweeted on March 27. His words were again picked
up, disseminated, and praised by the Cuban tech crew, especially because the
Head of Google in Cuba had endorsed yet another voice in the local tech scene,
Rancel Ruana — the software engineer and founder of Bajanda.
“Hopefully other leaders in the tech world like you [Ruana] and Erich García
can share this news,” concluded Perlmutter in his tweet. And he penned the
hashtag #CubaIsACountry, which the Cuban Twitter community has made viral in
The pattern has been made clear: The tech crew and the Head of Google in
Cuba play off each other in a digital effort to pressure leaders in the U.S. to
reevaluate restrictions for the improvement of the island’s internet
If the strategy were to succeed, it would be a win win for Google and local
developers. Perlmutter could make his turf the biggest digital market in the
Caribbean overnight, and the tech crew would suddenly have access to new
content and lucrative opportunities. With the help of big tech companies and coalitions, Cuban developers and
entrepreneurs could materialize the momentum they’ve quickly built and are
pushing forward. They just don’t want political rhetoric to get in the way. The
tech crew is pragmatic and can side with any company out there or even the
Cuban government, so long as they are offered the internet access they desire.
Ruana, the software engineer at Bajanda, has never been to the United
States, though he lives with the impacts of the sanctions every day. “I can’t
access certain platforms. I would like for there to be a relaxation of
restrictions to the average Cuban citizen, like me,” he said.
García Cruz finally goes to bed at 3 a.m. after hours of
creative flurry in front of his computer. Just three hours later, Heredia is up
brewing coffee while she reaps the digital fruits of her Afro-Cuban startup.
Even with its tenuous connectivity, Havana never sleeps — the tech crew can
only imagine what full internet access might mean for their island’s future.
In this month’s Meet the Investigators, Barbara Maseda tells of the challenges of finding data and documents in Cuba, a country where journalists are threatened and harassed and where information is kept hidden away.
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with
hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the
best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our
monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of
these tireless journalists.
month we speak with reporter Barbara
Maseda, who is the director and founder of Proyecto
Inventario, an open data initiative that helps journalists to
find data and documents to support their reporting in Cuba, a country without transparency
policies and with very poor internet access. Barbara shares valuable insights
into what’s happening behind the “iron wall” that the regime has built around
itself, and tells us that even though authorities actively intimidate Cuban
journalists — even threatening their families — she believes it’s because the
government is afraid of the power of their reporting.
McGoey: Welcome back to the Meet the Investigators podcast from the
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I’m your host, Sean
McGoey, and I’m an editorial fellow here at ICIJ. This month, my guest is a
journalist whose mission is to ensure that vital information is actually
available to the public, even when the government tries to prevent that from
Maseda: My name is Barbara Maseda. I’m a Cuban journalist. And I run a project
called Inventario that works with data and information that is very hard to
come by in a country as closed as Cuba.
Here’s the rest of my interview with Barbara Maseda. What made you want to
become an investigative journalist?
When you grow up in a country where everything is a secret, it’s not very hard
to want to uncover those types of truths that are not out there for you to get
to know. When you see what our peers are accomplishing in other parts of the
world, you wonder why you don’t have that in your country. And it makes you
want to have that for your country, for your people.
What are some of the challenges that journalists face trying to do their job in
What we had was this iron wall that was keeping the island completely isolated
in terms of information from the outside world. This absolute control that the
government used to have makes it very hard for journalists to have access to
the bread and butter of our profession — sources who are going to give you
starters, independent journalism that is not controlled by the government is
illegal. You cannot register a news organization. You’re not going to be
acknowledged as a reporter who wants access to a source. And if you have a
whistleblower in another country, we do not have the culture or history or the
condition for the emergence of this particular type of individual, who is going
to give you access to something that you’re going to follow and turn into stories.
other countries where authoritarian regimes have a very tight grip [on] many
things and treat journalists in a similar way. But I think that in the case of
Cuba, it’s that the system is very cohesive, and there are no cracks in that
system — or we’re starting to see some of those cracks now. It’s a problem that
I think has been changing in the last few years with the emergence of the
McGoey: So given those conditions
that you describe, what was it like to study journalism in a country that seems
to be fairly hostile to the profession?
did my undergraduate degree at the University of Havana, [in] the school of
communication. So my degree officially says that I have a bachelor’s in
journalism from a Cuban university.
But — and
this happens a lot in the Cuban space — we have labels or terms that mean
something very different outside of Cuba. So when you go to the school of
journalism, you would expect the standard reporting skills that you learn
anywhere else. And what really happens is that nobody ever tells you that your
role as a journalist is to hold the Communist Party to account.
contrary, actually. You are trained to be a watchdog, but for the interests of
the establishment. And if you never question any of that training, you’re gonna
keep doing something for the rest of your life that is labeled as journalism,
but that in practice is not working in the public interest — is not work that
is holding the powerful to account.
What many people do, is you go outside of the Cuban borders and you try to get some training, or you try to get inspired by the work of others. After you spend so much time isolated, getting exposed to that kind of work can be really powerful.
Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy (Reframing Media, Technology,
and Culture in Latin/o America), June 1, 2021
by Ted A. Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria
In spite of having
a slow, expensive, government-controlled Internet infrastructure, Cuba is
undergoing what Ted Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria refer to as a digital
revolution might be said to have begun in 2007 when Yoani Sánchez launched her blog “Generation
Y.” Internet access was difficult — she would get illegal connectivity at
tourist hotels, and the blog was initially hosted in Germany. Soon, the
Huffington Post began publishing her posts, and she has subsequently received
many international awards, including the Ortega y Gasset Award for Digital Journalism in
I recall reading of
her teaching others to blog at her home, and other blogs followed, but that was
just the start of the digital revolution. Today, she publishes a daily digital
newspaper 14Ymedio which is available in Spanish
and English, and there are many independent (non-government) media sites that
cover fashion, sports, art, music, and technology as well as news, commentary,
and current events.
Since Cuba had and
still has very poor Internet infrastructure, one might ask how this digital content
is distributed. The digital-distribution revolution began in 2008 with el Paquete Semanal, the “weekly
package” of digital material distributed on hard and flash drives that
became a nation-wide sneakernet. El Paquete is financed by advertising and
customer fees and it has been suggested that it is the nation’s largest private
employer. In 2015, the Government began opening public-access WiFi hotspots. Cubans hackers
also created local community networks which did not have a connection to the
global Internet. The largest, Havana’s SNET, had an estimated 100,000 users before it was taken over by the government. More
recently, 3G mobile service was introduced and
now 4G is beginning to roll out.
I’ve been speaking
of media, but Henken estimates that there is also a digitally-convened movement
or protest in Cuba every two months or so. He describes several of these and
their leaders in this article.
If you are
interested in more on Cuba’s digital media revolution, check out Henken’s recent
interview at Tulane University. (It’s over an hour-long, but he
speaks clearly so you can listen at 2X speed). He talks about Cuban media and
introduces a forthcoming anthology he and Santamaria edited. In his presentation,
Henken discusses independent Cuban media and summarizes each chapter of the
book, which will be available from the University Press of
Florida on June 1.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
In Medias Res: Who
Will Control Cuba’s Digital Revolution?, Ted A. Henken
Part I. History,
Media, and Technology
1. The Past,
Present, and Future of the Cuban Internet, Larry Press
Itineraries and Cyclic Trajectories: Alternative Media Communication
Technologies, and Social Change in Cuba, Edel Lima Sarmiento
Part II. Politics
3. Information and
Communication Technology, State Power, and Civil Society: Cuban Internet
Development in the Context of the Normalization of Relations with the United
States, Olga Khrustaleva
4. Ghost in the
Machine: The Incompatibility of Cuba’s State Media Monopoly with the Existence
of Independent Digital Media and the Democratization of Communication, Alexei
Padilla Herrera and Eloy Viera Cañive
5. The Press Model
in Cuba: Between Ideological Hegemony and the Reinvention of Civic Journalism,
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Arechavaleta
6. Digital Critique
in Cuba, Marie Laure Geoffray
7. From Generación
Y to 14ymedio: Beyond the Blog on Cuba’s Digital Frontier, Ted A. Henken
Journalism in Cuba: Between Fantasy and the Ontological Rupture, Sara Garcia
9. Perceptions of
and Strategies for Autonomy among Journalists Working for Cuban State Media,
Media on the Margins: Two Cases of Journalistic Professionalization in Cuba’s
Digital Media Ecosystem, Abel Somohano Fernández and Mireya Márquez-Ramírez
Part IV. Business
Marketing of Touristic Cuba: Branding a “Tech-Free” Destination,
12. A Una Cuba
Alternativa”? Digital Millennials, Social Influencing, and Cuentapropismo
in Havana, Jennifer Cearns
Part V. Culture and
Initiation Ceremonies: Cuban Literary and Cultural E-zines, 2000 — 2010,
14. Images of
Ourselves: Cuban Mediascapes and the Post-socialist “Woman of
Fashion,” Paloma Duong
Sara García Santamaría Blanquerna – Universitat Ramon Llull (Spain)
Freedom House, Freedom on the Net, October 16, 2020
A. Obstacles to Access
5 / 25
B. Limits on Content
10 / 35
C . Violations of User Rights
7 / 40
LAST YEAR’S SCORE & STATUS: 22 /100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)
Cuba has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, and while the government has significantly improved technical infrastructure and lowered prices in recent years, regular internet access remains extremely expensive, connections are poor, and authorities both monitor usage and work to direct traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The state engages in content-manipulation efforts while blocking a number of independent news sites. Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, including Decree Law 370, which has frequently been used against online journalists.
However, despite heavy restrictions, Cubans continue to circumvent government censorship through grassroots innovations.
Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.
The editors of Cuba Posible, Roberto Veiga Gonzalez y Lenier Gonzalez Mederos.
As most people know, the Cuban mass media – radio, television, newspapers and magazines – are totally controlled by the state and they exclusively publish or broadcast content that closely follows the “orientations” of the Ideological Department of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC.) It is through mechanisms such as these that the government’s ordered “enforced unanimity” continues to prevail in the Caribbean island.
Yet, in spite of censorship, there exists a relatively free space created by the Internet. Although in Cuba access to the Internet is expensive and continues to be among the lowest in Latin America and the Caribbean, it has nevertheless increased, thus allowing for the existence of many publications and “blogs” critical of the regime from different vantage points.
The most important in Spanish of these publications is Cuba Posible, edited by Roberto Veiga Gonzalez and Lenier Gonzalez Mederos, two Cuban Catholic disciples of the deceased Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y García-Menocal, a progressive priest who was General Vicar of the Archdiocese of Havana. Until a few years ago, Veiga and Gonzalez Mederos were the editors of Espacio Laical, sponsored by the Félix Varela Cultural Center of the same Havana Archdiocese, but they were fired by the Catholic hierarchy that no longer wanted to support the political line of the editors.
Broadly speaking, Cuba Posible could be characterized as social democratic because of its support for a mixed economy, which in reality would end up as a market economy subject to the imperatives of competition and other economic laws of capitalism given the lack of workers’ control and a democratic planning of the economy.
With respect to the political system itself, Cuba Posible presents a pluralist perspective and has occasionally criticized the one party state as a questionable political system without making its opposition to it a central feature of its publication.
For the socialist and democratic left, those politics are troublesome enough in and of themselves. But they become even more problematic when coupled with Cuba Posible’s stated intent to act as a “loyal opposition” to the regime. In the first place, no such thing as a “loyal opposition” is possible in a system that, as a matter of political principle rejects the mere possibility of an opposition; it is even less possible that such an opposition, however loyal, can come to power through elections or any other peaceful means. Secondly, such intent injects into the publication a conciliatory tone when indignation is the most appropriate response to the government’s abuses.
It should be noted, however, that Cuba Posible continues to include among its collaborators people who represent a broader political perspective than that of its editors. And in any case, Veiga Gonzalez as well as Gonzalez Mederos have the absolute democratic right to submit their views to the consideration of the Cuban people, whether in the Internet or in the mass media, a right that is, of course, rejected by the regime stalwarts who have lately closed ranks against them and their publication accusing them of the sin of what these stalwarts have labeled as “centrism”.
What are those who speak about “centrism” saying?
Several months ago, a group of writers, who for some time have been agitating, supposedly on their own account, for a “hard line” position in defense of the Cuban regime, began a campaign against Cuba Posible and other moderate critics of the Cuban regime. The most important of those hard line writers has been Iroel Sanchez in his blog La Pupila Insomne (https://lapupilainsomne.wordpress.com), where he recently reproduced a whole book titled El Centrismo en Cuba: otra vuelta de tuerca hacia el capitalismo [Centrism in Cuba: Another turn of the Screw towards Capitalism].
The book includes his contributions as well as those of many of his co-thinkers. It is an open attack against what Sanchez and company call “centrists,” accusing them of using their moderate critique of the government as a mask to subvert and eventually overthrow the “socialist” system in Cuba.
Besides branding that supposed strategy as “right-wing nationalist” and “social democratic,” Iroel and his associates also brandish against those critics the term “third way,” which in reality has nothing to do with right wing nationalism or with social democracy, but refers instead to the policies espoused by Tony Blair, who far from being a social democrat, was a neoliberal trying to subvert the welfare state and the social democratic character of the British Labor Party. For Iroel and his hardliners, however, this doesn’t matter: there is no difference between right-wing nationalism, social democracy, and neoliberalism.
Of all the terms wielded by Sanchez and company against the opposition, the one that they really focused on was “centrism.” They wield it in a purely topographic sense referring to a location in between two extremes, capitalism and communism. Curiously, the supposedly communist Iroel Sanchez seems to ignore that in the political traditions of revolutionary Marxism and Communism, the term “centrism” refers to those political parties that, especially in the period 1918-1923, were more radical and to the left of Social Democracy but kept to the right of the Communist parties.
Among those “centrist” parties were the German Independent Social Democrats – a left-wing split from German Social Democracy (SPD) – and several other European parties that came together in the 1920s to form the so-called “Vienna International,” which, significantly, was also referred to as the “Two and a half International.” For the Communist International, these parties might have talked about socialist revolution, but in reality they were reformists and even counterrevolutionaries.
While centrism within that Marxist tradition referred to a specific phenomenon – left-wing radical groups that broke with Social Democracy but did not become Communist – Sanchez uses the same term to paint over with the same brush the wide political spectrum of political orientations between capitalism and Communism. If you are not 100% with the regime, your actual politics does not matter: and you are, by definition, an anti-revolutionary “centrist.”
Even in purely topographic terms, the characterization of the Cuban opposition and critics as “centrists” is highly questionable, because it assumes, as a political axiom, that the Communist parties in power are in fact left wing. This is how, by definition, Iroel and his people get to identify the left with a system that in reality is a class society based on state collectivism, where the state owns the economy, and manages it through the control mechanisms of the one-party state. To be part of the ruling class depends on the position that individuals occupy in the party-ruled bureaucracy. This type of power is hostile to democracy, civil and political rights, and especially to the working class and popular control of the economy.
Fortunately, there are other far better conceptions of what the left means. For Jan Josef Lipsky, for example, a leader in Poland, of the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) in the 1970s, and of Solidarity in the 1980’s, the left is, as he explained in KOR. Workers’ Defense Committee in Poland, 1976-1981, an attempt to reconcile equality and liberty: “…being on the left” is “an attitude that emphasizes the possibility and necessity of reconciling human liberty with human equality, while being on the right…may mean sacrificing the postulate of human freedom in favor of various kinds of social collectives and structures, or foregoing the possibility of equality in the name of laissez faire.” (180)
But Iroel Sanchez and his associates defend the one-party state as the only political system compatible with socialism. They don’t even mention that Raul Castro’s “monolithic unity” proclaimed years ago disregards the profound differences in political power associated with class, race and gender in the “actually existing” Cuban society.
It is precisely because of that power differential, that those groups and individuals without power in society – workers, peasants, Black people, women, and gays among others – need the freedom to organize independently into associations and political parties to struggle for their interests. For this to happen it is necessary to abolish the political monopoly of the PCC, consecrated in the existing Constitution, through its mass organizations like the CTC [Worker’s Confederation] and the FMC [Women’s Federation], which blocks any independent attempt by workers, women and other groups to defend themselves.
Once deprived of its constitutionally mandated monopoly, and thus, of all the privileges it appropriated onto itself during its long lasting control of public life, the PCC could become an authentic political party, a voluntary organization materially supported by the dues and donations of its members and sympathizers. It would then function as one of many political parties representing the conflicts and divisions within Cuban society. To the extent that these parties represent the interests of the classes and groups that would emerge in a changing society, it would be impossible – and undesirable – to limit their number through legal mandates, or through administrative or police methods.
Who are the people attacking the “centrists”?
Some people in the opposition regard Iroel Sanchez and his stalwarts as “extremists.” But this is not an appropriate term: historically, there have been many “extremists” who did the right thing. The pro-independence Cubans of the War of Independence (1895-1898) could have also been accused of “extremism” since they rejected both the “volunteers” and “guerrillas” who supported Spanish colonialism (equivalent to the Right of those years) and the Autonomists (the moderates of that period).
Instead, Iroel and company are hard line Stalinists, as they clearly demonstrate in their book. Thus, in his contribution titled “Una respuesta para Joven Cuba” [An answer for the Joven Cuba blog,] Javier Gómez Sánchez lashes out against the blog under that title, a blog that has been frequently critical and fairly honest but clearly pro-government, as if they were just another group of “centrists.”
The content and inquisitorial tone of Ileana González in her contribution titled “Al Centrismo Nada” [Nothing for Centrism] does not fall far behind Andrey Vyshinsky’s, the prosecutor of the Moscow Trials from 1936 to 1938. The extremely detailed information about opposition persons presented in various articles in this book also suggests that many of its contributors are State Security agents or close collaborators of that repressive body.
It is worth noting, however, that these Stalinists do not seem to have gelled into a hard line political tendency within the PCC, as was the case, for example, of the “Gang of Four” that attempted to control the Chinese Communist Party after Mao’s death, but was quickly eliminated by Deng’s forces. They don’t even resemble Fidel’s Support Group at the beginning of this century, to which the Maximum Leader conferred a certain degree of operational and administrative power. Iroel and his group are no more and no less than propagandists in the service of the PCC. That is all.
What are the purposes of the campaign against “Centrism”?
The Cuban government initiated and is using this campaign to draw a line in the sand of what is and is not permissible. But it is not doing it itself through its official press and broadcasting stations to avoid sowing more doubts about the authenticity and durability of Raul Castro’s economic reforms and relative political liberalization.
Long term, the regime is using this campaign as an attempt to close the ranks of the party and the country with another call in the style of the “monolithic unity” of former years in preparation for the foreseeable physical disappearance of the historic leaders of the revolution in the next five to ten years, and for the problems that this can create for a fluid transition of power.
The call to “unity” has become ever more urgent with the gradual but definitive increase of Internet access, especially among the youth, the professional and technocratic strata, and among those with a university education who generally have a greater access to the Internet. The information acquired through those channels can potentially undermine the political loyalty to the party and regime. It is not for nothing that practically the entire campaign against “centrism” has been conducted through the Internet, and not in the official press and mass media.
Trump’s repeal of several measures favoring the slow process of relaxation and possible abolition of the economic blockade of Cuba, have not yet eliminated the limited but real softening of the opinion of many Cubans with respect to the United States. This softening was due to Obama’s initiatives easing various restrictions of the US’s criminal blockade, such as increasing the remittances that can be sent to Cuba, resuming regular commercial flights to the Island, and his successful visit to Cuba.
As we know, the official Cuban press has used every means at its disposal to fight that softening of Cuban opinion, which for obvious reasons, the regime considers dangerous to its power. The government’s attack against the so-called “centrist” opposition, is nothing more than another attempt to harden the Cuban people to close ranks around it and to maximize its control through its call to “unity.”
*Samuel Farber was born and grew up in Cuba and has written numerous articles and books about the country. His last book, The Politics of Che Guevara: Theory and Practice was published by Haymarket Books in 2016.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: CUBA’S MEDIA VITALLY TRANSFORMED BUT CAUTIOUS APPROACH IS SLOWING PROGRESS
A lively blogosphere, an increasing number of news websites carrying investigative reporting and news commentary, and an innovative breed of independent reporters who are critical of, yet still support socialist ideas have vitally transformed Cuba’s media landscape in the past five years.
The energized press scene is in stark contrast with the island nation’s restrictive legal framework, which curbs freedom of speech under the pretense of protecting the “independence or territorial integrity of the state.” The constitution bans private ownership of the press and all media are supposedly controlled by the one-party Communist state, but the spread of independent reporting is a sign of a changing Cuba.
Reporters, from the most critical—who are known as dissidents—to journalism graduates, documentary filmmakers, and pro-revolutionary bloggers are opening new spaces for free expression and entrepreneurial journalism that not long ago seemed off limits.
Bloggers with whom CPJ spoke said they have embraced the loosening of restrictions. “We are seeing opportunities that were inconceivable five years ago,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, who quit his job in 2012 at Adelante, a state-run weekly in the eastern city of Camagüey, to start a blog.
However, many said that more work needs to be done, with the threat of arbitrary detention, vague and outdated laws, and limitations on internet access slowing Cuba’s press freedom progress.
Internet access in Cuba, which the U.N. ranks in last place in the Americas, is still inaccessible to most citizens. And while large-scale systematic state repression has eased significantly, the most strident opponents in the media told CPJ they still face harassment and intimidation from authorities.
The burgeoning media field began its expansion in 2011, when President Raúl Castro introduced market-style reforms to reinvent socialism. However, many of those reforms have been implemented sluggishly, and even reversed in some areas.
When the call for loosening of restrictions was first made, the party leadership urged the Cuban population to be critical of the government and state institutions. Castro told the People’s Assembly in a December 2010 speech not to fear discrepancies and differences of opinions.
Journalists, especially those working for the state press, have been emboldened by these statements. And while there is almost no criticism of government policies in state media, most newspapers—including the national daily Granma—have started “Letters to The Editor” sections that provide a vehicle for Cubans to express opinions.
State journalists and academics in Havana said they recognize the need for the official press to become more critical, and some have called for a public information law. Laura Blanco Betancourt, a reporter for the state-owned provincial daily Vanguardia, acknowledged that the lack of “a culture of debate” had prevented candid discussions within the official press. José Ramón Vidal, a former editor of the daily Juventud Rebelde, went further in an interview published in the December 2015-March 2016 edition of Mexican magazine Razón y Palabra, where he argued that Cuba should change its “communication model” because “important social issues” were being left behind. Vidal, now a communications professor at the University of Havana, said the propaganda-based media model was facing a crisis and Cubans no longer paid attention to it.
Raudiel Peña Barrios, a lawyer in Havana, wrote in the online magazine OnCuba,“the mere fact that [freedom of information] is under discussion is big news in the Cuban context.” In the article, “The Right to Information Cuba: Possibility or Utopia?” Peña said that such legislation “should help to democratize access to information.”
Blanco Betancourt, who is based in Santa Clara province, said that a public communication strategy could help, adding that any such legislation “must include access to public information for all Cubans.”
While Cuba’s tight grip on the press has waned in recent years, authorities still exert control over the media and the most critical independent journalists continue to face harassment. Long-term incarcerations have become rare since the 2003 crackdown—during which CPJ documented 29 journalists serving lengthy prison sentences—but detentions and summons are still common, CPJ research shows. The once-common accusation of acting as “mercenaries” at the service of the U.S. has become almost obsolete.
“We are seeing opportunities that were inconceivable five years ago.” Alejandro Rodríguez, blogger
The restoration of diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana in December 2014, coupled with U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic March 2016 visit to Cuba, have made it harder for the government to justify press censorship as a means to protect the nation from American aggression, Cuban journalists said.
However, on the day that Obama arrived in Cuba, independent blogger and activist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca was arrested and held in custody for five days after trying to cover a protest by the Ladies in White, an opposition group founded by the wives of jailed dissidents. The journalist told CPJ after his release that no charges were filed, but he was warned that he could face legal action if arrested again.
The restoration of ties has led to suggestions from some analysts that Cuba may return to the Organization of American States, which expelled Cuba in 1962. But in June, Cuba said that as a show of solidarity with Venezuela, it would not join the group, the BBC reported. Castro’s statement came after the OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro called for sanctions to be imposed on Venezuela. Membership to the OAS, whose charter includes a commission to protect human rights, would require Cuba to improve its press freedom record, including easing restrictions on internet access and ending the harassment of journalists.
Press freedom boundaries
Cuba, ranked 10th on CPJ’s 2015 list of the world’s most censored countries, has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas. Its penal code contains restrictive press freedom provisions.
Most criminal prosecutions that threaten freedom of speech include charges of contempt of authority under Article 144, “enemy propaganda” under Article 115, or acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” under Article 91, which is often used in conjunction with Law 88, “protection of Cuba’s national independence and economy,” according to a 2016 comparative study of criminal defamation laws in the Americas, prepared for CPJ by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The charges can carry a prison term of up to 20 years.
Most of the prosecutions refer to the defamation of public institutions, organizations, national heroes and martyrs, which is also often used in conjunction with other provisions to curb freedom of expression by preventing public debate and criticism of the authorities and government policies.
The far-reaching transformation of the media landscape has broadened the space for criticism allowing all sectors of the press to delve into issues previously perceived as taboo, such as gay rights, allegations of official corruption and poverty.
The internet is, perhaps, the biggest hurdle for journalists to becoming relevant, because most of their content is consumed outside the island. At the same time, they must pay high prices for online access and find original ways to disseminate their work to a home audience that is largely offline.
These new media journalists also operate in a legal limbo. Article 53 of the constitution bans private ownership of the press and recognizes “freedom of speech and the press in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” Many of the journalists CPJ interviewed said that they approach their work cautiously and sometimes veer away from publishing overtly critical work because of the current legal framework.
Dismantling this framework for the press, removing all barriers to individual internet access, while expanding it to the population at large are key to fostering a more open environment, according to analysts and Cuba experts.
The slow loosening of restrictions reflects a government with many high-ranking leaders above the age of 80 who are not part of an active online community. Within the government and the party leadership there is a debate on how swift this opening should be.
Dissidents, journalists who report on social issues but are not considered hostile, pro-government bloggers, and members of the state-owned press all agree on one point: they want the government to provide more, inexpensive and less-restricted access for Cuba’s 11 million people.
In a July 2015 interview in Juventud Rebelde,José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second-highest ranking member of Cuba’s Communist Party, accused foreigners of trying to promote expanded internet access “not for Cuban people to communicate but to penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest.” This stubborn approach to internet access calls into question whether the government will meet its pledge of bringing internet access to 50 percent of the population by 2020, finances permitting. Such an achievement will demand a great deal of courage from the Cuban leadership.
When President Obama made his historic visit to Cuba last month, the US media followed. At a joint press conference on March 21 with Cuban president Raúl Castro, Obama called on CNN’s Jim Acosta, who asked the Cuban leader if he would be willing to release political prisoners. A flustered Castro sputtered and demanded a list of those imprisoned. Obama directed aknowing wink at the assembled journalists.
Obama’s implication was that by maneuvering to force Castro to respond live in front of the Cuban people and the world, he had bolstered the power of the press. Indeed, one of the key goals of Obama’s Havana trip was to create more space for critical expression in a country that until recently was one of world’s most censored. Among the 13 dissidents Obama invited to meet with him at the US Embassy in Havana on March 22 were several independent journalists. He insisted that his joint news conference with Castro be broadcast live.
While it’s too early to assess the overall impact of Obama’s visit, it seems the right moment to ask a more basic question: Has anything changed for journalists on the island in the month since Obama departed?
Miriam Leiva, an independent journalists and blogger who met with Obama, sees the presidential visit as accelerating trends already under way. “The Cuban government is losing credibility day after day,” Leiva noted by phone from Miami, where she was visiting relatives. “President Castro made many promises and has not been able to fulfill those promises.”
Leiva has been a leading voice of independent journalism in Cuba since 2003, when her husband, economist turned journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was arrested as part of a sweeping crackdown known as the Black Spring. Espinosa Chepe was released after two years due to poor health (he died of a liver ailment in 2013). But many of those detained along with him were not freed until 2010, in a deal brokered by the Spanish government and the CubanCatholic Church.
By far the favored strategy employed by the Cuban government against dissident journalists has been organized stigmatization and isolation. Independent journalists have been confronted by screaming mobs, denounced in the state media, and relentlessly tracked by state security.
That is why Leiva is so heartened by the fact that her neighbors now greet her in the street and even occasionally read her stories, which are distributed by email. “People are now more open, they feel less fear,” she says. “We ourselves have gained spaces.”
Indeed, Cuba’s media landscape is no longer static. While the stale state media predominates, there are over 3,000 blogs. Some espouse dissidence and resistance; others express support for the government and the Communist Party while highlighting shortcomings by local officials. “I wanted something small that wouldn’t be seen as a threat by the state media,” said blogger Elaine Díaz Rodríguez in arecent CPJ report. Díaz was the first Cuban journalists to receive a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University.
For Yoani Sánchez—another leader in the independent media—Obama’s visit had tremendous symbolic value. When Obama arrived in Havana in the middle of a rainstorm, he carried his own umbrella. Cuban functionaries had aides hold theirs. Obama is youthful; Cuba’s leadership is decrepit. Obama is black; Cuba’s leadership is white (despite the fact that Cuba is a majority black country); Obama shows off his family; Cuban leaders hide theirs.
Speaking this weekend at the International Symposium of Online Journalism, an annual media confab in Austin, Sánchez said the primary impetus for change in Cuba has been technology. Only 5 percent of the Cuban population has access to the internet (according to Sánchez; other sources say it’s higher). Cubans must use creative means to access information, including emailed PDFs and flash drives, which are easy to hide and distribute. More recently, Cubans have been flocking to a handful of expensive WiFi hotspots set up around Havana.
“We thought the Cuban people would take to the streets to topple the government, but instead they have done so to get online,” Sánchez quipped.
Sánchez, who started out posting an irreverent personal blog, is now essentially a publisher. She employs a regular staff that puts out a online newspaper, 14YMedio, that provides comprehensive coverage of daily events. “I’m worried less about who will be our next president, and more about who will our next citizens,” Sánchez explained. “As citizens become empowered, they need more information to make decisions. We want to be the newspaper of the Cuban transition.”
While the changing environment for news and information in Cuba is exciting, it is important to keep in mind that is still for the most part taking place within limits set bythe Cuban Communist Party, which while no longer monolithic, is still firmly in control. Its reasons for opening Cuba are complex, but theyare largely dictated by pragmatic concerns and a desire for self-preservation.
Even as it ceded the limelight briefly to Obama during his trip, the government made a point of consistently affirming the limits of dissent. Dissidents were roughed up and detained prior to and following Obama’s visit; the state media, which operates in accordance with Communist Party dictates, published identical headlines; Fidel Castro lashed out at Obama as soon as he departed the island; the Communist Party Congress, which ends today and will set the stage for transition from nearly six decades of rule by the Castro brothers, has been a particularly opaque affair, even by Cuban standards. Raúl Castro emphatically rejected new reforms during his opening speech, which only state media were invited to cover.
In visiting Havana, the gambit for Obama was that his mere presence could accelerate the opening in Cuba; the gambit for Raúl Castro was that he could gain international credibility and legitimacy without making political concessions. With his press conference wink, Obama implied that he had gotten the upper hand, but that is far from clear. While the press conference showed that Raúl Castro doesn’t like answering tough questions, there is no real evidence that he will be forced to do so again anytime soon.
After all, as 14YMedio photojournalist Luz Escobar pointed out, no independent Cuban reporters werepresent. “Cuba continues to be hostile for journalists” she says. “What gives me hope is the changing attitudes of the Cuban people.”
Special to The Globe and Mail, Monday, Feb. 01, 2016 5:00AM EST
Few countries are as technologically isolated as Cuba. Home Internet is rare, data plans are non-existent and, in a country where doctors make the equivalent of around $70 a month, paying almost $3 an hour for government-run WiFi is too steep for many.
Yet, even here, tech startups are beginning to emerge and they’re getting some help from Canada. Montreal technology hub Notman House has launched a program to give Cuba’s nascent startup scene a boost. The idea of Develop Cuba is to create a seed fund and a way to support and educate the community on how to build an ecosystem,” says Noah Redler, the campus director at Notman House and the initiator of the Develop Cuba project. “The major obstacle they have isn’t around talent, it isn’t around want or desire, it’s literally just that basic seed capital.”
In Cuba, a little money can go a long way. So far, Develop Cuba has raised a few thousand dollars to rent space for startup groups to meet in Havana and bought a projector – a rare piece of equipment in a country where even basic supplies can be hard to find.
The next step will be to send a group of mentors from Montreal to visit Havana and work with local startups. If that goes well, Mr. Redler wants to help open Cuba’s first co-working space. The goal is to build capacity for Cuban startups, he says. While Canadians may be helping to get the project off the ground, it will be led by local people.
Internet usage has grown rapidly since the Cuban government lifted an almost total ban on Web access in 2008. By 2014, the country had more than three million Internet users, a little more than one-quarter of the population, according to Cuba’s national statistics agency. By now, that number is almost certainly higher.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-January, about a dozen people are gathered in a public square in downtown Havana, looking at their phones. A couple more sit on nearby benches with laptops. It’s a scene that would be unremarkable in Canada, but was extremely rare in Cuba until just a few months ago.
In June, Etecsa, Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications monopoly, cut the price of Internet access in half and opened dozens of new WiFi access points in parks and public squares across the country. More have opened since then. Before that, getting online usually required waiting to use a computer at an Etecsa outlet or a post office; WiFi was rarely found outside of hotel lobbies. Free WiFi is still almost unheard of, and Cubans have to prepay and show ID to get online.
For startups, “the most difficult part is accessing the Internet,” says Martin Proenza, the founder of YoTeLlevo, a website for booking taxis. While his business is generating revenue, it’s not profitable enough for Mr. Proenza to afford home Internet. Instead, he relies on his day job at a government-owned software company for Internet access.
The lack of mobile data means that Cuban apps are generally built to work offline. AlaMesa, an app for finding restaurants, is fully functional without an Internet connection. Its restaurant directory and map are downloaded onto a user’s phone. If a user opens the app when they do have an Internet connection, the database is updated. “Considering the insufficient connectivity infrastructure and cost of Internet access in the country, an offline solution was mandatory,” says Alfonso Ali, AlaMesa’s lead programmer.
But they also face a uniquely Cuban challenge. “Due to U.S. blockade restrictions, we are unable to use PayPal or Stripe,” Mr. Ali says. “So standard operations like online booking, coupons, etc., are very difficult and costly to implement.”
The Cuban government appears to have taken little notice of the country’s growing startup community, but there are fears about what will happen if they do. While economic reforms that began in 2008 have opened the door to an increasing number of private businesses, there are no provisions for tech startups, making them illegal.
“You have to keep yourself under the radar,” Mr. Proenza says. “But is it a big concern? No. Really, the state is not running after people for creating online businesses.” He does think the government will allow startups to operate legally in the future, and says that’s a view shared by others in the startup community.
In Montreal, Mr. Redler says he sees some hopeful signs – accommodation-rental site Airbnb was allowed to enter the Cuban market earlier this year; there are now over 2,000 listings. But he says he doesn’t expect change to come rapidly.
Despite the challenges, Cuban business owners say they’re optimistic about the future. “The Cuba education system is very good, so it’s very easy to find talented people to work on any field of innovation,” Mr. Ali says. “We used to say ‘need is the mother of invention,’ so people in Cuba have good talent, skills and the mindset to find solutions to almost any problem.”
In scores of interviews conducted over the past 15 years with Cuban entrepreneurs for our new book, “Entrepreneurial Cuba,” Arch Ritter and I often heard the following two very pregnant Cuban sayings:
“El ojo del amo engorda el caballo” (The eye of the owner fattens the horse) and “El que tenga tienda que la atienda, o si no que la venda” (Whoever has a store should tend to it, and if not then sell it”).
The first adage indicates that the quality of a good or service improves when the person performing it enjoys autonomy and has a financial stake in the outcome. The second saying suggests that if the Cuban government is unable to “tend its own stores,” then it should let others take them over.
In essence, this popular wisdom demands that the state turn over to the private sector the economic activities it cannot operate effectively itself—many of which are already widely practiced in Cuba’s ubiquitous underground economy.
In other words, the U.S. embargo – recently dealt a near fatal blow by the joint decision by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations after almost 54 years – is hardly the principal “blockade” standing in the way of Cuba’s economic revitalization. Though the American “bloqueo” has long been the target of withering and well-deserved international condemnation, on the island Cubans themselves are much more likely to criticize what they bitterly refer to as the “auto-bloqueo” (internal embargo) imposed by the Cuban government itself on the entrepreneurial ingenuity, access to uncensored information and open communications, as well as basic civil and political rights of the Cuban people.
President Barack Obama has opened a door to potential U.S. investment in (and import/export to and from) Cuba’s entrepreneurial and telecom sectors. But is Raúl Castro willing to allow U.S. companies to operate on the island? More important still, is his government ready to open up to the Cuban people by beginning to relinquish its tight control over private enterprise and the Internet?
While we believe that it is both good and necessary for the United States to open up to Cuba and vice versa (to paraphrase the late Pope John Paul II), our book argues that little economic progress or political freedom will be enjoyed by Cubans themselves until the Cuban government opens up to its own people, ceases to demand their acquiescence as subjects, and begins to respect them as citizens, consumers, and entrepreneurs with defensible and inalienable economic and political rights of their own.
In fact, two weeks following the historic mid-December Obama-Castro announcement, the Cuban government received its first public test of whether its internal embargo would now be relaxed in light of the sea-change in U.S. policy. On December 30, the internationally renown Cuban artist Tania Bruguera organized a public act of performance art in Havana’s iconic Revolutionary Plaza. Dubbed “#YoTambienExijo,” Bruguera invited Cuban citizens to “share their own demands” on the government and visions for the island’s future for one minute each at an open-mic set up in the Plaza. Predictably, the government responded by arresting and detaining scores of artists, activists, and independent journalists, which amounted to an even more public “performance” of its own typically repressive tactics, as news of the event echoed in the international media on the final day of the year.
Thus, while we can celebrate the fact that the U.S. and Cuban governments have finally agreed to begin respectful, diplomatic engagement, the Cuban government’s failure to respectfully engage with the diverse and often dissenting voices of its own citizens makes us wonder with Bruguera whether “it’s the Cuban people who will benefit from this new historic moment,” as she put it in her previously circulated open letter to Raúl Castro.
Between 1996 and 2006, President Fidel Castro pursued an economic policy retrenchment that gradually phased out the pro-market reforms of the early 1990s, indicating that he was more aware of the political risks that popular entrepreneurship would pose to his centralized political control than of the economic benefits it could provide. Therefore, he was unwilling to transfer more than a token portion of the state “store” to private entrepreneurs.
His brother, Raúl Castro, whose presidency began in 2006, has significantly eased this resistance. While the underlying goal of economic reform is still to “preserve and perfect socialism,” he has started to deliberatively shrink the state “store” and transfer the production of many goods and services to the more than half-a-million new small enterprises, including both private and cooperative ventures.
However, much more remains to be done in reforming policies toward microenterprise so that it can contribute fully to productive employment, innovation, and economic growth. For example, 70 percent of the newly self-employed were previously unemployed, meaning that they likely converted previously existing underground enterprises into legal ones, doing little to absorb the 1.8 million workers slated for state-sector layoffs. Moreover, only 7 percent of self-employed are university graduates, and most of them work in “low tech” activities because almost all professional self-employment is prohibited. This acts a “blockade” on the effective use of Cuba’s well-educated labor force, obstructing innovation and productivity.
A further goal of the tentative reforms to date has been to facilitate the emergence of cooperative and small enterprise sectors so that they can generate sustained improvements in material standards of living. This can only be achieved with additional reforms that effectively “end the embargo” against Cuban entrepreneurs.
Among the necessary changes would be:
1. Opening the professions to private enterprise,
2. Implementing affordable wholesale markets,
3. Providing access to foreign exchange and imports (a fiercely guarded state monopoly),
4. Establishing effective credit facilities,
5. Permitting the establishment of retailing enterprises, and
6. Relaxing the tax burden on small enterprise, which now discriminates against domestic enterprise in favor of foreign investors.
Progress in all these areas would be greatly facilitated by access to U.S. investors and markets (both as a source of desperately needed wholesale inputs and as a place to sell their products), something now possible following the implementation of Obama’s historic policy changes during the coming year.
However, it remains to be seen whether Raúl has the political will to intensify the internal reform process. The outright prohibition of activities the government prefers to keep under state monopoly allows it to exercise control over Cuban citizens and impose an apparent order over society. However, this comes at the cost of pushing all targeted economic activity (along with potential tax revenue) back into the black market – where much of it lurked prior to 2010.
On the other hand, the inclusion and regulation of the many private activities dreamed up and market-tested by Cuba’s always inventive entrepreneurial sector would create more jobs, a higher quality and variety of goods and services at lower prices, while also increasing tax revenue. However, these benefits come at the political cost of allowing greater citizen autonomy, wealth and property in private hands, and open competition against state monopolies.
The viability of Cuba’s reforms also depends on the recently announced changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba and on Cuba’s changing policy toward its émigrés, who already play a major role in the Cuban economy as suppliers of start-up capital via the billions of dollars they provide annually in remittances. Such investment could be expanded if the Cuban government were to deepen its recent migration reforms by granting greater economic rights to its extensive émigré community.
Obama’s relaxation of U.S. policy will inevitably shift the political calculus that underlies economic reform on the island. As external obstacles to Cuba’s economic revitalization are removed, the onus will fall with increased pressure on the Cuban government to broaden and deepen its initial reforms, since it alone will be to blame for poor performance.
For example, organizations like Catholic Church-affiliated CubaEmprende have already begun to offer entrepreneurship workshops to small business owners with the financial backing of Cuban-Americans. Now that they needn’t worry about the threat of U.S. sanctions, will this and other similar projects be provided the legal and institutional space to flourish by the Cuban government?
Despite a continued state monopoly on the mass media and one of the Western Hemisphere’s lowest Internet penetration rates, in recent years Cuba has seen a number of significant developments in information and communication technology (ICT) capabilities, access to uncensored news, and the availability of new dissemination channels for digital data.
These developments include:
1. The spread of the worldwide blogging and citizen journalism phenomena to Cuba;
2. The connection of a fiber-optic Internet cable to the island from Venezuela in 2013, followed by the opening of 118 Internet cafés in June 2013 and access to e-mail via cell phone for the first time in 2014;
3. The appearance of a small number of independent, island-based news outlets – including the news and opinion websites Havana Times, On Cuba, and 14ymedio (launched by pioneering blogger Yoani Sánchez in May 2014);
5. The emergence of an underground digital data distribution system known as “el paquete” (the packet).
Each of these developments could be accelerated by the new U.S. policy that allows American telecom providers to do business in Cuba, but only if the Cuban government is willing to allow diversification and freer competition in its centralized, monopolistic ICT system.
For example, the so-called “packet” phenomenon currently acts as an alternate, off-line Internet on the island making huge amounts of electronic data (CDs, DVDs, video games, books, “apps,” computer programs, news, and so forth) readily available for purchase in Cuba’s digital “black market.” While much data continues to circulate via thumb-drives, there is also a market for entire external hard drives of data bought and sold not in megabytes or gigabytes, but in terabytes – and all outside the rigid control of the state media production and distribution system – amounting to an indirect but very serious and effective challenge to the so-called “política cultural de la Revolución.”
This digital black market arises from the fact that many products—especially the latest electronic gadgets—are either priced far out of reach for most Cubans in “las tiendas estatales,” not sold at all, or even banned outright. More recently, the small but rapidly growing number of Cubans who have joined the smart phone revolution (often purchasing their Androids or iPhones via the blocked site Revolico.com, a Cuban version of Craig’s List) have benefitted from the proliferation of “apps” especially configured for Cuba’s peculiar off-line environment.
Undoubtedly, such a peculiar digital media environment will be fundamentally transformed if American data, service, and hardware providers were given access to the Cuban market. At the very least, prices are bound to fall, speed increase, and access expand, with the quality and quantity of digital ICT equipment improving.
A key recent development was the June 2014 trip of top Google executives to the island, including company co-founder Eric Schmidt, with the purpose of “promoting a free and open Internet.” To that end, they met both with leading cyber-activist Yoani Sánchez and government officials, while also interacting with students at Cuba’s University of Computer Science. Upon returning to the U.S., Schmidt declared that Cuba was trapped in the Internet of the 1990s and heavily censored, with American-engineered hardware and software losing out to Chinese ICT infrastructure.
He also reasoned that the U.S. embargo “makes absolutely no sense” if Washington’s aim is to open the island up to the freer flow of information. “If you wish the country to modernize,” Schmidt argued, “the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”
The greatly expanded telecom opportunities for U.S. companies and the decision to review the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, both included in December’s announcement to normalize relations, indicate that the Obama administration was convinced by Schmidt’s logic.
The slow pace and (so far) only marginally successful results of Cuba’s economic reforms to date has put the Cuban government under rising internal pressure to expand Internet services and from abroad to meet the needs of the new foreign investors it hopes to attract. This eventuality – now with the help of U.S. investment and technology – could positively impact the population’s access to the web.
At the same time, the government is clearly looking to the Chinese example as it contemplates ramping up its own Internet capabilities, hoping to remake the web in its authoritarian image and forestall any of its democratizing impacts.
Still, in the months following the Google visit, the company announced that it was unblocking island access to its free cloud-based Chrome search engine as well as popular applications such as Google Play and Google Analytics – a decision that could not have been made without tacit approval from the Obama administration. Events in 2015 will reveal how much further the Cuban government is willing to allow Google and other Internet and telecom companies to go.
While these digital developments are significant, it remains difficult to determine to what extent they will affect ordinary Cubans, given that the government itself estimates the Internet access rate at an extremely low 26 percent. Even this figure conflates access to the Internet with the island’s limited internal “intranet,” and counts sporadic access to e-mail in the same category as full access to the World Wide Web.
Moreover, while 118 new cyber-cafes opened across the island in June 2013, the service is a state monopoly available only to those able to pay in hard currency. Full access for one hour costs the equivalent of the average weekly salary. Thus, expanded access to ICT in Cuba takes place in a context of a connectivity that can be described as slow, expensive, and censored, with certain sites – such as 14ymedio – blocked outright.
Devices such as computers, tablets, and smartphones are scarce and costly; the purchase and importation of key equipment such as routers and other Wi-Fi technology are highly controlled. Indeed, it is still not legally possible for the vast majority of Cuban citizens to obtain a household Internet connection, and there is virtually no legal access on the island to wireless networks and fully functional mobile technology or smart phones with data plans, outside of international hotels and certain government institutions, and select educational facilities.
The government has recognized these limitations and made commitments to remedy them, but there is no clear timeline or way to hold the government or its telecom monopoly Etecsa accountable to citizens, consumers, or Cuba’s emerging class of private entrepreneurs.
Cuban citizens of all stripes are working to overcome the substantial obstacles to entrepreneurship and free expression. This effort, however, takes place in an asphyxiating climate of political polarization, where Cubans have been doubly blockaded by the U.S. embargo on one side and by the ongoing internal embargo on the other.
This is why the recent growth of domestic entrepreneurship and innovative engagement by Internet companies like Google is so significant. This new approach seeks to engage and empower the Cuban people directly while accepting some collateral benefit for the Cuban government, instead of aiming to undermine the government with a ham-handed embargo while accepting the collateral damage that such a policy inevitably has on the people.
Now that this approach has been reinforced by the Obama administration’s momentous decision to diplomatically engage Cuba as a way to further empower the Cuban people (making their lives, in the words of the president, a bit more fácil), the ball is clearly in Castro’s court.
Will he transform his initial economic reforms and marginal expansion of the Internet into change Cubans can believe (and even invest) in?