David Jessop | Cuba and the internet, Part 2
When it comes to Cuba what is often missed is that its government's primary focus is not on the process of normalising its relationship with the United States, but on the far more fundamental domestic reforms that are gradually changing the country's political and economic model in ways that are intended to better deliver its objectives.
For the rest of the Caribbean this is significant because it means that Cuba, far from allowing itself to be embraced by the US, plans to continue to resist Washington's influence, defend its national values and independent global outlook, and continue developing its own social thinking.
To put this in perspective, consider the recently quoted words of Eli·n Gonz·lez, who was the subject of a custody battle in 2000 and who now appears to be emerging as a national role model for Cuban young people.
In an interview with Granma, the Communist Party daily, he said this about the future of Cuba: "Sometimes young people believe that if we as a socialist country were to give way to capitalism, we would become a developed country like the United States, France, Italy... But we must be clear that if Cuba ceased to be socialist, it would become a colony of the United States; like Haiti a poor country, much poorer than it is, and lose everything it has achieved."
This of course is not to deny the now widespread sense of optimism among almost all Cubans about change and renewal that dÈtente may bring; but to try to inject a degree of realism into what has been written, and to try to understand what this alternative way of thinking about what is happening may mean for Cuba
Few in the region follow day to day developments within Cuba or read its increasingly informative and diverse media, so they have little basis on which to judge or form a measured view on the type of country Cuba may become.
In this respect, a debate that requires much closer attention concerns the future role of the internet and social media, and goes to the heart of what the country will be like when a new generation starts to take over around the time that President Castro steps down in 2018.
Over the last few months there has been something close to a national public debate that has made clear that for Cuba, beyond the practical problems of delivering connectivity, defining the purpose of the internet and its availability suggest existential tensions in a society in which many of its young want more materially and to have greater freedom to access the wider world.
In February, Cuba's first vice-president, Miguel DÌaz-Canel, speaking to around 11,000 mainly young professionals largely by video conferencing at the end of the First National Workshop on Computerisation and Cyber-Security, effectively established the political guidelines for a discussion on future Cuban Internet and social media use. In a long and detailed speech he noted that rights and responsibility must co-exist, must be applied in relation to the Internet and should be a part of the process of national cultural development reflecting Cuban values.
Since then the debate has broadened.
On June 7, at an international conference, Abel Prieto, an adviser to President Castro and to the Councils of State and Ministers and a former minister of culture, criticised the way in which the Internet had developed internationally, suggesting that the world is experiencing a devastating crisis of culture, "with an industry that mixes everything, with or without value" and which has "failed to establish a hierarchy between the frivolous or the profound, culture or the classical".
He suggested that the entertainment industry had contaminated the industry of information. This meant, he said, that the relevant facts were omitted or, when spread, were immersed in a stream of collateral content.
This view is of course far from most people's view of the internet and one suspects not that of many young Cubans who happily mix idealism, patriotism and social commitment with wanting the same freedoms and information as their global counterparts.
It was therefore not surprising that the Internet was an issue debated at both the recently held Congress of the Young Communists and in the committees of a recent Cuban National Assembly meeting, where, from reports, it appears direct questions were asked about trust, access, cost and availability.
In response, the deputy communications minister, Jose Luis Perdomo, reportedly told participants: "Cuba has been and is determined to connect with the world". The Cuban government's priority, he said, was to ensure that ICT becomes a sector of strategic development for the nation, to strengthen it as a knowledge-based economy, making significant contributions to exports and the domestic economy and facilitating broad access to digital content and services for citizens.
He stressed that among the main
barriers to overcome were financial constraints, investment in infrastructure, insufficient capacity in the access network, a high level of technological obsolescence, and a range of technical issues including poor territorial coverage and achieving a reasonable level of cyber security. With a view to 2020, he said, government will work to bring Internet connectivity to homes and a range of essential institutions.
But what it appears the debate has so far not resolved is an issue reportedly raised at the Youth Congress by a senior representative from the elite University of Information Sciences who, loosely translated, made the following point: "Maybe today there is still a lack of ICT, but there should be no concern that young people have access, because it has been shown that our youth are able to access social networks and defend the values and training that we have."
Change and how it occurs in Cuba is of course for the Cuban people alone, but the Internet and social media may well become the issue that defines culturally and politically how the country seeks to improve and update its system.
The outcome it seems will very much depend on how it manages to develop an approach that combines the personal freedoms and individualism that the Internet and social media imply, with the responsibilities, cultural values and security that the state requires.
In the end this would appear to come down to a question about the level of trust Cuba is willing to place in its well educated young people.
This is a debate that deserves much wider attention not just in the Caribbean but in the world beyond.
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council.