Cuba + internet = democracy (?)

Many people think the internet holds the key to establishing a liberal capitalist democracy in Cuba. But this view is simplistic and deterministic. Español.

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Matías Bianchi
4 March 2015
A shirtless Cuban man stands on a dirt road with livestock in rural Cuba.

The US and Cuba recently normalised relations after a 52-year embargo. Demotix/Juliette Atkinson (c)

On 17 December, Barack Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously announced the normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba. The US had decided to drop its obtuse 50-year-long position and recognise the failure of the embargo with which it had tried to suffocate the Castro regime. Its new policy is based on engagement, a strategy that seeks to ease the opening of the regime doors so that Cuban citizens can see and taste ‘the benefits of the free capitalist world.’ 

The US decided to drop its obtuse 50-year-long position and recognise the failure of the embargo.

The nodal point in this strategy is the internet, as intermediary-free access to information is supposed to create new and profitable economic opportunities and at the same time give a voice to new actors – supposedly at near-zero cost.

This is why the Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer who operates almost as a spokesman for the anti-Castro elements in the US, recently insisted that ‘Washington should focus on the internet.’ It is no coincidence that the internet was already an issue in the first round of negotiations on 21-22 January, when the question of permitting US companies to operate in the island was being discussed. Chief US negotiator Roberta Jacobson herself has recognised that the internet is ‘a critical part of our strategy.’ 

The internet in Cuba

There is no denying that access to the internet will truly have a major impact in Cuba. The disruptive power of the so-called three revolutions (internet, cell phones and social networks) in everyday life is so huge that we tend to perceive only its quantitative aspects – the volume of information, consumption, and communication. But we are only just beginning to understand deeper aspects concerning its incidence on the way societies organise.

As we know, the island is significantly behind in the rest of the region in the introduction of communication technologies. Cell phones were allowed in 2008 but they are still scoring the lowest rate of penetration in Latin America. Until 2013, the internet was only accessible through satellite, which made it one of the most expensive in the world. As a result, only 5% of the population enjoys internet connection in their home. The majority – penetration is reckoned to reach only 25% of the population – uses internet cafés, internet parlors and hotels which, despite the 50% discount currently in force, still charge $3 an hour. The quality of the connection, which is only about one-fifth of the world average, makes Skype calls and watching YouTube videos practically impossible.

As a result, only 5% of the population enjoys internet connection in their home.

The reasons for this isolation are (as is any discussion on Cuba) a matter of polarised discussion. Some argue that it is the fault of the Torricelli Act (1992), while others maintain that it serves the regime’s purpose to fence itself off. However, even critics agree that the island does not have censorship cases such as Iran, China or North Korea.

The fact remains that the disruptive impact of home internet and of cell phones and mass social network use, has yet to be experienced in Cuba. It is mere speculation to guess how the Cubans will process their access to the available information, what economic opportunities will effectively open, and how all this will affect politics in the island. The commonly held view that the internet automatically leads to a liberal capitalist democracy must however be questioned. It is an ideological view, based on technological determinism, which can only lead us to hasty conclusions.

Internet means democracy

The argument that the power of the internet is so great that it can build liberal democracies came into fashion during the Arab Spring, when observers hailed the triumph of a ‘Facebook Revolution’ over Ben Ali’s and Mubarak’s autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Some renowned authors wrote pieces arguing that the Cuban regime did not fall as well under this tide simply because the islanders lacked internet access. Hence, so the reasoning went, greater access – whenever possible - would mean the inevitable fall of the Castro brothers.

The Arab Spring proved that social networks can indeed create tides, but it also showed that without a structured movement capable of actually carrying out actions on the ground, real change is very hard to achieve. In a recent article, US journalist Nathan Schneider explains how, when elections were held in Egypt after Mubarak’s fall in 2011-2012, it came as no surprise that the winner was the Muslim Brotherhood which had been organising and developing its networks for decades. And the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s government was overthrown in 2013 by the military demonstrated not only their tight control of the strategic areas in the country, but also that democracy does not depend on a click.

Democracy does not depend on a click.

Closer in time is the case of the Mexican movement #YoSoy132 (#IAm132) which began as opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican media's allegedly biased coverage of the 2012 general election, drawing inspiration from the Spanish 15-M movement. It was called the ‘Mexican Spring’ by its first spokespersons and the ‘Mexican occupy movement’ in the international press. After much Twitter activity, the movement did not stop Peña Nieto, with the support of the PRI machinery and the news corporation Televisa, from being elected president of Mexico. Podemos in Spain is taking note of this experience and investing much energy in offline political construction.

In the case of Cuba, it should be borne in mind that the regime has managed to survive a 52-year embargo by the world’s biggest economy, which happens to be located a mere 145km from its coast. It has managed to stay the course during the Cold War, to resist several attempted coups, to avoid falling under the democratisation wave that swept Latin America during the 1980s and, above all, to survive the downfall of the Soviet Union and its tremendous impact on the island (Cuba’s GDP was halved and its exports fell by 95%). The opposition argues that this was only made possible thanks to the iron grip of the regime, while defenders point to the strength of the achievements of the revolution and the legitimacy of the brothers’ leadership. In any event, the fact remains that there are currently no groups on the island that can mobilise in the way some do in other countries and make use of political use of the new technologies. The Cuban opposition has more international connections - highly concentrated in the United States - than local structures capable of carrying out activities in the island. 

The regime has managed to survive a 52-year embargo by the world’s biggest economy.

Multiple voices

There is no doubt that the better the access to the Internet, the more information will be coming to and from the island, and this will have important consequences. More Cuban voices will be heard in the international arena telling their concrete experiences, and that will certainly enrich the debate on Cuba, its regime and democracy.

Arguably, cases such as Yoani Sánchez’s (the Cuban blogger who has achieved international fame and several international awards for her critical portrayal of life in Cuba) or the Damas de Blanco (Ladies In White – the opposition movement consisting of wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents), who are currently cornered by the regime, may multiply and eventually manage to mobilise people into action. Again, this view stems from the belief that the Cuban regime is a dictatorship which holds its ground only on the basis of social control. 

What we shall perhaps find is a greater number of more nuanced voices, such as that of independent artists, students and journalists who, while deeply concerned and desiring change, do not have a radicalised, ideological perspective. Current oppositionists are very popular in the US, especially within the Cuban exiles’ communities, but they lack diversified connections in other countries, particularly neighbouring countries in Latin America. It is uncertain whether the current public figures will prevail or will be replaced by new, emerging ones.

The key factor is the information that will now be reaching the island. The US assumption is that Cubans will be able to see how other societies have daily access to material goods that are denied them, and how people in other places are enjoying greater freedom of expression and political action. They will realise more fully that it is not normal to have the same leaders for more than 50 years. And this could prompt them to organise and demand political change. 

Cubans will see how their neighbours in the Caribbean and Central America suffer from dismal inequality indexes.

But this conceals the fact that Cubans will also be able to share experiences and thus see how their neighbours in the Caribbean and Central America suffer from dismal inequality indexes, how drug trafficking is taking over their everyday lives, and how their murder rates are the highest in the world – higher than countries at war. They will also see that their country enjoys the fourth highest Human Development Index in the region; that infant mortality among black people in the United States is three times higher than in Cuba, or that the late Nelson Mandela, now held in such high esteem in the developed world, thanked Cuba before any other country for its support in difficult times. They will also be able to ascertain that the world at large does not hold such a radicalised view of the island and that the leaders of the Revolution continue to inspire young people everywhere. What is important here is that all of this will no longer be mediated by the propaganda structure of the regime and that it will not reach them only through the official party newspapers and magazines. 

Deep changes will no doubt occur in Cuba but it will not necessarily become the type of democracy some have in mind.

So, what political impact will all this exposure to the internet have? While attention should obviously be paid to other important factors such as changes in the economic structure and the indefectible finitude of the lives of the leaders of the 1959 Revolution, it is difficult to foretell the way in which any given society will adopt a particular technology and how it will put it to use. Deep changes will no doubt occur in Cuba, very probably of a democratising nature, and new voices and actors will emerge, but it will not necessarily become the type of democracy some have in mind.

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