Will Cuba’s “Cyber Rebels” Help Set it Free?

The New York Times recently reported on the “growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups”, suggesting that their efforts are helping to challenge Cuba’s authoritarian policies. Although it balanced the stories of how the Internet has allowed private citizens to share damaging recordings of politicians with a depiction of how legal and monetary obstructions limit access for most Cubans, it noted several encouraging factors that are enabling Cubans to circumvent the government’s stringent restrictions.

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According to the article, “young people [in Cuba] say there is a thriving black market giving thousands of people an underground connection to the world outside the Communist country.” Thanks to a market for “passwords and identification numbers for use in the middle of the nights,” some Cubans are able to circumvent the monetary and legal hurdles by accessing the Internet through connections at foreign businesses and state-run enterprises. Others are able to evade restrictions by using Internet Services available at “hotels catering to tourists”, as well as terminals available at universities.

To be sure, there are serious impediments to access and they should not be dismissed. In contrast to what might be implied by the picture of the young blogger, sitting in front of her laptop, that graces the first page of the article, Reporters Without Borders notes that as of 2005, less than 4 out of every hundred Cubans own a computer. Moreover, according to the Open Net Initiative, less than 2 percent of the population has regular access to the Internet. As a general matter, Internet use requires authorization and the prohibitive cost of access (nearing the average monthly salary for an hour) in Internet Café’s is a further obstruction.

With that said, the ability to capture political activity and discontent and to communicate it within the country, as well as to the outside world should not be discounted. As the article points out, those numbers probably do not account for Internet access that exists but may not regular and access enabled by black market transactions. And through websites like YouTube and Wikileaks, it only takes one person to pass information to a wide swath of interested people. And in a society where the penalties for publicly voicing disconnect are large, it does not seem unlikely that providing a forum that provides a larger probability of anonymity, where even a small number of people voice there concerns to each other, helps important issues alive and enables people to support and motivate each other.

image credit: Mary Joyce

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