Cuba’s Mobile Opening

Although the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains fixed, President Bush recently announced a slight, although not insignificant, change in policy. It appears that Americans are now permitted to send mobile phones to relatives in Cuba. Although U.S. citizens are barred from visiting family members inside the closed island country, it may now be easier to communicate with them. Bush’s announcement follows the recent change in Cuban domestic policy, whereby President Raul Castro eased restrictions on “luxury electrical goods.” This move has allowed Cubans to purchase mobile phones, computers, DVD players, and other goods. Already, one can find Cubans in Havana lining up outside telephone centers for a chance to purchase mobile devices. In fact, cell phone service is expanding in portions of the country.

Purportedly, the younger Castro’s purpose in easing these restrictions is to improve Cuba’s trade relations across the globe and, thereby, strengthen their stagnant economy. But a policy change like this has the potential to domino into something greater, namely democratic reform. Connecting the population to the global discourse, and more importantly to each other, may bring with it calls for change. Expatriates, situated outside of Cuba, have already made these calls in the global blogosphere. We can ponder if an internal movement will develop in the future, given the improved mechanisms of mobilization that digital communication provides.

This, of course, is only a thought. In reality, access to cell phones is decidedly limited, as contracts sell for nearly six times the average state salary. Even for those Cubans who can afford means of digital communication, we must think about issues of censorship. The Internet and Democracy Project touched on this issue at a Budapest session led by Gwendolyn Floyd and Joshua Kauffman. They gave an interesting presentation on the Internet in Cuba and other authoritarian regimes. As they mentioned, Internet access and activity remains highly monitored in Cuba and is usually reserved for state elites or other persons of privilege. Any discussion of technological proliferation in Cuba will include such topics as the nation’s Intranet or black market, a clear sign of the regime’s digital repression.

Even still, I cannot help but hang onto my Utopian thoughts and consider the recent policy developments as promising. Blogger Rich Basas has been following Cuba’s transition and has recently posted his musings about their foreign policy changes and the possibility of a Cuban Perestroika. I remember an old college professor of mine, speculating that MTV helped to bring down the Soviet Union. He said that MTV provided a window into a world where people enjoyed a wealth of material goods and had the freedom to make their own choices. Today, the Internet may fulfill this role. If Castro permits a degree of Perestroika and Glasnost and Cubans take the opportunity to “get connected”, the Internet will undoubtedly provide them with an endless number of possibilities. At its most fundamental level, the Internet epitomizes the notion of choice. And, for all intents and purposes, the freedom to choose is the most basic characteristic of any democracy.

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