Monday, February 14, 2011

About this blog -- el tema de este blog

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In the 1990s, during the years just before and just after Cuba’s first Internet connection, I visited the island three times, and wrote several reports and articles on the state of Cuban networking.

Cuba was one of the leading pre-Internet networking nations in the Caribbean. The small community of Cuban networking technicians was like that of other nations at the time. They were smart, resourceful, and motivated. They believed, correctly, that the Internet was important -- that it would have a profound impact on individuals, organizations and society. They were members of the international community of Internet pioneers.

I have recently returned to the topic in writing a study of the state of the Internet in Cuba today. I discovered that remarkably little has changed since those early days. The Cuban Internet has stagnated, while most of the world raced ahead.

This left me saddened -- for the optimistic Internet pioneers who were not able to realize their dreams and for the Cuban people who have not enjoyed and profited from the Internet.

I can think of three major causes for this stagnation: the US embargo, the Cuban economy, and the government's fear of information freedom.

The US embargo delayed an undersea cable and made computers, routers, and other equipment expensive and difficult to obtain. Cuban leaders are quick to blame the embargo for their networking problems, but it was only one hurdle.

With or without an embargo, building Internet infrastructure, training a generation of demanding users, building the Internet industry, and developing innovative applications is expensive. Cuba's first Internet connection occurred a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the economy was severely depressed during that "special period." Furthermore, the policies of the Cuban government were hostile to, not encouraging of, foreign investment. Cuba could not afford to develop the Internet.

The third constraint was the government's fear of freedom of speech and communication -- the dictator's dilemma. They were unwilling to risk political instability in order to achieve the benefits of the Internet.

This sad situation is changing. Cuba will soon have an undersea cable. Chinese networking equipment and expertise are world class and, presumably, not effected by the embargo. The political situation in the United States is slowly changing as the revolution fades further into the past. The Cuban leaders are old and will change. Most important, there is a good deal of pent up demand for the Internet among the well-educated Cuban population.

I am starting this blog as a small effort to encourage the modernization of and access to the Internet in Cuba.

Respectful comments and guest posts are welcome.


el tema de este blog

Durante la década de los noventa, justo antes e inmediatamente después de la primera conexión de Cuba al Internet, tuve la oportunidad de visitar la isla tres veces, y de escribir varios informes y artículos sobre el estado del Internet en Cuba.

Cuba estuvo a la vanguardia con respecto a redes de computadores, entre los países caribeños de la época pre-Internet. La pequeña comunidad de técnicos de las redes en cuba fue parecida a las de otros países durante esa época. Eran inteligentes, creativos, originales, y sumamente motivados. Creían, correctamente, que las redes y el Internet era importante y que tendría un profundo impacto en los individuos, organizaciones, y la sociedad entera. Se sentían miembros de la comunidad internacional de los pioneros del Internet.

Eso era entonces -- acabo de completar un estudio del estado actual del Internet en Cuba que actualisa mis previos informes. Descubrí que desgraciadamente aun permanecen en el pasado, y muy poco ha cambiado desde aquellos días pioneros. El Internet en Cuba ha quedado estancado cuando el resto del mundo se ha unido en forma acelerada a todos los cambios.

Esto me ha hecho sentir pena por el pueblo Cubano y la comunidad de técnicos -- por Cuba que no han podido aprovecharse de las riquezas del Internet, por los técnicos que han visto sus suenos morir.

Pienso en tres causas que explican este estancamiento: el embargo impuesto por los EEUU, la economía Cubana tan deteriorada y el miedo del gobierno al libre flujo de la información.

El embargo de los EEUU bloqueo la construcción de un cable submarino y agrego costo a la adquisición de computadoras, “routers,” y cualquier otro equipo necesario. Los líderes cubanos culparan solamente al embargo por sus dificultades con el Internet y desconocieron los otros obstáculos.

Aunque el embargo no hubiese existido, Cuba no tenia acceso a los capitales necesarios para construir la infraestructura del Internet, para entrenar una generación de usuarios, para desarrollar una industria de Internet y para desarrollar aplicaciones. La primera conexión de Cuba al Internet fue a los pocos anos despues de la caída de la Unión Soviética. La economía sufrió una severa depresión durante ese "periodo especial." Fuera de eso, la política normal del gobierno Cubano se oponía a inversiones extranjeras. Cuba no disponía de los medios para desarrollar el Internet.

El tercer obstáculo eral el miedo de parte del gobierno al flujo de la información libre -- el dilema del dictador. No les interesaba arriesgar la estabilidad política para conseguir los beneficios de la Internet.

Esta situación está en vías de cambio. Muy pronto Cuba va a tener un cable submarino. China ofrece equipos de alta calidad sin el “impuesto” del embargo y técnicos con experiencia en las redes. La relación de los EEUU hacia Cuba está abriéndose paulatinamente dado a que la presión que ejercía la comunidad cubana-americana ha ido disminuyendo. Sobre todo, el pueblo cubano, con sus altos niveles de educación, va a exigir el acceso al Internet.

Estoy empezando este blog como un pequeño esfuerzo para fomentar la modernización y el acceso al Internet en Cuba.

Bienvenido cualquier comentario respetuoso o post invitado.

(Gracias a Leon Kaplan para la traducción).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.


  1. Hi, Professor Press

    Good afternoon. I'm writing to you from Cuba where I'm on a three-month visit. Looking forward to following your blog which can be a useful addition to the work I'm doing.

    For over ten years I've been the principal contributor to or director of CubaNews, a free Yahoo news group which has posted over 120,000 items in its free and easy-to-access archives.

    I'll be here for another ten weeks and can report already something of note since my arrival: the Cuban governmen has unblocked the dissident websites. This is a helpful change since just last year. And I deliberately checked to see if this was, in fact, the case.

    Internet access here is really sucky for those few who have it at home. Think 56K dialup and you'll get the idea. Most of us have forgotten what dialup even was, so long has it been since we've gone over to DSL or cable modem.

    If you follow the internet situation in Cuba closely, you've also probably read Adam Liptak's report in the New York Times a few years ago, which they still keep on their site, describing how the US government blocks Cuban websites.

    Here's a link to that and some further comments from the Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde:

    While two wrongs don't make one right, I hope you will keep in mind that Cuba is the only country on the entire planet where an enemy nation, ours, the Unites States of America, maintains a military base, against the wishes of the national government. This does not make for a free and open relationship between the two countries.

    Regime change here in Cuba is the official, stated policy of the United States government, as specified in the Helms-Burton law and the Torricelli law, among other official US government activities.

    Furthermore, as I'm sure you're aware, the US refused to allow Cuba to access the existing fiber-optic connection which is alreay laid in the Caribbean. Thankfully the Venezuelan connection has finally come about and, hopefully, things will get easier here. They are not easy yet, however.

    You and any of your readers are cordially invited to subscribe to my list, which is also moderated, but which happily accepts polite discussion of Cuba-related issues. I post to places like the MIAMI HERALD and the WALL STREET JOURNAL among others, where I have the strongest of disagreements.

    Best wishes,

    Walter Lippmann
    La Habana, Cuba
    when not in Los Angeles, California

  2. As a cuban citizen I just thank you very much. Best regards

  3. > As a cuban citizen I just thank you very much.

    I truly appreciate that!


  4. Hello... good to know that someone here in the states, have an eye on this issue in Cuba... Im also a Cuban that left the island in 1999, when I was 29... Those years I heard some words about internet in the island, but never got the chance to explore the cyberspace...

  5. Larry – thank you very much for taking the time to track and publish on this subject. I lived in Cuba for 14 years and currently, as an economist and internet entrepreneur, I keep a close eye on the subject.

    Looking forward to following your blog, insights and developments on the subject.

    1. Alberto,
      I'm glad you find it interesting -- please share insights from your experience in Cuba and as an Internet entrepreneur.

  6. I am afraid my insights would be mostly anecdotal. I lived in Old Havana until 2001 – at the time, I was starting High School and recall that during my last year there my school managed to get their hands on a handful of desktop computers. Of course, internet connectivity was unheard of, but people were highly fascinated with the prospects of technology.

    Access to those computers was extremely restricted, even though one couldn’t do much with them (or knew what to do with them). The room they were in seemed more like a small fortress than a computer lab – doors were locked from the outside with heavy chains and windows blocked with metal bars (despite being on the third floor of the building). Fascinating times.

    Through a family friend I managed to land a basic “computer science” class at a center in Old Havana – the name of the institution escapes me, but I clearly recall it was one of those rare buildings with blasting air conditioning. That aspect alone was worth the 15-blocks walk from my apartment to the center. The class tried to teach the very basic functionalities of Windows – right & left clicks, creating a new folder, word documents, etc. I can’t say I learned much.

    I did have a friend whose father was a college professor who had some engagement with Etecsa. They somehow managed to get a personal computer into their house, with dialup internet access and everything. It was indeed a very well kept secret. Sadly, most of the time was spent trying to reconnect to the internet as the connection was extremely unreliable. He went on to study computer science in Havana and today works in the field there. From what he tells me, his job is now a large waste of resources. As he describes it, “they pretend to pay me and I pretend to do work.”

    On my side, it wasn’t until I arrived to the states that I truly learned to use a computer. Two years after my arrival (while still learning English), I was doing web development and running a local site centered around education and social gatherings. Two years later, I went off to the University of Chicago for Economics and continued to work on web ventures while there. To date I’ve worked on many web projects, mostly in the entertainment space and other more serious ones: (current project, under development).

    Today I work with a group of economists at a bank in New York, but follow the topic of internet penetration closely, not only in Cuba, but in Latin America as a whole. Data from the World Bank suggest that Latam is today where the US was at the end of the 1990s in terms of internet penetration. However, the pace of growth appears to be greater than it was in the US, which makes sense intuitively given that the technology already exists – now it only needs to become cheaper and for countries to obtain the infrastructure to sustain it.

    Cuba is sadly a very different story since politics plays such a large role. I suspect that the spread of internet, when it comes, could potentially lead to a shift in mentality – with a greater sense of awareness about life outside of Cuba, will arguably emerge a greater desire for change. When the day comes, I am sure tighter content filters will be implemented, but individuals will always find ways to circumvent them, as they do in China. Indeed a very sensitive topic.

    I continue to monitor the matter and thank you for your insights.

  7. Alberto,

    Would you be willing to post this as a guest post (or let me repost it in your name)? I find it most interesting, and only a few people will see it as a comment. (Was the class you took at the Youth Computer Club in the old Sears building)? I have been following the Internet in developing nations for many years, and am looking forward to seeing what you all do on Webicator.

  8. Thank you Larry. It was indeed the Youth Computer Club! Feel free to repost as you find appropriate.


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