President Obama announced his historic upcoming visit to Cuba—the first in almost 90 years by a US president—on Twitter, meaning that most Cubans would have to learn the news by some other means. Only about 27 percent of Cubans currently have Internet access, and not all of these users can access the full global Internet. Many are limited to a government-controlled intranet through their workplaces. Key industries such as the banking system are only partly computerized, and simple tasks such as bank transfers are difficult.
It is generally agreed that Cuba would benefit from better telecommunications infrastructure, and during his visit, Obama is likely to suggest ways that the United States can help with this. A few days ago, the Obama administration announced that it was lifting limits on the use of American dollars in transactions with the island, as well as permitting educational travel to Cuba for individuals, which should help with expanding digital access. Yet there is no consensus between the two nations over how the improvements to Cuba’s infrastructure should happen.
Last November, The New York Times published an editorial calling on the Cuban government to partner with companies such as Google to update its telecommunications infrastructure and expand access to the Internet. The editorial argues that the only thing standing in the way is the Cuban leadership’s lack of political will. In January, the US Federal Communications Commission removed Cuba from its exclusion list, making it possible for companies to provide telecommunications services to Cuba without prior FCC approval. Shortly afterward, Daniel Sepulveda, the deputy assistant secretary of state and the US coordinator for international communications and information policy at the State Department, visited Cuba to discuss how US companies could help to connect Cuba to the Internet. He also reiterated that the main obstacle to improving Cuba’s Internet infrastructure was the unwillingness of the Cuban government to move ahead.
These perspectives downplay the role of the embargo in hampering Cuba’s access to Internet technologies. Presenting Cuba as a tabula rasa, stuck in the digital dark ages, fails to engage with the cultures of communication that currently exist on the island. These cultures could provide a strong base for constructing a self-sustaining, open, and accessible digital commons with robust privacy protections—an increasingly remote possibility in the United States, where ubiquitous surveillance is devaluing the Internet as a public resource.
Milena Recio, a Cuban journalism professor and the Havana-based chief Web editor for the American news website OnCuba, has been a strong advocate for expanding telecommunications infrastructure on the island. But she cautions that we need to talk not just about the Internet but about “connectivity” more broadly. This includes the development of network-based services and intranets in administration, education, banking, and other sectors that would benefit from connected software applications. Rather than simply focusing on “going online,” Recio draws our attention to the need for developing broader networks that can facilitate Cuba’s transition into a digital era.