BY DAVID JESSOP— Cuba’s government’s primary focus is not on the process of normalising its relationship with the United States, but on the far more fundamental domestic reforms that are gradually changing the country’s political and economic model in ways that are intended to better deliver its objectives. This is significant for the rest of the Caribbean, as it means that Cuba, far from allowing itself to be embraced by the United States, plans to continue to resist Washington’s influence, defend its national values and independent global outlook, and further develop its own social thinking.

To put this in perspective, consider the recently quoted words of Elián González, who was the subject of a custody battle in 2000 and who now appears to be emerging as a national role model for Cuban young people. In an interview with Granma, the Communist Party daily newspaper, he said this about the future of Cuba:

Sometimes young people believe that if we as a socialist country were to give way to capitalism, we would become a developed country like the United States, France, Italy… But we must be clear that if Cuba ceased to be socialist, it would become a colony of the United States; like Haiti a poor country, much poorer than it is, and lose everything it has achieved.

This is not incompatible with the widespread sense of optimism among many Cubans about change and renewal that detente may bring. Instead, Elián’s statement injects a degree of realism into what has already been written about the negotiation of diplomatic ties with the United States and underscores the need to understand what this may mean for Cuba.

Few in the region follow day-to-day developments within Cuba or read its increasingly informative and diverse media, and thus would have little basis on which to judge or form a measured view on the type of country Cuba may become. In this respect, closer attention should be paid to the role internet and social media will play when a new generation comes into the country’s leadership once President Raul Castro steps down in 2018.

Over the last few months, there has been public debate highlighting the fact that beyond the practical problems of delivering connectivity, defining the purpose of the internet and its availability suggest existential tensions in a society in which many young people want more materially and desire greater freedom to access the wider world.

In February, at the end of the First National Workshop on Computerisation and Cyber-Security, Cuba’s First Vice President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, speaking to around 11,000 young professionals, effectively established the political guidelines for a discussion on future Cuban internet and social media use. In a long and detailed speech he noted that rights and responsibility must coexist and be applied in relation to the internet and should be a part of the process of national cultural development reflecting Cuban values.

At an international conference on June 7,  Abel Prieto, a former Minister of Culture and an advisor to President Castro and the Councils of State and Ministers, criticised the way in which the internet had developed internationally, suggesting that the world is experiencing a devastating crisis of culture, “with an industry that mixes everything, with or without value” and which has “failed to establish a hierarchy between the frivolous or the profound, culture, or the classical”. He suggested that the entertainment industry had contaminated the industry of information, omitting relevant facts or dispersing them in a stream of collateral content.

This viewpoint is quite different from many people’s opinions of the internet, and one might suspect that it is not shared by many young Cubans who happily mix idealism, patriotism, and social commitment with wanting the same freedoms and information as their global counterparts. It was therefore not surprising that during the Congress of the Young Communists and in the committees of a recent Cuban National Assembly meeting, participants asked questions about trust, access, cost, and availability in relation to the internet.

In response, the Deputy Communications Minister Jose Luis Perdomo reportedly told participants: “Cuba has been and is determined to connect with the world”. The Cuban government’s priorities, he said, are to ensure that information and communication technology (ICT) becomes a sector of strategic development for the nation, to strengthen ICT as a knowledge-based economy so that it makes significant contributions to exports and the domestic economy, and to facilitate broad access to digital content and services for citizens.

Perdomo stressed that the main barriers to overcome were: financial constraints, investment in infrastructure, insufficient capacity in the access network, a high level of technological obsolescence, and a range of technical issues including poor territorial coverage and achieving a reasonable level of cyber security. He also explained that in looking to 2020, the government will work to bring internet connectivity to homes and a range of essential institutions.

The debate about the role of the internet has not yet resolved an issue reportedly raised at the Youth Congress by a senior representative from the elite University of Information Sciences (UCI) who made the following point: “Maybe today there is still a lack of ICT, but there should be no concern that young people have access, because it has been shown that our youth are able to access social networks and defend the values ​​and training that we have” (loose translation).

Change and how it occurs in Cuba is of course for the Cuban people alone, but the internet and social media may become the issue that culturally and politically defines how the country seeks to improve and update its system. The outcome will depend on how it manages to develop an approach that combines the personal freedoms and individualism that the internet and social media imply with the responsibilities, cultural values, and security that the state requires. In the end this would appear to come down to a question about the level of trust Cuba is willing to place in its well-educated young people.

Image Credit: Indi and Rani Soemardjan

How could the liberalisation of the Internet transform Cuba?

David Jessop, Expert Contributor

David Jessop is a consultant to the UK-based Caribbean Council. In a career spanning several decades, he has provided high level support and advice to industries, associations, governments and companies on investment, trade policy and political issues in the Caribbean, the UK and continental Europe.

PUBLISHED — August 4, 2015

Category: CARICOM & Foreign PolicyTechnology