Saturday, July 31, 2010

Expand the modern tools of liberation

Posted on Saturday, 07.31.10
Expand the modern tools of liberation

Information has always been a liberating force, and throughout history,
authoritarian regimes have always attempted to control it -- Cuba is no

Still, Cuba's recent liberalization of communication and technology has
had a great impact.

In March, the mothers, daughters and wives of Cuban prisoners of
conscience -- known as the ``Ladies in White'' -- marched in Havana and
were beaten by State Security in broad daylight.

Camera phones, illegal up until 2008, captured many of the images that
mobilized the outside world in solidarity within a scant matter of minutes.

Later, news that Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas had agreed to abandon
his hunger strike following news that the Cuban government had agreed to
release 52 political prisoners was first announced by Cuban blogger
Yoani Sánchez via Twitter, where she later posted the first photo of
``El Coco'' drinking his first sip of water in 135 days.

Traditionally, these regimes have resorted to isolation and the outright
banning of information media to achieve their goals.

Yet these closed societies have often faced a different kind of dilemma:
the positive impact of technology on economic activity versus its
liberalizing powers.

Attempting to deal with this dilemma, modern dictatorships have opted
instead for controlling information media rather than banning it.

However, modern information and communications technology has presented
two serious and fundamental challenges to dictatorial regimes.

• It has democratized information in an unprecedented manner by
empowering every citizen to be a producer, rather than a simple
consumer, of information.

• For those regimes that seek to prioritize economic growth, they are
forced to balance the politically liberating forces of technology with
the need to be competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.

Cuba is not exempt from these challenges; rather, it is attempting to
balance these challenges.

The Cuban government needs to fundamentally reform the island's economy
but deeply fears the political impact of widespread access to
communication and technology tools.

How it pursues that balance can be greatly facilitated or hindered by
U.S. policy toward Cuba.

As little as five years ago, there were just a few thousand mobile
phones in Cuba, almost all of them in the hands of government officials,
foreigners and members of the elite.

Since Raúl Castro's announcement lifting the ban on cellphones, the
number of cellphones is rapidly approaching one million by the end of 2010.

The reason is simple: the economic benefits outweighed political concerns.

It is unreasonable to expect the development of other forms of
communication tools and technology in Cuba, such as the Internet and
social media, without economic models to make them work.

Current U.S. regulations restrict the access necessary to make this
happen. In fact, the restrictions on Cuba are significantly more onerous
and tough than those applied to countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria
and Burma.

Expanding the opportunities for U.S. telecom companies to provide
cellphone and Internet service to the island will help ensure that Cuban
citizens possess the tools they need in order to become agents of change.

To say this does not deny or minimize the real controls that the Cuban
government places on its own citizens' access to the Internet.

But expanding citizens' access to even the most rudimentary technology
in Cuba would be a giant step forward in empowering a new, independent
generation of Cuban citizens.

The Cuba Study Group in collaboration with the Brookings Institution and
the Americas Society/Council of the Americas recently released a white
paper, Empowering the Cuban People Through Technology: Recommendations
for Private and Public Sector Leaders, which outlines specific steps the
American government and private sector actors can take to facilitate
Cuban's access to technology.

The report is the result of work of the Group's Cuba IT & Social Media
Initiative, which brought together more than 50 IT and
telecommunications experts in an effort to identify ways to ensure that
Cubans on the island have access to the technology they need to acquire
and share information and communicate with each other and the outside
world. The report is available at

Carlos Saladrigas is co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group.

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