Date: Thu, 20 Mar 97 23:00:58 CST
From: rich@pencil (Rich Winkel)
Subject: NACLA Nov/Dec96: LATIN AMERICA ONLINE
/** nacla.report: 306.0 **/
Cyberculture comes to the Americas
By Barbara Belejack, IPS, 18 March 1997
[Barbara Belejack is a freelance writer living in Mexico City]
As Internet technology sweeps through the continent, many of the powerless are gaining access to communication. But the gap between "the slow" and the "connected" may be growing larger.
Kunanqa rihsisunchisya Runa Simita, inkakunah rimayninta, Kay musuhanpi, Supercarretera de Informacion, Internetpa Kancharyninwan.
Even for those without a word of Quechua, the phrase Supercarretera de Informacion, Internetpa, is a dead give-away: Let's learn Quechua, language of the Incas, the modern way, via the information highway through the light of the Internet.
The message appeared in a Lima newsweekly last July, directing readers to the web page of the Peruvian Scientific Network (RCP), a non-profit, user-financed consortium of individual, academic, non-governmental, business and public- sector members. It was founded in Lima in 1991 with one computer, three modems and 7,000 dollars in seed money from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In 1994 the RCP connected to the backbone of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and now includes over 3,000 member- organizations and nearly 60,000 individual users. In the words of director Jose Soriano, it is an autonomous network that strictly applies the concept of the Internet -- a network of national networks that belongs to no one and everyone.
On the telecommunications-fair circuit, where he is a frequent speaker, Soriano makes a passionate case for a regional Latin American backbone -- the necessary infrastructure that would allow the Internet to be used to the fullest extent as a developmental tool. A Latin American backbone would decentralize the use of communications technology beyond the major cities, and lessen the region's dependence on satellite connection to the United States. He portrays the Internet as a latter-day version of Bolivar's dream and the last chance to reverse centuries of centralization in Peru that have concentrated economic development in Lima and isolated much of the couintryside.
During the 1994 Miami Summit of the Americas, Internet connectivity was declared a priority for the region and the Organization of American States (OAS), the NSF and the UNDP have been responsible for much of the recent push for full connectivity. All countries in the hemisphere have at least simple e-mail connections and with few exceptions, most are connected to the Internet. (Guyana and Haiti are the lone exceptions to full Internet connectivity ; in September Cuba connected through Sprint in the United States.) By far the most networked nation in the region is Brazil, where the Internet has been featured on a TV Globo soap opera. According to Matrix Information and Data Systems in Austin, Texas, the opening up of the Internet market in Brazil has resulted in 2,333% growth January 1995 and January 1996.
Although they may be just as confused about the role of print media in cyberspace as their counterparts north of the Rio Grande, most major publications in Latin America are on the Internet, and most have a special computer section or at least a computer columnist to chronicle the many wonders of cyberspace. And when an attorney with ties to the drug world was shot and killed in a Monterrey restaurant last spring, the newspaper El Norte obtained his computer diskettes and published dozens of incriminating letters on its web site. Soon after, the governor of the state of Nuevo Leon resigned and was charged with masterminding the attorney's murder.
The range of cyberactivities is coming to resemble the computer supermarket of the North. Brazil's largest bank offers electronic banking; Mexico's largest private university is pioneering a virtual university; a Venezuelan e-zine points readers to web sites devoted to Hillary Clinton's hair. And like up north, computer-culture personalities have captured the popular imagination; the Latin American journeys of Bill Gates make for front page headlines throughout the region. But aside from cyberscoops and technological prowess, what does the Internet have to offer in the way of cultural and politics? Does it differ from radio, television, public-access cable television, video and all the other technological innovations touted as great equalizers and promoters of democracy? Is there anything really different going on now?
While RCP prides itself on its computer stations--cabinas publicas--that make the Internet available to those without computers at home, "available" is a relative concept in a country where only 20% of the poptlation is adequately employed and the cost of a basic basket of consumer goods exceeds the average worker's salary. According to a preliminary study of the RCP conducted by University of Lima sociologist Javier Diaz-Albertini, the average individual member is male, university-educated, 20 years old and resides in a high-income district of Lima.
The Internet should be seen as a tool -- no more, no less, says Scott Robinson, an anthropologist who coordinates Mexico's Rural Information Network on the non-profit LaNeta network. Robinson is less concerned about the number of individual users in the region than the number of barriers that appear when information and databases become products in nations that never developed a culture of freedom of information. And as Soriano somewhat reluctantly admits, perhaps it is time to start talking about "two Internets." The current one, he conjectures, with all the wonderful, full-graphic and video applications may be confined to North-South communication for the elites of the region, while there may also be a South-South Internet of lower quality connecting Latin American countries to one another.
"We should not simply abandon this technology because it is unlikely that all the people will have direct access to it," says Carlos Afonso of tht network of the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE), a progressive think tank and umbrella organization based in Rio de Janeiro. The fact is that popular organizations can use the medium and are using it as a powerful instrument for democratization of information and exchange of common plans, policies and strategies. Until mid-1994, Internet access in Brazil was limited to a select portion of the academic community. The only organization providing services outside academia was AlterNex, the network of IBASE. The country now has the most extensive regulation of the Internet; phone companies are prohibited from providing access services to end users and the Brazilian government nubsidizes the development of the Internet backbone structure.
Just as in the United States, the Internet in Latin America is shifting from a primarily academic-based model with its origins in departments of engineering and computer science, to a commercial model. In the United States the process took 20 years; in Latin America it has happened much more rapidly and in the context of privatization and deregulation of national telephone companies, and the specter of a handful of corporations carving out global markets.
One of the first countries in the region to experiment with the Internet was Mexico, where efforts to connect networks at the National Autonomous University in Mexico City (UNAM) and the private Technological Institute of Monterrey (ITESM or Monterrey Tec) began over a decade ago. In 1985 the computer science department at the University of Chile began experimenting with UUCP (UNIX-to- UNIX copy program, an early technology that uses ordinary modems and phone lines to handle e-mail and network news), and in 1987 Chile bewame the first Latin American nation, followed by Argentina, to enter the UUCP network with access to e-mail and USENET. (Among the factors contributing to the early development of the Internet in Argentina and Uruguay was the return of political exiles who had been teaching and researching at U.S. and European universities.) Chile's two competing academic networks are now commercial.
To a great extent, the development of the progressive movement of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Latin America is a product of the development of the "other Internet," the one without the glitz. Internet connections made an increasing number of alliances possible across borders. Alliances on environmental, human rights, labor and other issues have been facilitated by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), a global network, comprised of 20 member networks in 135 countries, including the Institute for Global Communications (IGC) which operates PeaceNet, EcoNet, ConflictNet, LaborNet and WomensNet in the United States. Two of the earliest activist networks in Latin America were IBASE AlterNex and Nicarao, the electronic mail node established by APC in Nicaragua in 1985 in response to the U.S. hostility to the Sandinista government.
The campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s created alliances among organizations in the United States, Mexico and Canada, many of which shared communication via APC networks. Those networks, along with academic newsgroups, mobilized almost immediately after the January 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, and again in February 1995, in the wake of increased militarization. More recently, activists began laying the foundation for an Intercontinental Network of Alternative Communication" (RICA in Spanish) as a way to consolidate already existing social communications networks, and to share organizing strategies.
Another Internet-based effort to bypass traditional media is Pulsar, a Quito-based project that functions as a low-budget, grassroots news agency for community radio stations throughout Latin America. Financed in part by the Canadian government's international-education fund, Pulsar serves as an alternative wire service for community radio stations, effectively bypassing the traditional wire services whose services are too expensive and whose stories reflect a heavy U.S. or European bias. Using the Internet, Pulsar staff gather stories from newspapers such as La Jornada in Mexico or La Republica in Lima, rewrite the news in "broadcast" format, and distribute the newscasts by e-mail. The project is establishing a network of correspondents who will help pool information, and plans call for an eventualexchange of stories among community radio stations throughout the region.
Perhaps the most important role of the Internet to grassroots organizations involves the simplest technology--the use of e- mail--not only to mobilize around human rights and environmental emergencies, but to cut costs. "I can't conceive of any other way of doing our work," explains Ernesto Morales, who directs the Mexico City office of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission. In addition to daily correspondence, the Commission is mandated by the United Nations to prepare four quarterly reports a year in English and Spanish which are distributed through e-mail.
Although the Commission's offices in Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica and Spain have become dependent on the Internet, that's not yet the case in Guatemala, where traditionally military officials have held high positions in the state-run phone company. Telephone service is now privatized, but Guatemalans have become accustomed to assuming that telephone conversations are tapped. As Morales explains, both "a culture of terror," as well as technological backlog have to be overcome.
Another concern to activists and NGOs is the growing body of "cyberwar" and "netwar" literature pioneered by Rand Corporation analyst David Ronfeldt, who along with David Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, coined the terms in a 1993 article "CyberWar is Coming!" In 1993, Ronfeldt was thinking along the lines of a potential threat from an updated version of the Mongol hordes that would upset the etablished hierarchy of institutions. He predicted that communication would be increasing organizing into cross-border networks and coalitions, identifying more with the development of civil society (even global civil society) than with nation-states, and using advanced information and communictions technologies to strengthen their activities. By 1995 Ronfeldt was characterizing the Zapatista activists as highly successful in limiting the government's maneuverability, and warning that the country that produced the prototype social revolution of the 20th century may now be giving rise to the prototype social netwar of the 21st century.
When the cabinas publicas finally arrived in Cuzco last summer, they were installed with great ceremony by local and university officials at the University of San Antonio Abad. Soon after, RCP's homepage began appearing in Quechua, as well as Spanish and English. Soriano insists that the Internet must reflect local language and culture and not just be a window for Peruvians to view the wonders of the United States. To finance the growth of the Internet and projects deemed not commercially viable, RCP has begun a series of joint ventures with commercial businesses, leading to charges that the non-profit consortium is trying to dominate the Internet in Peru.
Since its founding, RCP has battled with the various incarnations of the Peruvian phone company as well as with government officials suspicious of an independent communications network that has an obvious appeal to human rights and other NGOs. Soriano insists that the private telephone monopoly, Telefonica del Peru has deliberately stonewalled on the installation of infrastructure in the provinces and charged steep prices for long-distance services to cover the inflated price at which it purchased the public telephone company. Since purchasing the state-owned service in 1993, Telefonica enjoys a five-year monopoly that Soriano describes as a modern-day version of the Conquest. (Telefonica's majority owner is Telefonica de Espana, whose international division is very active in Latin America, with a stake in the telephone companies of Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia, and Puerto Rico as well as Peru.)
The Internet itself, of course, is in transition. Existing main data pipes of the Internet backbone are not paying for themselves, and veteran net watchers like Carlos Afonso foresee an eventual dual pricing scheme, classifying services into lower and higher priority in terms of real-time data transfer. In the United States, the trend is toward increasing specialization of the Internet, with service providers turning into information providers and purchasing bulk modem time, from phone companies, or from firms that buy lines in bulk from phone companies. That trend has not yet begun in Latin America, but it will. And along the way, Internet watchers in the region would do well to see that the growing gap that Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique describes as the fundamental challenge for the 21st century-- the gap between the slow and the connected--does not grow any bigger than it already is.