Cuba faces the web revolution
The Guardian (London), Thursday 22 July 1999
Is the internet a tool to promote the views of Havana or a CIA plot backed by 'imperialist' North America? It's the question Castro and comrades are now confronting, reports Jules Marshall
"Culture will be the weapon of the 21st century," Fidel Castro told the first Unesco conference on Culture and Development held in Havana in June. It may be the only thing on which the president of the Cuban council of state and council of ministers, and the rightwing US ideologues who blockade his country agree.
The Unesco conference had a level of debate rarely heard in investor-friendly conferences back home. Among the delegates from 43 countries, discussion of the net was generally about how it was a tool of Anglo-centric neo-liberal globalisation. As one delegate noted: 20% of the world's cultures face extinction due to global audio-visual culture. The state is weakening and national/regional identities are under threat. The problem of critical selection from the flood of data is not just a problem of the poor, but all net users.
Nevertheless, there was also a prevailing feeling of "we can't prevent the net, so we must learn to use it". Globalisation itself is not necessarily a bad thing (ask any Marxist), but what kind of globalisation, and for who?
"Internet?" said Castro in a brief, unscheduled speech. "Yes, we can use it - to tell the 80% of Americans online that they have to stop and realise the Earth is on the edge of an abyss."
But as only 2% of Latin America has the net, we must invent something else, he added. "In the revolution we used our loudspeakers as much as our weapons. If peasants can't read or write, how can we reach them?"
I was in Cuba with members of the Ponton European Media Art Lab, a German organisation, to give a workshop at the conference and meet culture representatives to discuss using Ponton's Kulturserver software, a non-profit project, as a front-end to a proposed national open-access network for artists and institutions.
For one hot, exhausting week, during which the five-month drought that had reduced water supply to an hour a day in Havana finally broke, cultural representatives from ministers to techies met by day at the surprisingly sophisticated and entrepreneurial national multimedia centre (CEISIC).
Evenings were split between organised displays of folkloristic and democratised "high" culture, and extra- curricula seafront rum drinking. All proved useful and valid aids to understanding this opinion-polarising society, and its desire to take part in the new, technological revolution.
Another theme of the Unesco conference was the role greater unity and stronger regional identity can play in countering the tide of Anglo/neo-liberal culture, and Ponton believes Kulturserver is just the product to support that role. It strengthens local, national and regional identity by offering individuals and groups a simple, cheap means of exchanging art, ideas and culture, at the same time creating a coherent navigation system for accessing the chaotic mass of information on the internet.
"A lot of people here are afraid the net will increase propaganda," Ponton director Benjamin Heidersberger said at the workshop. "The net is open and content becomes transparent, but that's a two-way thing. You can talk back, show the world what your culture is. It's hard to control; there's always a way round ideological barriers so if you put something on the net, no one can control the flow. It's very fair."
Despite the economic blockade and crisis, Cuba is perhaps the major Caribbean networking nation, and has a sizeable user community. By Western "one computer per desk" standards, Cuba is a hopeless failure, and only a tiny percentage of the population have a PC at home.
And yet more than a decade ago the Cuban Youth Computer Clubs established TinoRed with Castro's explicit support. Tino (a Cuban cartoon character and logo) Red (network) operates more than 150 walk-in computer centres throughout the country for people to learn the basics of computing, telecommunications, and desktop publishing. So far more than 200,000 have taken the opportunity.
And freedom of access? As with any transitional system, there are mixed signals. A proclamation guaranteeing the internet for all Cubans (one day) in October 1996, shortly after Cuba had been granted its class B licence to join the internet, was quietly withdrawn soon after. There's still no national policy, despite an inter-ministerial policy group being established in 1998 on the internet.
Talk is now of "limited access to true universality", and alternative models for wiring Cuba that serve the whole population, not just those with cash. Distrust of dollar ownership (only legal since 1994) is still such that if you've got the $150 a month for a private net connection, you're automatically suspect (and denied).
"You can find Zapatista news or hardcore pornography. But that's the diversity of life, right?" says Abelardo Mena, curator of the National Museum of Havana and co-ordinator of Rayuel@, a non profit project for the promotion of the Cuban and Latin American arts and culture. "The net means the complexities of the real world converted to bytes. And nobody, nobody, can stop that move."
Even so, "we are an underdeveloped country which fights every day just to feed and clothe itself. Internet means nothing to the major ity of the people," adds Mena. And the intellectuals, he says, still find accessing the internet "more difficult than talking to Bill Clinton".
"Cuba is so isolated, in every sense, that it is really important to become an equal member of an international network," says Klaas Glenewinkel, editor-in-chief of Kulturserver. "They can put up as many .cu sites as they like, they will still be perceived as 'official'. It's important to elevate them from this to a new level. That is what they need and want: a common platform."
Reflecting their belief that, contrary to much content on the internet, it's local culture that has most resonance and importance to people, Ponton at www.ponton-hamburg.de is building an international, decentralised network of regional cultures, side-by-side with each other and equal in importance. Kulturserver Cuba would offer Cuban nationals at home and abroad, foreign friends and critics a neutral space to meet, access and discuss contemporary Cuban culture.
"I think the Kulturserver proposal is great, because they are offering an incredible technological support, and the opportunity to work with and share a 'European' way of making things: seriously, every day, and that's an incredibly necessary 'school' for Latin and Cuban 'souls," said Abelardo Mena. He's keen to work with Ponton and believes it is the "right way to open our culture to the European and international public," that it will support the increasing wave of German tourism to Cuba - all with very important economic consequences.
Carlos Alberto Mas Zabala, deputy director of the Instituto del Libro Cubana, is supporting Kulturserver and has offered space for a multimedia studio/access point in his beautiful institute in Unesco-restored Old Havana. He loves the idea of being able to broadcast Cuban ideas and culture worldwide, as an antidote to anti-Cuban rhetoric. He'd also like to use it as an interface to a national literature network designed to side-step the country's chronic shortage of paper.
Given the current siege mentality, artists are unlikely to be offered unlimited access to the net via Kulturserver unless sanctioned by their ministries. As the coordinator general of ICAIC (the Cuban film institute) told Ponton: "Internet will be granted to the masses, but slowly and in step with a retreat from aggression by Cuba's enemies, otherwise, why give them the ammunition?"
"We have to be diplomatic," said Glenewinkel. "Kulturserver Cuba is great even if the ministries act as filters. We could be idealistic and immovable, or we can accept there will be give and take. We're not keen, but we also understand the unique situation Cuba is in."
Another sticking point is the cost of maintenance and technical support, localisation and installation - "these are not huge costs", says Glenewinkel, "but costs to us all the same, and we want Cuba to take responsibility and show a sense of ownership by paying... something. We appreciate hard currency is in short supply, and we'll take anything reasonable - the use of an apartment, even a few cases of rum! But it's important - for them as well as us - that something exchanges hands as a show of commitment."
How to go global but stay local It has expanded to nearly 1,050 homepages - a doubling in the last six months - and includes servers for Hamburg and Berlin. Lithuania, Iceland - and since the Havana conference, Egypt and Kosovo - are considering joining.
Kulturserver would be perfect for Cuba's low-cost networking philosophy, and Ponton expects the official go-ahead any day now. The Kulturserver dream is to establish communities world-wide, to transfer the technology to developing countries to stimulate self-help, to help create markets and to aggregate content.
In Germany, disintermediation - cutting out the middleman - is a popular selling point of artists' agents, distributors, publishers and galleries, offering a new channel for the unrepresented, unsigned, and just plain obscure.
But can Cuba tolerate disintermediation of its government institutions?
The Cuban government has already taken steps to increase foreign trade with customers who pay in hard currency, particularly targeting mining, tourism, biotechnology, and informatics.
GDP that fell by 35% between 1989 and1994 - when rioting marked the low point - has grown every year since. Cuba has introduced the dollar and stabilised it against the peso, introduced private enterprise, limited privatisation, and still maintained its enviable education and health achievements.
Today, Cuba's biotechnology industry competes in the world market, with more than 160 products developed by 53 research centres, ranging from genetically engineered disease-resistant crop seeds, to a vaccine for hepatitis B.
The level of Cuban tourism is now greater than it was at its height in pre-revolutionary Cuba (with up to 2m visitors expected next year).
The collapse of real socialism and the increased embargo since 1990 has meant the loss of 85% of Cuba's supplies, especially specialised products like film stock and music instruments, said Cuban Culture Minister Abel Prieto. But the country continues to finance culture as a priority, recognising that it essential to its spiritual/cultural needs, not simply an ornament. The mechanism of funding involves using part of the profits of the sale of art works for re-investment. The sale is based on capitalism but the distribution of income on socialism - what has been dubbed 'Market-Leninism'.
Within the prioritised informatics sector, the national policy is to make Cuba a centre for software engineering and development, which requires only modest capital investment.
The prizes: hard currency income, employment for an oversupply of university graduates, technology transfer into Cuba, international visibility, and applications to other sectors of the economy. Its most notable achievement is perhaps its centre for virus research and data protection that has identified and documented more than 10,000 viruses and made it Unesco's reference centre for the region.