Articles, Opinions and Papers

September 2018
Cuba’s recently appointed President Miguel Díaz-Canel met with technology and other company executives and U.S. Congress members in New York City after his inaugural appearance at the United Nations. At the meeting held at Google offices in New York Monday afternoon, Díaz-Canel spoke with representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, VaynerMedia, Connectify, Mapbox, Virgin Group, Airbnb, Revolution, Udacity and Bloomberg.
U.S. and Cuban research institutes said on Wednesday they were creating the first joint U.S.-Cuban biotech venture, to be headquartered in Cuba to bring new cancer therapies to U.S. patients. The Innovative Immunotherapy Alliance SA is the fruit of a three-year partnership between the Roswell Park Cancer Institute of Buffalo, New York and Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology begun following the historic 2014 U.S.-Cuban detente.
August 2018
If you walk through Havana, you’ll usually see groups of people huddled around certain plazas, parks and side streets with their cellphones held up to their faces. These people are online. In order to post a picture to Facebook, send an email or read the news, Cubans must buy an internet access card for about a dollar from Etecsa, the state-run telecommunications company, and then find a public hot spot — but that all seems set to change.
HAVANA - Cuba’s government said it provided free internet to the Communist-run island’s more than 5 million cellphone users on Tuesday, in an eight-hour test before it launches sales of the service. Cuba is one of the Western Hemisphere’s l east connected countries. State-run telecommunications monopoly ETECSA announced the trial, with Tuesday marking the first time internet services were available nationwide.
July 2018
HAVANA (Reuters) - Communist-run Cuba has started providing internet on the mobile phones of select users as it aims to roll out the service nationwide by year-end, in a further step toward opening one of the Western Hemisphere’s least connected countries.
HAVANA (Reuters) - In the busy summer travel period in Cuba, a long line of people wait for hours in the sweltering heat outside the Havana office of state-owned airline Cubana, many of them eager to visit families in the provinces.
June 2018
“Little bro, hook me up with a refill. It's only 20 little pesos.”
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Google is close to reaching an agreement with the Cuban government to expand internet access on the island, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake told el Nuevo Herald.
HAVANA--New President Miguel Diaz-Canel on Monday held his first official meeting with visitors from the U.S., discussing increased internet access for Cuba with Google executive Eric Schmidt and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
HAVANA (Reuters) - Seven people drowned and two remain missing as a result of flooding last week in Cuba caused by storm Alberto that forced tens of thousands to evacuate and caused a spill of oily water in Cienfuegos bay, Cuba’s Civil Defense authority said.
May 2018
Cubans are increasingly using the balance of their cellphone accounts with the government's ETECSA telecommunications monopoly as a virtual currency sometimes called "el ETECSO."
HAVANA, May 24 (Reuters) - Rainfall has shuttered all but a few of Cuba's 54 sugar mills, with output down nearly 40 percent to the lowest level in more than a century, which could force the island to import, official media and industry sources say.
April 2018

The Man Who Saved Havana

April 30, 2018

On a sweltering morning in Old Havana, a courtly figure in a crisp gray guayabera shirt weaves through the Plaza de Armas, the city’s Spanish colonial heart, trying not to attract attention. Although none of the foreigners lolling beneath the banyan trees and royal palms recognize him, a ripple of excitement passes through the Cubans, who nudge each other, smile and stare. Perhaps only on this island obsessed with its operatic past could a historian become a celebrity on a par with a Clooney or DiCaprio. Eusebio Leal is the official historian of the city of Havana, a regal-sounding position that brings with it enormous influence and exposure—he starred for many years in his own TV show where he explored Old Havana’s streets—and he is as far from the cliché of the dusty, isolated academic as it is possible to get. In fact, Leal is credited with almost single-handedly bringing Old Havana from the brink of ruin to its current status as the most ravishing and vibrant architectural enclave in the Western Hemisphere.
March 2018
Digicel, which provides wireless networks throughout the Caribbean, Central America and the South Pacific, is dropping its Cuba roaming service for U.S. customers on April 9.
February 2018
If you think driving in Miami is scary, consider this: drivers have a higher chance of dying in a car crash in Cuba than in Florida.
WASHINGTON/HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. task force ordered by President Donald Trump agreed on Wednesday to spend the next year examining ways to expand internet access and the free flow of information in Communist-run Cuba.
Cuba is protesting the creation of a U.S. task force on increasing internet access on the island — a measure that is part of President Donald Trump's hardening of U.S. policy on Cuba.
January 2018
Electrical power was quickly restored after Hurricane Irma’s scrape along Cuba’s northern coast, much of the flood damage in Havana was cleaned up within weeks, and tourism facilities opened in time for the winter season.
On its deadly run through the Caribbean last September, Hurricane Irma lashed northern Cuba, inundating coastal settlements and scouring away vegetation. The powerful storm dealt Havana only a glancing blow; even so, 10-meter waves pummeled El Malecón, the city’s seaside promenade, and ravaged stately but decrepit buildings in the capital’s historic district. “There was great destruction,” says Dalia Salabarría Fernández, a marine biologist here at the National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP).
The impact of climate change is being felt all over the world - especially on low-lying islands.
November 2017
Cuba hopes that, in the end, science will absolve it in the mysterious acoustic attacks that have damaged the health of diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
October 2017
HAVANA--Stretches of the famed Malecón boulevard are still closed for repairs and seaside businesses show the scars of 30-foot waves that crashed through the seawall during Hurricane Irma.
September 2017
If Hurricane Irma hitting Cuba and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico had one thing in common it was that - despite ample warning - they seemed to take many by surprise.
Surrounded by the remains of her home in Isabela de Sagua, a town on the north coast of central Cuba, a little girl tells a state television reporter what she lost during Hurricane Irma, which lashed across most of the island.
Aware that the Cuban government sometimes rebuffs hurricane relief from large U.S.-based charities, Cuban Americans and exile organizations are scrambling to come up with ways to help friends and family after Hurricane Irma tore through the island’s north coast.

Hurricane Irma Special Appeal

September 17, 2017

So many of you have already contacted us asking “how can I help?” and at the moment, we urge you to click on the DONATE button. Please also consider sharing the link to this page with friends, family and colleagues.
With a hurricane watch in effect from Matanzas in central Cuba east to the province of Guantánamo, the island kicked up its preparations for Hurricane Irma on Wednesday.
August 2017
Want to access Skype in Cuba? Without a VPN, you're out of luck. The service is blocked in the country, along with dozens of other websites, according to new report from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), which works under the Tor Project. The study, published this week, shows just how censored Cuba's internet still is.
Maribel (not her real name) was the deputy principal in a state-run primary school in Cuba. She had worked there since graduating, and had been promoted fast.
May 2017
As the internet becomes more widespread in Cuba, online start-ups are emerging. But the problems many of the companies hope to address are also a reminder of how far the island has to go.
As Cuba becomes more accessible, entrepreneurs there are finding new ways to reach users and build businesses. Today at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, we got the perspective of a trio of Cuban entrepreneurs to learn about the challenges they face in building businesses as the country gradually opens up to the outside world.
Cubazon. Kewelta. Knales. These aren’t house hold names in the US but they’re at the vanguard of entrepreneurship in Cuba and they’ll be joining us on stage at Disrupt New York.
American visitors to Cuba could increase by seven times by 2025, according to a new report – putting the Caribbean island’s infrastructure under enormous strain and sparking fears for the future of the country as US investors move in.
April 2017
Cubans can access Google sites faster now that Google Global Cache (GGC) service is available on the island, an internet analysis firm announced Wednesday.
Slick new graphics, drum and bass theme music and young presenters: at least in its presentation, Cuba's latest state television channel is a break with the past.
Cuba is experiencing one of its worst droughts in 100 years. Although the government provides drinking water, the shortages caused by the lack of rain are compounded by an aging and dilapidated infrastructure. More than 50 percent of the available water is lost to a leaking drainage system and state water officials must manually change the flow of water in the pipes every day to ensure an equal water divide between houses and neighbourhoods.
March 2017
YOU CAN’T VISIT Cuba and not hear reggaetón. The eclectic mix of salsa, hip-hop and electronica blasts from shops, cars and bike taxis. And despite government censorship and limited internet access, the genre exploded in popularity thanks to “el paquete,” a grassroots distribution system that relies on nothing more than hard drives, thumb drives, and old-fashioned hand delivery.
After a two-month pilot program, Cubans now can access the internet in the comfort of their own homes — but prices are high and speeds painfully slow.
In Havana’s iconic Bacardí building, teams of computer programmers are working for U.S. companies with the tacit permission of the Cuban government.
BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – In a Boulder office, Cuban entrepreneurs are planning a technology revolution in their country.
Cuban entrepreneur Liber Puente is working on a master’s thesis about communication among “non-traditional friends,” so what better place for some research than Miami.
No matter how much you warn visitors to Cuba that they'll be offline during their stay, they often won't believe it until they actually arrive in Havana.
February 2017

In Cuba, app stores pay rent

February 2, 2017

CUBANS, like citizens of most countries in the digital age, are familiar with app stores. But theirs have actual doors, windows and counters. Los Doctores del Celular, a mobile-phone repair shop a few blocks from Havana’s Malecón seaside promenade, is one example. Inside, a Super Mario effigy, kitted out with lab coat and stethoscope, keeps vigil while technicians transfer apps to customers’ smartphones via USB cables attached to the shop’s computers. Although the United States’ embargo on Cuba makes it hard to buy apps and other services online, “Cubans are quickly picking up on app culture,” says Jorge-Luis Roque, a technician. A bundle of 60-70 apps costs $5-10. Customers delete the ones they don’t want. The bricks-and-mortar app store is an ingenious Cuban response to digital deprivation. The island has some 300 public Wi-Fi hotspots, up from none two years ago. But connections are slow and, especially by Cuban standards, expensive; they normally cost $1.50 an hour. Adhering to the American embargo, app publishers like Apple and Google block downloads in Cuba. Music lovers can browse the iTunes store, but cannot buy songs or apps; Cubans can get the free apps on Google Play, but not the ones that cost money.
December 2016
The Cuban government has announced a two-month trial scheme to allow internet access in private homes.
Google and the Cuban government signed a deal Monday allowing the internet giant to provide faster access to its data by installing servers on the island that will store much of the company's most popular content.
BRUSSELS—The European Union and Cuba signed an agreement Monday normalizing ties, ending years of friction between the two over Cuba’s human-rights record and opening the way for broader economic and trade relations.
Google is planning to expand its services in Cuba through a deal with the island’s government, according to a person familiar with the matter.
October 2016
Cuba reportó un aumento en el número de usuarios con acceso a internet en el 2015, y la cifra roza los 4 millones.
A restaurant franchisor or a U.S. distributor of tires could negotiate a future contract in Cuba. A U.S. engineering or architecture firm could work on a public transportation project or new Cuban hospital. An American traveler to Cuba can load up on premium cigars and bottles of high-end Santiago or Havana Club rum.
If the old real estate adage holds true — it's all about location, location, location — then about 100 miles off the tip of Florida, it's boom time. The real estate market in Havana, Cuba, is roaring.
September 2016
VIENNA – Cuba and Russia relaunched their relations on Tuesday with a pacific nuclear energy deal signed in Vienna alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency's General Conference.
Alan Gross, the U.S. government subcontractor who spent five years in a Havana prison for providing the means for Cuban Jews to connect to the digital world, is in Miami to take part in a conference on how to expand the island's access to the internet.
Cuba is in a period of profound change, which is impacting all aspects of life — including the food system. UC Food Observer learned about some of these changes, when editor Rose Hayden-Smith spoke to Dr. Pedro Sanchez.
Nearly two years after presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced a thaw in relations, Cuba’s communist government is turning to foreign investors to boost renewable energy as it faces cutbacks in cheap oil imports from Venezuela.
August 2016
Very few without Castro in their name have survived in the leadership of the Cuban Revolution as long as Eusebio Leal. And he didn’t do it by the conventional means of silence and obedience. He brought loyalty but also ideas to the Castros. Now the military-run business empire has asserted itself in Old Havana as elsewhere and Leal appears to have been outmaneuvered.
Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry’s director general for the United States, said that an upcoming conference in Miami on internet use on the island seeks to promote internal subversion.
AT&T mobile customers visiting Cuba should be able to connect there more easily, thanks to a roaming and interconnection deal with telecom provider Empresa De Telecomunicaciones De Cuba, known as ETECSA.
HAVANA — More than 2 million tourists have visited Cuba this year, state media said Wednesday, putting the country on track for a record number of visitors bringing badly needed cash to an economy facing a sharp reduction in subsidized oil from its chief ally, Venezuela.
July 2016
More than half of the Cubans who use the island’s Nauta internet service provided by the national telecommunications monopoly ETECSA, have to travel up to three miles to get to a wifi spot.
MEXICO CITY — During the economic turmoil of the early 1990s, power cuts in Havana were so routine that residents called the few hours of daily electricity “lightouts.”
WASHINGTON – A trio of House lawmakers introduced legislation Tuesday to block flights theTransportation Department has approved between Cuba and the U.S. because of security concerns that the direct flights will ease the flow of bombs and terrorists to the U.S.
June 2016
HOLGUÍN, Cuba, Jun 28 2016 (IPS) - Five gargantuan modern irrigation machines water the state farm of La Yuraguana covering 138 hectares in the northeastern province of Holguín, the third largest province in Cuba. However, “sometimes they cannot even be switched on, due to the low water level,” said farm manager Edilberto Pupo.
The barriers to founding a tech startup in Cuba are high. For starters, hardly anyone has access to internet connections faster than dial-up.
A small Florida bank will issue the first U.S. credit card intended for use in Cuba and make it easier for Americans to travel and work on an island largely cut off from the U.S. financial system, the bank announced Tuesday.
April 2016
US multinational telco AT&T has restated its argument that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should remove regulations restricting improved mobile telephone service (IMTS) traffic arrangements between Cuba and the US.
Cuba plans to create some 108,000 new tourist lodgings as part of the National Plan for Economic and Social Development from now to the year 2030, which is being debated Monday by delegates at the 7th Congress of the ruling Communist Party.
When President Obama said in Havana last month that Google would be working to improve Internet access in Cuba, I wondered what Google might do in Cuba that other companies could not.
A coalition of investor and entrepreneurship organizations announced the formation of 10x10KCuba, a competition for Cuban entrepreneurs, on Thursday evening during the AngelSummit Americas conference in Miami.
March 2016
HAVANA- It was almost 6:30 p.m. and about a dozen college-aged Cubans huddled on the library steps a couple of blocks from Havana’s famed Malecon seafront promenade.
When President Barack Obama was working secretly to restore diplomatic and business relations with Cuba two years ago, he got some help from an unlikely place.
Obama’s historic visit to Cuba comes amid a frenzy of deal-making by US corporations keen to take full advantage of opportunities to come. But one area – technology and telecoms – shows just how complicated unwinding 50 years of hostility will be for companies and Cubans.
Google is set to expand internet access in Cuba, Barack Obama has revealed during his historic visit to the Caribbean island.
A unit of telecoms multinational Verizon Communications signed a direct interconnection agreement with the Cuban state monopoly Etecsa, expanding on existing roaming services in the Caribbean country, Etecsa said in a statement on Monday.
February 2016
Imitation can be a form of flattery, but in the case of the Miami-based Foundation For Human Rights in Cuba, it’s not quite sure what to make of ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, using the Wi-Fi logo it registered for its Connect Cuba campaign.

How to Get Online in Cuba

February 4, 2016

Every afternoon, crowds of Cubans gather outside Havana's top hotels—mob boss Meyer Lansky's favorite Nacional de Cuba, Ernest Hemingway's old haunt Ambos Mundos, and the Habana Libre (the former Hilton, which served as Fidel Castro's headquarters in 1958).
Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA, reportedly announced late Sunday a pilot project to bring broadband internet into homes in Havana. According to the announcement, cafes, bars and restaurants would also be allowed to have broadband connections, which would be offered through fiber optic cables.
January 2016

Cuba's Irreversible Internet

January 28, 2016

Laritza Diversent, a Cuban lawyer, once explained why she wrote a blog. She said that her daily realities were not reflected in the Cuban media. She started blogging to "show my country as I see it and feel it."
After a second round of meetings in Havana, Daniel Sepúlveda, the U.S. point man on telecom policy toward Cuba, says the United States feels an urgency to make progress and sign deals while President Barack Obama is still in office but Cuba appears to want to take its time.
HAVANA (AP) — Cuban officials say they have held two days of talks with their U.S. counterparts about telecommunications and the Internet.
The Federal Communications Commission said Friday it has removed Cuba from its "exclusion list," allowing U.S. companies to provide telecommunication services to the Caribbean country without separate approval from the agency.
HAVANA, Jan. 10 (Xinhua) -- The expansion and renovation of the port of Santiago de Cuba, in Cuba's second largest city, is on track thanks to a 100-million-U.S.-dollar line of credit from the Chinese government.
December 2015
HAVANA — In the Alamar neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, the streets don’t have names. To find an address, you need to know the zone, the block number and the apartment, because all the buildings look the same. Long and rectangular, five stories tall, their facades have been stripped by the ocean air and re-pigmented in curlicue patterns of mildew.
I’m walking along 23rd Street in Havana, toward the seawall. The wind from the water is blowing the rain horizontally at my face, but I’m desperate to score. It’s been 96 hours, and finding a connection is all I can think about.
Ric Herrero from U.S. group "Cuba Now" says Cuba's "DIY ingenuity" is creating more innovative products despite limited resources.
November 2015

Time to Bring Cuba Online

November 30, 2015

Millions of Cuban citizens could have affordable access to the Internet in a matter of months. The only thing keeping the island in the digital Dark Ages is a lack of political will. Cuban officials have long blamed the American embargo for their nation’s obsolete telecommunications systems. They no longer have that excuse.
PENAS BLANCAS, Costa Rica (AP) — As summer began to bake the central Cuban city of Sancti Spiritus, Elio Alvarez and Lideisy Hernandez sold their tiny apartment and everything in it for $5,000 and joined the largest migration from their homeland in decades.
Sprint signed a roaming agreement with Cuba's telecommunications company Monday, becoming the second U.S. company able to provide roaming service on the island.
t’s getting a little easier to send an email in Cuba these days. Over the past few months, about 35 new WiFi hotspots have opened in parks, plazas and schools.
October 2015
Havana, Cuba (CNN)The tourists snapping photos of shiny classic American cars driving down Havana's seafront boulevard were oblivious to the much rarer site flying just over their heads: a drone.
HAVANA- Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana’s city historian, is leading an architectural renaissance in this former capital of the Western Hemisphere.
HAVANA On a recent Sunday afternoon, entire families — grandparents, newborn babies and teenage girls snapping selfies in their most fashionable clothes — were gathered on the steps, walls and curbs of a plaza in the Playa neighborhood.
September 2015
Cuba is one of the countries with the world's lowest internet penetrations. However, the addition of the 35 new Wi-Fi hotspots in the country since July 2015 has increased its popularity among the nationals, especially the youth.
Verizon Communications Inc announced on Thursday it would become the first U.S. company to offer roaming wireless service in Cuba next week.
The recent opening up of the Internet in Cuba is creating new international connections between Afro-Cubans and broader black global cultures. Francisco, a dark-skinned Cuban based in Havana who practices Santeria, an African-Diaspora religion from Cuba, stated, “Now we are finally connected,” as he added my email address to his phone and told me he would friend me on Facebook.
August 2015
HAVANA-Julio Hernandez is a telecommunications engineer, but like almost anyone else in Cuba who wants to get on the Internet, to do so he must crouch on a dusty street corner with his laptop, inhaling car exhaust and enduring sweltering heat.
July 2015
The internet revolution has all but passed Cuba by and the country is one of the least connected in the world.
But times are changing and earlier this month 35 Wi-Fi access hotspots went live in Havana, offering those outside elite circle the chance to get online.
HAVANA- Cuba may have one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the Western Hemisphere, but that hasn’t stopped the development of a tech start-up community whose young entrepreneurs have aspirations similar to millennials in the United States.
Cuba has opened 35 Wi-Fi access points across the country, finally offering Cubans online access in a country where until now the internet has been restricted to an elite few. Before the signals were made available on 29 June, broadband internet access was limited to desktops at state internet cafes and expensive hotels.
Robin Pedraja, a lanky 28-year-old former design student from Havana, walked into the Cuban government’s office of periodicals and publications early last year seeking approval for a dream: starting an online magazine about Cuba’s urban youth culture.
June 2015
As Internet access becomes increasingly regarded as a marker of economic prosperity and socioeconomic equality, one of the most historically isolated countries in the Western Hemisphere is getting a major boost.
HAVANA — As one of Havana’s largest state-run retail hubs, the Supermercado 3ra y 70 is the communist government equivalent of a Target or Wal-Mart, created as a one-stop shopping center. It was designed, quite possibly, by sadists.
April 2015
Last week, the NJ Tech Council led a truly remarkable trade mission. The destination: Cuba.
Internet access in Cuba is among the world’s most restricted and expensive but a rapprochement with Washington is boosting hopes for connectivity improvements and the development of some cool apps.
PANAMA (AP) — El presidente estadounidense Barack Obama podrá escuchar antes de la Cumbre de las Américas, si se lo propone, las inquietudes que arroje un foro de la sociedad civil en el que convergerán por primera vez miembros de la disidencia y defensores del gobierno cubano.
March 2015
March 30 (Reuters) - Cuba, a few decades late to the Internet era, is committed to getting the web into 50 percent of its households by 2020, as well as achieving 60 percent mobile phone access, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Monday.
Cuba's state telecom agency Etecsa has granted approval to the artist Kcho to open the country's first public wireless hub at his cultural centre.
Cuba has allowed the launch of the island's first known free, public Internet service at a Havana cultural center that quietly began offering open Wi-Fi in recent weeks.
When venture capitalists talk about Cuba as the next Promised Land, they note foremost the very real political hurdles that remain, both on the island and in the United States. The biggest obstacle, however, may be smartphones — the dearth of them.
February 2015
HAVANA (AP) — Cuba has temporarily reduced the hourly charge for using state-run Internet cafes in the country's first small but substantive public move to increase online access since the declaration of detente with the U.S.
Heavy trucks groan through the muddy hills, laden with cement mixers, earthmovers and tractors. Gigantic cranes loom just beyond piers and shipping containers in Cuba's Caribbean waters. Stern guards keep watch. A billboard proclaims: "The economic battle is today our principal task."
January 2015

Tech eyes Cuban payda

January 26, 2015

Tech companies see a potential windfall in the Obama administration’s decision to ease trade restrictions with Cuba — and they’re racing to cash in. The historic announcement late last year is leading to a rush of business interest to plug the island nation in to the rest of the world.
HAVANA—Cuba’s regime, which has curbed the Internet to help prevent any popular uprising, faces a new challenge to its policy: U.S. diplomacy.
HAVANA (AP) — Cuba's telecommunications company says that it will offer WiFi service in a public park in the country's far east but only for access to the island's restricted Cuba-only intranet.
Cuba has promised its citizens better Internet access in this New Year. The few Cubans who now manage to get online find it expensive and slow.
December 2014
Havana (AFP) - With smartphones and tablet computers, they look much like young people anywhere, but Cubans have to go to extremes just to get an Internet connection and somehow get around the strict control of the Communist authorities.
August 2014
Internet users in Cuba — the few who have access to the web, that is — can now download Google's popular browser Chrome.Google announced that it made Chrome available in Cuba on Wednesday, blaming the delay on U.S. export controls and sanctions against the communist country.
Google today announced the release of Chrome in Cuba. Citizens of the country can now grab the browser directly from Google.com.cu. The block was originally enforced in accordance with US export controls and economic sanction regulations. The company didn’t explain why Cubans can suddenly download Chrome starting today, but it did say, “As these trade restrictions evolve we’ve been working to figure out how to make more tools available in sanctioned countries.”
July 2014
WASHINGTON — The inspector general for the nation’s international aid agency is probing a once-secret Obama administration program that created a social media network in Cuba, The Associated Press has learned.
Fresh from a visit to Havana, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has described the Internet in Cuba as “trapped in the 1990s,” heavily censored and with a weak infrastructure dominated by Chinese equipment because of the U.S. trade embargo.
June 2014
The visiting team spent two days in the Cuban capital to encourage an open Internet
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt has visited Cuba to promote “a free and open Internet,” the country’s independent online newspaper 14yMedio reported on Saturday.
For a brief and shinning moment, it seemed that Cuba had unblocked access to several websites censored for years because of their criticisms of the government, including the U.S. government’s Radio/TV Marti.
April 2014
HAVANA — The residents of 308 Oquendo Street were jolted awake in the middle of the night by violent shaking and a noise that they likened to a freight train, or an exploding bomb.
Part of their building’s seventh floor had collapsed into the interior patio, heavily damaging apartments on the floors below. No one died, but the 120 families living in the building were left homeless....
January 2014
Following the success of the Facebook-led “Hackathon” in California last November that sought to draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants, a group of bloggers and techies will gather in Miami at the end of the month for a similar event aimed at exposing the problems with Cuba’s telecommunications system.
There's a green robot with antennae everywhere you look. In the mobile phone repairers' ads, on certain nice T-shirts and even staring at us from the windshields of some cars.
October 2013
(Reuters) - A year after Hurricane Sandy left Santiago de Cuba in shambles, the streets are clear and power, communications and water are back to normal, but residents of Cuba's second city are still struggling with the aftermath of the mighty storm.
Google Ideas, the New York City–based “think/do tank” run by the Internet search giant, is launching several new technologies designed to highlight hacker attacks around the world and help people in repressive regimes access the Internet.
You might not guess it from your Internet bill, but the United States has some of the cheapest broadband in the world -- right up there with Kazakhstan, India and Bangladesh.
September 2013
In the Vibora suburb of Havana, a vast yellow building now has a gaping hole at the heart of it. On Monday morning, a column collapsed bringing four storeys of the old convent crashing down and burying 50-year-old Maria Isabel Fernandez under the rubble.
August 2013
Havana, Aug 29 (EFE).- Cuba's "cyber points," which offer public Internet access, have attracted more than 100,000 paying customers in the last three months, government daily Juventud Rebelde said Thursday.
As far as the Internet goes, Cuba is the Western Hemisphere’s last frontier. Despite the island nation’s proximity to Florida — just 90 miles away — and the existence of a fully functioning fiber-optic cable linked up to Venezuela, only 25% of the population is online, according to last year’s government statistics, which are likely inflated.
Havana, Aug 4 (EFE).- Cuba's first solar power plant is in operation, helping the island reduce its reliance on imported oil, state media reported Sunday. The new power plant, which has 14,100 panels built in Cuba, will allow the Caribbean country to double its solar energy production capacity.
CANTARRANA, Cuba (AP) — It's like a vision of the space age, carved out of the jungle: Thousands of glassy panels surrounded by a lush canopy of green stretch as far as the eye can see, reflecting the few clouds that dot the sky on a scorching Caribbean morning.
July 2013
Cuba is currently carrying out a $10 million project to renovate a terminal at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, state television reported.
June 2013
Frustrated with your Internet access? Try logging on in Cuba. Since it started offering limited access in 1996, the communist country has tightly restricted access to everything but the bare Web essentials. Unless you were looking for government news or something directly related to your job, you were out of luck.
May 2013
A $900 million project to expand the Cuban port of Mariel into a strategic hub for shipping in the Atlantic has been painted in Havana as the country’s best opportunity in decades to set a new course for its stagnant economy.
HAVANA – The Cuban government will expand the number of public Internet connection points with new Web-surfing rooms as part of its policy of facilitating “social” online access, but Internet use in private homes will continue to be restricted.
Cuba will begin tests in Havana to progressively introduce digital television on the island using methodology and equipment donated by China, the Communications Ministry announced Monday.
April 2013
Havana – Many people in eastern Cuba are still living with family or in houses covered by flimsy makeshift rooftops six months after Hurricane Sandy pummeled the island's eastern provinces, residents and aid workers said Thursday.
MIAMI, APRIL 1, 2013 - Cuban blogger and independent journalist Yoani Sanchez said despite restrictions on cyberspace in Cuba, the Internet is changing the communist country, during a lecture at Florida International University in Miami.
March 2013
HAVANA – Fight your way through mangrove swamps shoulder-to-shoulder with bearded guerrillas clad in the olive-green uniforms of Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Your mission: Topple 1950s Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, speaking at a media forum in Mexico, said Cubans use computer memory sticks to evade censorship in their country.
February 2013
There have been some strange sights on Cuban TV sets recently. News-starved viewers watched an Ecuadorean opposition candidate liken the government of President Rafael Correa, one of Havana's staunchest allies, to a moonwalking Michael Jackson: He walks like he's moving ahead, but he's actually going backward.
January 2013
A Cuban government announcement says the cable from Venezuela is being tested, but indicates that increased access to the Internet will take time.
HAVANA (AP) - Spanish telecom Telefonica denied Tuesday that it provides Internet routing service to Cuba via an undersea fiber-optic cable, adding to the mystery surrounding the island's first hard-wired data link to the outside world.
According to reports, the subterranean fiber-optic link which the island nation of Cuba has turned on through Venezuela apparently opens only the `inbound' high-speed connection of the Internet superhighway.
HAVANA (AP) - Cuba apparently has finally switched on the first undersea fiber-optic cable linking it to the outside world nearly two years after its arrival, according to analysis by a company that monitors global Internet use.
HAVANA - Cuba apparently has finally switched on the first undersea fiber-optic cable linking it to the outside world nearly two years after its arrival, according to analysis by a company that monitors global Internet use.
A high-speed fibre-optic cable connecting Cuba to the global internet appears to have finally been activated, monitoring experts have said.
December 2012
Se llama Ecured y sus creadores se inspiraron en Wikipedia aunque dicen que le dieron un enfoque "descolonizador".
November 2012
Cuba's government has created a new business group comprising 38 companies involved in the manufacture and sale of medicine and provision of services in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.
HAVANA - Cuban authorities say power has been almost completely restored in the eastern city of Santiago nearly three weeks after Hurricane Sandy. A report in Communist Party newspaper Granma says the lights are back on for 99.8 percent of customers in the city and 47 percent in outlying areas.
September 2012

The Havana Genius Bar

September 17, 2012

On my second day in Havana I pass a small electronics store in the once-upscale Vedado neighborhood and stop in. Fishing the useless slab from my bag, I ask, “Is there anyone who might know how to fix this?”
August 2012
On my balcony there is a yagruma tree. Leaves in the shape of hands with rounded fingers, white underneath and green above. However, its sympathetic shape and its peculiarity in growing in a pot more than 50 yards above the ground are not what I like about it. Rather it is its capacity to adapt. It has understood for years that the concrete ceiling won't allow it to grow straight, and so it leans outward, hanging its boughs over the wall fourteen stories up. After the cat damaged the trunk sharpening its nails it developed scars around a thicker bark, more protective. Before every obstacle it meets it finds a way to avoid it; before every attack a mechanism to protect itself.
July 2012
While American and European companies provide unmatched platforms for free expression and citizen journalism, misapplications of export regulations have created a chilling effect on the free flow of information to those living under repressive regimes. We are writing to urge you to take necessary steps to ensure important Internet communication services provided by your companies are not unnecessarily blocked for individuals in sanctioned countries.
Washington, DC- In a continued effort to advocate for steps that help break the isolation of the Cuban people, the Cuba Study Group today signed on to a letter addressed to chief executives of some of the most important technology companies urging them to take the following steps:
June 2012
A salesman at US Apple store refused to sell an iPad to an Iranian-American woman after overhearing her speak Farsi, provoking a debate about the limits of Western sanctions against Tehran's rulers.
HAVANA - Cuban bloggers and tweeters have gathered in Havana for a technology and social media forum that official media denounced as subversive.

Organizers and attendees deny any political agenda, and say people from all ideological stripes are welcome.
Today the Cuban government's official website Cubadebate, whose tagline is "Against Media Terrorism," posted an article titled "The Impossible Innocence of the CLICK Festival.
(Reuters) - The number of Cubans linked to the country's state-controlled intranet jumped more than 40 percent in 2011 compared to the previous year and mobile phone use rose 30 percent, the government reported, even as Cuba's population remained largely cut off from unfettered access to the Internet.
May 2012
CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela's science and technology minister says an undersea fiber-optic cable that was laid last year between Venezuela and Cuba is working.
HAVANA - It was all sunshine, smiles and celebratory speeches as officials marked the arrival of an undersea fiber-optic cable they promised would end Cuba's Internet isolation and boost web capacity 3,000-fold.
Havana is beguiling from a distance, especially its old colonial buildings bathed in tropical sunshine. But up close this city is crumbling.
HAVANA - Cuba is reporting 33 accidents between trains and automobiles at rail crossings last year.

The island's state-run news media usually avoids the grisly accounts of crashes and violent crime that are common in other countries.
April 2012
McClatchy Newspapers

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba - The 24-year-old volunteer shows off the seven computers sitting on wooden desks under a painting of Saint Juan Bosco in a small, 6- by 10-foot cement room at the back of the church.
December 2011
The sign reads: Alternative media and social networks. New scenarios of political communication in the digital environment.

Architecture that was once daring, a carefully tended lawn and well-guarded doors to ward off the curious.
It certainly looks and sounds like Facebook. Even its name, "RedSocial," the Social Network, would make Mark Zuckerberg's lawyers squirm.

Cuba, a nation where just 2 percent of the population has an internet connection, has quietly launched a Facebook wannabe, a "virtual meeting place for Cuban uni
November 2011
President Raul Castro has agreed to allow people to buy and sell cars in Cuba, ending a ban on Cubans selling cars bought after the 1959 revolution that ushered in communism.
October 2011
When two women at Havana’s Cuatro Caminos market began beating on pots and pans with spoons one day in August, their protest call for freedom echoed around the world. At least 16 video entries, many of them the same or similar footage, were posted on YouTube and reposted on websites from Miami to Madrid. They showed the women calling out for freedom before police arrived to take them away. As a crowd followed, a rhythmic chant of “ Libertad, Libertad, Libertad’’ began.
August 2011
Borrowing a page from those pesky marketing cell phone text messages that cannot be blocked, a Cuban blogger in Spain is sending uncensored news to about 1,000 Cuban cell phones daily — and exploring far more sharp-edged applications.

Capturing Cuba's TV Culture

August 19, 2011

There were some fascinating developments in the living rooms of Old Havana. Many of the sets that I saw in 2000 — 1980s Russian models and mid-century TVs from the U.S. — had been replaced with shiny new imports from China. The cheap, new TVs were surrounded by the same vintage fans, rickety ornaments and faded family photographs. It seemed the only thing that had changed was the TV itself.
HAVANA — José is an eager almost-entrepreneur with big plans for Cuban real estate. Right now he works illegally on trades, linking up families who want to swap homes and pay a little extra for an upgrade.
July 2011
The number of Cubans using cellphones has risen sharply two years after the government lifted restrictions on mobile telephones, but few people have a personal computer or access to the Internet, according to a report released on Thursday.
HAVANA — A few dozen members of Cuba’s small but growing Twitter community have met in real space for the first time. They got to put unfamiliar faces with familiar user names, and they commiserated about the woeful Internet access on an island that has the second-worst Web connectivity rate in the world.
HAVANA, July 1 - With Cuba preparing to explore for oil 60 miles (96 km) from Florida, the complicated politics of U.S.-Cuba relations are impeding U.S. efforts to get ready in case of a BP-style accident, analysts and oil experts said.
May 2011
HAVANA — More than 1,000 independent shops selling building materials have opened up around Cuba, official media said Monday, as the government looks to the private sector to fight corruption and the black market, eliminate expensive subsidies and help ease a severe housing crisis.
She has a five-bedroom house that is falling to pieces. She got it in the seventies when the family for whom she worked as a maid went into exile. At first she went through all the rooms each day, the interior patio, caressed the marble banister of the stairs to the second floor, played at filling the basins of the three bathrooms just to be reminded that this neoclassical mansion was now hers.
March 2011
Most of the illegal satellite phones in Cuba have been slipped in by exiles, not the U.S. government, as the island nation’s regime asserts.
February 2011
As an economic crisis began gripping Cuba in early 2009, U.S. diplomats in Havana reported the island was better equipped to withstand the blow than when its Soviet subsidies collapsed in 1989.
(Reuters) - Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez said on Tuesday the Cuban government apparently has unblocked access to her blog, which had been off limits on the island's Internet since 2008.
The lecturer in a Cuban government video on the dangers of the Internet has been identified — on the Internet — as a 38-year-old counter-intelligence official who follows blogger Yoani Sánchez on Twitter. Eduardo Fontes Suárez’s Facebook page is now down
January 2011
A pricing dispute between the U.S. and Cuba may have cost American companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc a foothold in the communist island’s recently opened telecommunications market.
December 2010
The Cuban government is launching its own online encyclopaedia, similar to Wikipedia, with the goal of presenting its view of the world and history.
October 2010
For over a week this month, Twitter’s social media system could not be accessed from Cuba’s cell phones. Cuba’s surging blogger community was the first to bring this issue to prominence, sparking a quick reaction in just a matter of hours that even elicited a public statement from Cuba’s Vice Minister of Communications. By and large, the initial, though premature, reaction was to place the blame on the Cuban government —the product of raw nerves, past policies and actions, and years of mutual mistrust.
Social media giant Twitter has confirmed that the loss of service experienced by Cuban bloggers posting messages using SMS technology from the island was the result of a technical issue and not the result of censorship by the Cuban government
A number of business associations are planning a lobbying blitz during the lame-duck session to repeal the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.
September 2010
Along line of people waits in the sun outside the telephone office on Obispo Street in Old Havana. Some passersby ask about the latest news for those hoping to open a cellphone contract.Many of them carry some old device with a monochrome screen, bought in the black market or sent by relatives abroad. But there are others with a sophisticated iPhone, Blackberry, or the latest model Motorola. Such modern phones and all their features can barely be used on the island, because of the technical limitations of the country's only telecommunications company, ETECSA. But this doesn't paralyze us, as we Cubans have a marked predilection for circuits and little flashing lights even if we can't use their full capabilities.

Fidel Castro, Internet junkie

September 3, 2010

Fidel Castro is back from the dead (his words) and has been reincarnated as an Internet junkie. Not only is he a prolific blogger on Cuba's online Granma newspaper but, it turns out, the 84-year-old greybeard consumes 200 to 300 news items a day on the Web and is fascinated by the WikiLeaks site, with its trove of 90,000 formerly secret U.S. documents on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
August 2010
Nokia Oyj, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are urging the U.S. government to ease rules that keep them from operating in Cuba even after President Barack Obama loosened telecommunications regulations last year to promote democracy on the communist island. Nokia, the world’s biggest mobile-phone maker, is urging the U.S. to ease its 47-year-old trade embargo so it can sell handsets to Cuba. AT&T and Verizon, the largest U.S. wireless providers, urged regulators to make it easier for U.S. companies to directly connect calls to and from Cuba. The companies’ pleas come after Obama said in April 2009 that greater contact with the outside world would reduce Cubans’ dependency on President Raul Castro’s regime. Still, other regulations prevent companies with U.S. operations from entering the market, according to a July report by the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which advocates for an open economy. “We don’t understand why the regulations stopped where they did,” Jose Martinez, head of government relations for Latin America at Nokia, said in an Aug. 20 interview from Miami. “There doesn’t seem to be a desire at the bureaucratic level to change the rules to allow cell phones.” Cuba has the lowest mobile-phone penetration in Latin America. As recently as 2008, about 20,000 to 30,000 people, mostly foreign diplomats and senior officials, owned mobile devices. That number has grown to 800,000 since Castro lifted a ban on most people owning them, the Cuba Study Group says. AT&T and Verizon may be interested in setting up roaming service for U.S. customers who visit the island as a first step into Cuba, said Jose Magana, a senior analyst at Pyramid Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Largest in Caribbean The country of 11.4 million people could become the largest telecom market in the Caribbean, topping Puerto Rico’s $1.6 billion market, Magana said. If the market remains mostly closed, annual revenue could still reach $400 million by 2013 from the current $80 million, he said. Magana said roaming service in Cuba wouldn’t have a measurable effect on earnings for AT&T or Verizon. Obama, in an April 13, 2009, memorandum lifting travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans, directed the U.S. government to allow companies to provide communications services to the island, saying it would “decrease dependency of the Cuban people on the Castro regime.” In practice, little has changed, as companies wishing to operate in Cuba risk violating sanctions still in place, said Christopher Sabatini, policy director of the New York-based Council of the Americas business group. These include the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act that prohibits investment in Cuba’s telecommunications network -- including donations of anything of value. Self-Defeating “It’s so self-defeating,” said Sabatini, who helped prepare the Cuba Study Group report. “It’s like we just sent them a toy cell phone and said, ‘This will be great. Use this.’” Cuba’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. AT&T and New York-based Verizon wrote to the Federal Communications Commission this year urging it to grant an April request by TeleCuba, a Miami-based company that sells calling cards, for the FCC to waive rules that fix a maximum rate a U.S. provider can pay the Cuban government for connecting calls. The wireless providers’ letters may be aimed at supporting their interest in setting up roaming service in Cuba without taking sides in a politically delicate issue, said Christopher King, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in Baltimore who covers Verizon and Dallas-based AT&T. Market Foothold Establishing a foothold in Cuba could be lucrative because mobile phone penetration may increase to 80 percent of the population in four years, from 10 percent to 25 percent now, should providers be allowed to invest in the market, King said. AT&T has no specific commercial plan associated with the letter, spokesman Michael Balmoris said. Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson, and John Taylor, a spokesman for Overland Park, Kansas-based Sprint Nextel Corp., declined to comment on whether their companies were seeking a roaming agreement for Cuba. The branch of the U.S. Treasury Department that enforces trade sanctions allows U.S. providers to pay Cuba for services including roaming, said a Treasury official who declined to be identified, citing agency policy. Still, under current FCC rules, U.S. providers can only offer direct calls to Cuba and roaming service if they pay the Castro government a fee no higher than 19 cents per call, said an FCC official. That prevents U.S. operators from offering these services because Cuba demands 84 cents a call, according to the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue. FCC Rate Cap The FCC is considering whether to waive the rate cap, the FCC official said. U.S. rules also keep Nokia from selling handsets in Cuba, even though it is based in Espoo, Finland, because the unit that exports to Latin America is based in Miami, Martinez said. “There is an enormous amount of frustration that the rules weren’t clear enough,” said Judith O’Neill, a telecom lawyer at Nakhota LLC consulting firm in New York. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the Obama administration, declined to comment, as did State Department spokesman Philip Crowley. While the entry of U.S. companies also hinges on the willingness of Castro’s government to let them in, the Cubans would probably be open to the idea because they want the inflow of cash amid an economic slump, Sabatini said. Cuban state phone company Etesca, based in Havana, has a monopoly on all fixed-line and mobile services. Milan-based Telecom Italia SpA has a 27 percent stake in the company. “The rules are so unclear,” Ralph de la Vega, AT&T’s chief of wireless, said in an Aug. 20 interview. ‘Until there’s real change there’s not much we can do about it.” To contact the reporters on this story: Jens Erik Gould in Mexico City at jgould9@bloomberg.net *Photo borrowed from WashingtonPost.com.
August 1st, 2010 - Information has always been a liberating force, and throughout history, authoritarian regimes have always attempted to control it -- Cuba is no exception. 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 www.CubaITinitiative.org. Carlos Saladrigas is co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group.
July 2010

Unleashing an Internet Revolution in Cuba

July 16, 2010

Cato- Juan Carlos Hidalgo

By now the name of Yoani Sánchez has become common currency for those who follow Cuba. Through the use of New Media (blog, Twitter and YouTube) Yoani has challenged the Castro regime in a way that various U.S. government-sponsored efforts have failed to do before, earning the respect and tacit admiration of even those who continue to sympathize with the Cuban regime. As my colleague Ian Vásquez put it a few months ago, Yoani keeps speaking truth to power. Although she’s a remarkable individual, Yoani is not alone in fighting repression with technology. Other bloggers are making their voice heard, and that makes the Castro dictatorship nervous. As Yoani wrote in a paper recently published by Cato, despite the many difficulties and costs that regular Cubans face when trying to access Internet, … a web of networks has emerged as the only means by which a person on the island can make his opinions known to the rest of the world. Today, this virtual space is like a training camp where Cubans go to relearn forgotten freedoms. The right of association can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social networks, in a sort of compensation for the crime of “unlawful assembly” established by the Cuban penal code. As recent events in Iran and elsewhere have shown, once a technology becomes pervasive in a society, it is extremely difficult for a totalitarian regime to control it. A new paper published today by the Cuba Study Group highlights the potential of technology in bringing about democracy and liberty to Cuba. The document entitled “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders,” also recommends lifting all U.S. restrictions that hinder the opportunities of companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island. For example, the paper reviews the current U.S. regulatory framework on technology investment in other repressive regimes such as Iran, Syria, Burma and North Korea, and finds that “the U.S. regulations governing telecommunications-related exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive.” By removing these counterproductive restrictions, Washington could help unleash an Internet revolution in Cuba. More Yoanis will certainly bring about more change in the island than 50 years of failed U.S. trade and travel bans.

USA/Cuba politics: Time to adjust policy?

July 16, 2010

The Economist Intelligence Unit,

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT Cuba’s release of 52 political prisoners, announced on July 7th, has improved the chances for better relations with the EU. It has also re-ignited discussion about whether the US should adjust its strict economic sanctions against the communist regime. A wholesale revamp of Cuba policy is not in prospect in the short term, but there is growing pressure in the US to make important changes, such as lifting the travel ban on US citizens, and ending restrictions on farm and telecommunications exports. Some members of the EU have been seeking closer relations with Cuba for some time. These efforts soured in 2003 following the Castro government’s arrest of 75 dissidents—most of whom are now slated to be freed. Spain, which helped to broker the agreement for the prisoner release, has been working to get the EU to alter its “common position” on Cuba. That position requires that the EU conduct an annual assessment of the human-rights situation in Cuba. Spain has lobbied for that requirement to be dropped. EU foreign ministers will discuss whether to uphold their common position on Cuba at their next summit in September. In the US, amending the 50-year-old trade and economic embargo will be more politically difficult, both because of stiff opposition from conservatives and many in the Cuban-American community, and because a lifting of most sanctions would require modifying legislation, rather than a simple executive decision. Laws governing the embargo include the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 (the Helms-Burton Act) and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. Efforts to end travel ban Nonetheless, legislators in the House of Representatives last year introduced a bill (HR 874 - Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act) to end the travel ban on US citizens. Business and farm groups that oppose the embargo support the legislation. The bill was passed in June by the House Agriculture Committee (as it also will loosen some rules that apply to food sales to Cuba) but must get through other committees before it can be brought to a vote by the full lower house. Agricultural trade with Cuba was authorised in 2000, and US farm exports to the island grew through 2008, to reach more than US$700m (representing 40% of Cuba’s annual farm imports). However, financing restrictions (no credit is allowed, for instance) have dampened those sales since then. It is such restrictions that US agricultural groups, such as the Texas Farm Bureau and the US Rice Federation, would like to see loosened. The political climate is probably still not favourable to a lifting of the travel ban, which anti-Castro groups say would serve to prop up the regime economically (though an easing of farm export rules would be less controversial). Nor has the Barack Obama administration shown much interest in promoting this change, despite its desire to engage Cuba on some issues. Supporters of the bill hope to bring it to a vote by the full lower house before the end of the summer, but passage is highly uncertain, and quite unlikely before the November congressional elections. If the position of the Democrats is weakened at the elections, the bill’s prospects will be poorer still. Push for ICT access Other proponents of change argue for an easing of US rules on information and communications technology transfers to Cuba. They say this would enhance the freedoms of Cubans by affording them greater access to information, create opportunities for US businesses and help prepare the country for an eventual political transition—dovetailing with the US’s long-term goals for the island. Importantly, changing such restrictions requires an executive directive, rather than a legislative revamp. US policy in the ICT area can be a decisive force for fomenting change in Cuba, according to a paper prepared by a Cuba Study Group in collaboration with the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and the Brookings Institute. Technology tools such as the Internet and social media have been shown in countries such as Iran to empower citizens both politically and economically. Similarly, expanding ICT access in Cuba would help its citizens to become “productive economic citizens once the shackles of political and economic state control are removed”. The Obama administration has already loosened restrictions on ICT in an effort to increase the flow of information and expand telecommunications links between the US and Cuba. This move coincided with the administration’s easing in 2009 of other constraints, imposed by the Bush administration, on travel to Cuba by Cuban-Americans and on their sending of remittances to family on the island. Following Mr Obama’s directive of April 2009, changes were made to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations that authorise payments to US telecoms companies for the provision of telecoms services between the US and Cuba; provision of satellite TV services to Cuba; and entry into roaming service agreements with Cuban telecoms companies. Other rules authorise agreements to establish fibre-optic cable links with Cuba, and allow the export or re-export of donated communications devices such as cellular phones and computers. Despite these and other modifications, US restrictions on telecommunications exports to Cuba are still some of the most restrictive in the world. Indeed, the Cuba Study Group report points out that they are even tighter than those imposed by the US on other repressive regimes such as Burma, Syria and Iran. As such, “the prohibitions remain an obstacle to the ability of average Cubans to gain access to independent, electronic means of communications”. Arguing that there is a correlation between access to ICT and greater freedom in a closed society, the report suggests that there needs to be even more liberalisation of regulations related to export of ICT equipment and provision of services, and even of restrictions on investment in Cuba’s domestic telecommunications network. “Changes in this area would be easy to make, and would give the US the chance to respond to what’s happened in Cuba with the release of the dissidents,” says Chris Sabatini, policy director for the Council of the Americas. It would not involve the politically difficult task of lifting the embargo. It would “improve the ability of the private sector to invest in Cuba to expand access and provide the basic foundation for long-term, sustainable economic growth when Cuba does experience a political change,” says Mr Sabatini. Closing the IT gap is an imperative Of course, Cuba imposes its own set of restrictions on information, including tight control of access to the Internet and blocking of websites. Nonetheless, in 2008 the government lifted a ban on ownership of personal computers, cellular phones and other personal electronics. Since then ownership of these devices has grown rapidly, as has the black market in Internet and email access. For political and national security reasons, the Cuban government is likely to maintain controls on ICT. But at the same time, an expansion of telecoms and technology usage and agreements with foreign telecoms companies would provide a revenue generator for the cash-strapped government. Moreover, modern technology is a key component of long-term economic growth and development. Authorities will have to look to expand ICT usage and close the technology gap if they are to increase productivity and economic competitiveness, speed up economic growth and bring much-needed improvements to Cubans’ quality of life—all goals that have been articulated by the government since Raúl Castro took over in 2006. Regulatory and policy changes, both on the US and Cuban sides, are inevitable. The uncertainty surrounds not whether they happen, but rather when.

Havana Calling

July 16, 2010

Foreign Policy- Chris Sabatini

Fidel Castro may have looked weak and confused at times during his TV appearance this week, but the rare prime-time address by the former Cuban leader had the desired effect: He managed, for a day, to recapture the media spotlight and demonstrate that he was lucid enough to be aware of his government's promised release of 52 political prisoners. Most of the attention afterward was spent commenting on the softball questions he was asked and his apparent decision to trade in his olive fatigues for a tracksuit. But sartorial issues aside, the reappearance of Cuba's octogenarian revolutionary (an oxymoron if there ever was one) sent a strong signal to Cuba watchers that the prisoner release does not herald a softening of policy under the rule of his brother, Raul Castro. This leaves Washington in a quandary. Last week's release of the 52 prisoners -- independent journalists and human rights activists rounded up in the March, 2003 Black Spring crackdown -- may have reduced the number of political prisoners rotting in Cuban jails to the lowest level in decades, but it was still, at best, a superficial act. Restrictions and state control over freedom of association and expression remain and there are still scores of prisoners being held for the inventive and uniquely Cuban offense of peligrosidad -- "dangerousness" -- often used to round up opponents under vague accusations of espionage. In addition to the now-estimated 120 political prisoners held in Cuban jails, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross, arrested in December for distributing laptops and cell phones to Cuba's small Jewish community, remains in prison without formal charges brought against him. Given this, it would be a mistake for Washington to overreact, engaging Havana with open arms over what was, in effect, a publicity stunt by the Castro brothers. On the other hand, intentionally antagonizing the regime by ramping up demands or dismissing the gesture would be equally damaging. But the United States can respond to this gesture in a way that benefits Cuban society and individuals without legitimizing the regime or provoking a hostile reaction by the anti-Castro lobby in the United States. Ironically, that means doing what President Barack Obama has promised to do all along: follow through on his pledge from last April to loosen restrictions on U.S. telecom activities in Cuba and assist U.S. business in providing the tools for Cubans to communicate beyond the prison walls of the Castros' island nation. Unlike lifting the trade embargo on Cuba, which would require an act of Congress, these changes could be made by executive order, avoiding a politically costly battle with pro-embargo legislators. But more importantly, granting greater scope for U.S. telecom companies to sell cell-phones, software, and laptops in Cuba and establish the necessary infrastructure to make them work -- such as cell phone towers and routers -- would look generous, while loosening the Castro regime's control over its people. Imagine a scenario in which Cubans on the island could buy cell phones (or their relatives visiting from the United States could buy the phones for them) ,allowing them to talk with colleagues inside and outside the island, send pictures and videos, and tweet. (Yes, Cubans do have access to Twitter. In fact, when she was detained several months ago world-famous Cuba blogger Yoani Sánchez tweeted to her followers as it was occurring.) Imagine also a scenario in which Cubans could purchase laptops or software that would allow them to blog, Skype, instant message and participate in social networks. (Yes, Cubans do have access to Facebook. Many suspect the Cuban government balks at censoring it because it is popular with foreign tourists visiting the island.) Would the Cuban government allow this? Some things -- such as licensing for satellite radio and television -- would clearly challenge the regime's monopoly on information. Yet some telecommunication investments, like establishing roaming agreements with U.S. carriers, the government would likely view as a much needed source of revenue. As for authorizing the purchase of laptops, software, and mobile-phone handsets? Well, that's already in large part out of its control as the increase in blogging and tweeting has demonstrated. But the benefits for individual Cubans' access to technology (with all the economic implications) will outweigh the benefits to the government. This type of bold action has been too long in coming. The Obama administration has admitted that the Bush policy toward Cuba was a failure, but has only made some timid moves to roll back the more onerous Bush-era policies, such as the limits on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island. But those were easy fixes, and other Bush policies, such as the restrictions on cultural and educational exchanges, officially remain in place. In truth, in terms of engaging and opening up to Cuba, Washington is not yet back to where it was during the Clinton era. Nowhere is this timidness more in evidence than telecommunications policy. In April 2009, Obama's announcement that he would relax regulations governing U.S. telecom activities in Cuba was met with tremendous expectation. In revising the regulations, Obama said he hoped to "help bridge the gap among divided Cuban families and promote the freer flow of information... to the Cuban people." Despite what appeared to be an opening, there was not so much as a peep of opposition from traditional anti-Castro groups -- which generally frown upon Washington softening toward Cuba. On the island, it was met with relief. In December of that year, Yoani Sánchez declared optimistically that the "period of silence is coming to an end. Now we must bring the power of the Internet and Twitter to all citizens." Moreover, as a recent Cuba Study Group, Americas Society/Council of the Americas, and Brookings Institution report notes, greater Internet access to the Internet for average Cubans would help set the stage for technically and economically empowering Cuban citizens for the eventual transition away from its anachronistic, decrepit economy to a more globally integrated market system -- a huge step in a country with only a 16 percent Internet penetration rate, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere. But something was lost between Obama's hopeful words and the marching orders given to regulators. The final regulations prohibited export licenses for anything that could be considered "domestic infrastructure," such as cell-phone towers, satellites, wireless routers, even cell phones. Worse, the sale of items such as SIM cards, PDAs, laptop and desktop computers, USB flash drives, Bluetooth equipment, and wireless Internet devices remain prohibited. For long-suffering Cubans it was as if the U.S. government had given them a certificate that could only be redeemed outside the island. Without these physical elements, Internet and mobile connectivity remain a pipe dream for many Cubans. For now, all that really remains changed is the possibility for telecom representatives (but not representatives of what can be deemed infrastructure companies) to travel to Cuba and the possibility for the licensing of roaming agreements. Between "domestic infrastructure" and all the items banned for export, there's little room for any real U.S. business activity that could link the island to the Internet and provide citizens with the tools of communication. Instead, the provisions only allow for the donation of these items, rendering a critical foreign-policy objective to philanthropy. The effect has been to take the wind out of the sails for many industry representatives. But it also missed the opportunity to turn the much-criticized, misinterpreted and expensive USAID programs, like the one that landed Alan Gross in jail, to good-old private initiative. The reluctance to move forward on Cuba policy stands in stark contrast to the administration's well-intentioned rhetoric on the ability of the Internet to empower the powerless. The president and his team have repeatedly hailed the potential of the Internet to empower citizens and change history. In a January 21, 2010 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that "We need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles. ... Today, we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century." One has to wonder if the secretary is aware of the inconsistencies of her government's policy toward Cuba. The restrictions stand in stark contrast to other authoritarian states, such as Burma and Syria. In the case of the former, the U.S. Commerce Department can license basic communications technology (laptops, etc.) to non-sanctioned Burmese citizens. In the case of the latter, since 2004 the Commerce Department has exempted telecommunications equipment and software from a general policy of denial. In both cases it has allowed independent citizens to gain access to equipment, free of the suspicion of being associated with U.S. government programs and the shadow of "regime change." Why are Cubans still restricted from access to the tools the United States makes available to Syrians and Burmese? Now is the time for the United States to demonstrate that its policy toward Cuba is not frozen in time and that an embargo is not monolithic. After the Cuban regime announced the prisoner release, the Internet-freedom-championing secretary said that while it was a "positive sign" it was still "overdue." It's long overdue for Washington to offer its own positive sign and lift the communications embargo on Havana. U.S. businesses and Cuban citizens are waiting.
The U.S. should end commercial telecommunications restrictions on Cuba to allow companies to tap a market of 11.3 million people, according to a report from the Cuba Study Group to be released in Washington today. “Expanding the opportunity for U.S. telecom investors and companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island will help ensure that Cuban citizens possess the tools to become productive economic citizens,” the report, written in conjunction with the Council of the Americas and the Brookings Institute, said. Cuba has 1.8 million Internet users, about 16 percent of the island’s population, “the lowest level of Internet penetration in the hemisphere and one of the lowest in the world,” the report said. By comparison, about 23 percent of Haiti’s population has Internet access, it said. State-controlled Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA, known as ETECSA, has a monopoly of fixed and mobile voice telephony service in the island. The Cuban government ended a prohibition on owning mobile phones in 2008, causing the number of devices to jump 2,600 percent to more than 800,000 users, the study said. The Cuban Democracy Act, passed by U.S. lawmakers in 1992, “explicitly prohibits any investment in the domestic telecommunications network within Cuba,” said the report. The Cuba Study Group, founded in 2000, says Cuba’s isolation from the international community is an impediment to change on the island. The group says on its website that it seeks to improve coordination among opposition groups in Cuba and works for the release of political prisoners there. “Expanding citizens’ access to even the most rudimentary technology in Cuba would be a giant step forward in economically empowering a new, independent generation of Cuban citizens,” concludes the study.
June 2010

Wikipedia handy tool for Cuban propagandists

June 22, 2010

Carlos Alberto Montaner, Miami Herald

In the mid-18th century, a Paris editor asked writer Denis Diderot to compile a work that would amass all the knowledge available at the time. Thus, in the course of 26 years, were created the 28 volumes of the French Encyclopedia, written by the most valuable (and valiant ) intellectuals of the period, some 160 authors, among them Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu. The books contained more than 70,000 articles and almost 3,000 illustrations. A few years after their publication came the French Revolution and the ancien régime was liquidated. Although impossible to prove, the two events were unquestionably related. Not long afterward, the guillotine began to work. Today's encyclopedia is called Wikipedia. It is a collective, anonymous work edited on the Internet, with the collaboration of a spontaneous and undirected army of volunteers. Its size and impact are infinitely greater than those of the collection edited by Diderot. A few days ago, Carmen Pérez-Lanzac summarized this editorial phenomenon in the Spanish newspaper El País: In little more than eight years, it has collected 11 million articles, crafted by 150,000 authors in 265 languages, although English, naturally, is the dominant language. In Spanish alone, there are 482,000 articles, to which about 400 are added every day. Is that enormous mass of information trustworthy? Relatively, as the experts never tire of saying, but, according to Google's implacable accounting, it is the most sought and utilized source of information. By whom? By students who need to do their homework, by journalists burdened by a lack of time, by anyone who urgently requires a fact and generally finds it only in Wikipedia. The situation is very dangerous, because Wikipedia is also a field of ideological battle where there's no shortage of lies or a biased selection of information to distort the image of the adversary someone wants to destroy. Wikipedia has many collaborators who are healthily devoted to the spread of knowledge, but it also has many warriors intent on destroying the reputation of those whom they consider their enemies. I learned this first-hand when a former student warned me that my biography in Wikipedia described me as a terrorist in the service of the CIA, the culprit of the murder of priests and a thousand other delirious fantasies. Since I am not at all savvy in technical matters, I asked him to contact the Wikipedia webmasters and tell them about the slander being heaped on me. They listened to him, investigated the facts and the allegations, eliminated the most evident falsehoods and placed a ``lock'' on the page so the slanderers could not reinstate their infamous charges. In the process of amending that page of Wikipedia, my former student learned that one of the sources of disinformation is the University of Computer Sciences in Havana, built on what was the Lourdes espionage base created by the Soviets in Cuba during the Cold War. There, ``digital action commandos'' write and rewrite the biographies of friends and foes according to the script dictated to them by the political police. To them, Wikipedia is a battlefield where they forge whatever image of reality suits the interests of the Revolution. Never before, they say, have they had at their disposal a propaganda apparatus as formidable, free, anonymous (thus exempting them from criminal responsibility) and effective. I imagine they also dream about restoring the guillotine. (C)2010 Firmas Press .
April 2010

Think Again: The Internet

April 26, 2010

Foreign Policy- Evgeny Morozov

They told us it would usher in a new era of freedom, political activism, and perpetual peace. They were wrong. "The Internet Has Been a Force for Good" No. In the days when the Internet was young, our hopes were high. As with any budding love affair, we wanted to believe our newfound object of fascination could change the world. The Internet was lauded as the ultimate tool to foster tolerance, destroy nationalism, and transform the planet into one great wired global village. Writing in 1994, a group of digital aficionados led by Esther Dyson and Alvin Toffler published a manifesto modestly subtitled "A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" that promised the rise of "'electronic neighborhoods' bound together not by geography but by shared interests." Nicholas Negroponte, then the famed head of the MIT MediaLab, dramatically predicted in 1997 that the Internet would shatter borders between nations and usher in a new era of world peace. Well, the Internet as we know it has now been around for two decades, and it has certainly been transformative. The amount of goods and services available online is staggering. Communicating across borders is simpler than ever: Hefty international phone bills have been replaced by inexpensive subscriptions to Skype, while Google Translate helps readers navigate Web pages in Spanish, Mandarin, Maltese, and more than 40 other languages. But just as earlier generations were disappointed to see that neither the telegraph nor the radio delivered on the world-changing promises made by their most ardent cheerleaders, we haven't seen an Internet-powered rise in global peace, love, and liberty. And we're not likely to. Many of the transnational networks fostered by the Internet arguably worsen -- rather than improve -- the world as we know it. At a recent gathering devoted to stamping out the illicit trade in endangered animals, for instance, the Internet was singled out as the main driver behind the increased global commerce in protected species. Today's Internet is a world where homophobic activists in Serbia are turning to Facebook to organize against gay rights, and where social conservatives in Saudi Arabia are setting up online equivalents of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. So much for the "freedom to connect" lauded by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her much-ballyhooed speech on the Internet and human rights. Sadly enough, a networked world is not inherently a more just world. Twitter Will Undermine Dictators. #Wrong. Tweets don't overthrow governments; people do. And what we've learned so far is that social networking sites can be both helpful and harmful to activists operating from inside authoritarian regimes. Cheerleaders of today's rapidly proliferating virtual protests point out that online services such as Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube have made it much easier to circulate information that in the past had been strictly controlled by the state -- especially gruesome photos and videos and evidence of abuses by police and the courts. Think of the Burmese dissidents who distributed cell-phone photos documenting how police suppressed protests, or opposition bloggers in Russia who launched Shpik.info as a Wikipedia-like site that allows anyone to upload photos, names, and contact details of purported "enemies of democracy" -- judges, police officers, even some politicians -- who are complicit in muzzling free speech. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown famously declared last year that the Rwandan genocide would have been impossible in the age of Twitter. But does more information really translate into more power to right wrongs? Not necessarily. Neither the Iranian nor the Burmese regime has crumbled under the pressure of pixelated photos of human rights abuses circulated on social networking sites. Indeed, the Iranian authorities have been as eager to take advantage of the Internet as their green-clad opponents. After last year's protests in Tehran, Iranian authorities launched a website that publishes photos from the protests, urging the public to identify the unruly protesters by name. Relying on photos and videos uploaded to Flickr and YouTube by protesters and their Western sympathizers, the secret police now have a large pool of incriminating evidence. Neither Twitter nor Facebook provides the security required for asuccessful revolution, and they might even serve as an early warning system for authoritarian rulers. Had East Germans been tweeting about their feelings in1989, who knows what the Stasi would have done to shut down dissent? Even when Twitter and Facebook do help score partial victories, a betting man wouldn't put odds on the same trick working twice. Take the favorite poster child of digital utopians: In early 2008 a Facebook group started by a 33-year-old Colombian engineer culminated in massive protests, with up to 2 million people marching in Bogotá's streets to demonstrate against the brutality of Marxist FARC rebels. (A New York Times article about the protests gushed: "Facebook has helped bring public protest to Colombia, a country with no real history of mass demonstrations.") However,when the very same "digital revolutionaries" last September tried to organize a similar march against Venezuelan leader and FARC sponsor Hugo Chávez, they floundered. The reasons why follow-up campaigns fail often have nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter, and everything to do with the more general problems of organizing and sustaining a political movement. Internet enthusiasts argue that the Web has made organizing easier. But this is only partially true; taking full advantage of online organizing requires a well-disciplined movement with clearly defined goals, hierarchies, and operational procedures (think of Barack Obama's presidential campaign). But if a political movement is disorganized and unfocused, the Internet might onlyexpose and publicize its vulnerabilities and ratchet up the rancor ofinternecine conflicts. This, alas, sounds much like Iran's disorganized green movement. Google Defends Internet Freedom. Only when convenient. If the world's human rights community had to choose its favorite Fortune 500 company, Google -- the world's overwhelming leader in Internet search and a trendsetter in everything from global mapping to social networking-- would be a top contender. Decrying the Chinese government's censorship demands, Google recently decided to move its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong and promised to spare no effort to protect identities of Chinese dissidents who use Gmail. Much of the Western world applauded, as Google seemed to live up to its "don't be evil" corporate motto. Let's remember that Google, like any company, is motivated by profit rather than some higher purpose: The company entered China not to spread the gospel of Internet freedom, but to sell ads in what is now the world's largest online market. Only four years after agreeing to censor its search results did it refuse to do so any longer. Yet had it managed to make greater inroads among Chinese consumers, does anyone doubt that its decision to defy Beijing would have been much more difficult? Sometimes Google really does operate on principle. In early March, Google executives held a joint event with Freedom House, bringing bloggers from the Middle East to Washington to participate in a series of talks on such topics as "digital media's power in social movements" and "political parties and elections 2.0." Last summer, Google stood up to protect Cyxymu, a Georgian blogger who found himself the target of intense cyberattacks -- supposedly from Russian nationalists unhappywith his take on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war -- by keeping his Google-hosted blog online. Following the incident, the company's public-policy blog even boasted of Google's commitment to "giving a voice to 'digital refugees.'" But the company's reputation as a defender of Internet freedom is decidedly mixed. For example, its Internet filtering process in Thailand -- driven by the country's strict laws against insulting the monarchy -- is not particularly transparent and draws much criticism from the country's netizens. In India, Google faces understandable government pressure to remove extremist and nationalist content from Orkut, its social networking site; yet some Indian critics charge that Google is overzealous in its self-censorship because it fears losing access to the vast Indian market. Google's defense of Internet freedom is, ultimately, a pragmatically principled stance, with the rules often applied on a case-by-case basis. It would be somewhat naive -- and, perhaps, even dangerous -- to expect Google to become the new Radio Free Europe. The Internet Makes Governments More Accountable. Not necessarily. Many Internet enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic who were previously uninterested in policy debates have eagerly taken on the challenge of playing government watchdog, spending days and nights digitizing public data and uploading it into online databases. From Britain's TheyWorkforYou to Kenya's Mzalendo to various projects affiliated with the U.S.-based Sunlight Foundation such as MAPLight.org, a host of new independent websites has begun monitoring parliamentary activity, with some even offering comparisons between parliamentarians' voting records and campaign promises. But have such efforts resulted in better or more honest politics? The results, so far, are quite mixed. Even the most idealistic geeks are beginning to understand that entrenched political and institutional pathologies -- not technological shortfalls -- are the greatest barriers to more open and participatory politics. Technology doesn't necessarily pry more information from closed regimes; rather, it allows more people access to information that is available. Governments still maintain great sway in determining what kinds of data to release. So far, even the Obama administration, the self-proclaimed champion of "open government," draws criticism from transparency groups for releasing information about population counts for horses and burros while hoarding more sensitive data on oil and gas leases. And even when the most detailed data get released, it does not always lead to reformed policies, as Lawrence Lessig pointed out in his trenchant New Republic cover story last year. Establishing meaningful connections between information, transparency, and accountability will require more than just tinkering with spreadsheets; it will require building healthy democratic institutions and effective systems of checks and balances. The Internet can help, but only to an extent: It's political will, not more info, that is still too often missing. The Internet Boosts Political Participation. Define it. The Internet has certainly created new avenues for exchanging opinions and ideas, but we don't yet know whether this will boost the global appeal and practice of democracy. Where some see a renewal of civic engagement, others see "slacktivism," the new favorite pejorative for the shallow, peripheral, and fluid political campaigning that seems to thrive on the Internet -- sometimes at the expense of more effective real-world campaigning. And where some applaud new online campaigns purportedly aimed at increasing civic participation, such as Estonia's planned 2011 launch of voting via text-messaging, others, myself included, doubt whether the hassle of showing up at a polling place once every two or four years is really what makes disengaged citizens avoid the political process. The debate over the Internet's impact on participation echoes a much earlier controversy about the ambiguous social and political effects of cable television. Long before blogs were invented, scholars and pundits were arguing over whether the boob tube was turning voters into passive, apolitical entertainment maniacs who, when given greater choice, favored James Bond flicks and Happy Days reruns over nightly news broadcasts -- or whether it was turning them into hyperactive, obsessive citizens who watch C-SPAN nonstop. The argument then, and now, was that American-style democracy was turning into niche markets for politics, with the entertainment-obsessed masses opting out, on TV and at the polling booth, and news junkies looking for ever-quicker fixes in the sped-up news cycle. The Internet is cable television on steroids; both tuning in and tuning out of political discourse have never been easier. Another danger is that even the news we read will come increasingly from selective sources, such as our Facebook friends, which might decrease the range of views to which we're exposed. Three-quarters of Americans who consume their news online say they receive at least some of it through forwarded emails or posts on social networking sites, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Presently, less than 10 percent of Americans report relying on just one media platform. But that could easily change as traditional news sources lose market share to the Web. The Internet Is Killing Foreign News. Only if we let it. You won't hear this from most Western news organizations, which today are fighting for their financial survival andclosing foreign bureaus, but we've never had faster access to more world news than we do today. Aggregators like Google News might be disrupting the business models of CNN and the New York Times, forcing substantial cutbacks in one particularly costly form of news-gathering -- foreign correspondents -- but they have also equalized the playing field for thousands of niche and country-specific news sources, helping them to reach global audiences. How many people would be reading AllAfrica.com or the Asia Times Online were it not for Google News? While we decry the Internet's role in destroying the business model that supported old-school foreign reporting, we should also celebrate the Web's unequivocally positive effects on the quality of research about global affairs done today on the periphery of the news business. The instantaneous fact-checking, ability to continuously follow a story from multiple sources,and extensive newspaper archives that are now freely available were unimaginable even 15 years ago. The real danger in the changing face of foreign news is the absence of intelligent and respected moderators. The Internet may be a paradise for well-informed news junkies, but it is a confusing news junkyard for the rest of us. Even fairly sophisticated readers might not know the difference between the Global Times, a nationalist Chinese daily produced under the auspices of the Communist Party, and the Epoch Times, another China-related daily published by the Falun Gong dissident group. The Internet Brings Us Closer Together. No. Geography still matters. In her best-selling 1997 book, The Death of Distance, the Economist's then senior editor Frances Cairncross predicted that the Internet-powered communications revolution would "increase understanding, foster tolerance, and ultimately promote worldwide peace." But pronouncing the death of distance was premature. Even in a networked world, the hunger for consumer goods and information is still taste-dependent, and location remains a fairly reliable proxy for taste. A 2006 study published in the Journal of International Economics, for instance, found that for certain digital products -- such as music, games, and pornography -- each 1 percent increase in physical distance from the United States reduced by 3.25 percent the number of visits an American would make to a particular website. Not only user preferences, but also government and corporate actions -- motivated as often by cost and copyright as by political agendas -- might mean the end of the era of the single Internet. That is to say, the days in which everyone can visit the same websites regardless of geographic location might be waning, even in the "free" world. We are seeing more attempts, mostly by corporations and their lawyers, to keep foreign nationals off certain Web properties. For instance, digital content that is available to Brits via the BBC's innovative iPlayer is increasingly unavailable to Germans. Norwegians can already access 50,000 copyrighted books online for free through the country's Bookshelfinitiative, but one has to be in Norway to do so -- the government is footing the annual $900,000 bill for licensing fees and doesn't plan to subsidize the rest of the world. Moreover, many celebrated Internet pioneers -- Google, Twitter,Facebook -- are U.S. companies that other governments increasingly fear as political agents. Chinese, Cuban, Iranian, and even Turkish politicians are already talking up "information sovereignty" -- a euphemism for replacing services provided by Western Internet companies with their own more limited but somewhat easier to control products, further splintering the World Wide Web into numerous national Internets. The age of the Splinternet beckons. Two decades in, the Internet has neither brought down dictators nor eliminated borders. It has certainly not ushered in a post-political age of rational and data-driven policymaking. It has sped up and amplified many existing forces atwork in the world, often making politics more combustible and unpredictable. Increasingly, the Internet looks like a hypercharged version of the real world, with all of its promise and perils, while the cyber utopia that the early Web enthusiasts predicted seems ever more illusory.

Top Ten Cuban Bloggers You Haven't Heard Of

April 15, 2010

Miami New Times Blog- Erik Maza,

Yoani Sánchez is on the cover of Italian Wired this month. In the three years she's been online, the 32-year-old blogger has become Cuba's Arianna Huffington. She's now a tweeter and a blogger on the Huffington Post, and her blog gets 14 million page views a month, according to the New York Times. Last year, she even interviewed President Obama. But there are other Cuban bloggers toiling away behind computers. Here are some you've never heard of. 1. Octavo Cerco: If Iranians used social networking sites, such as Twitter, to organize street action, Cubans use blogs. Claudia Cadelo, a young French teacher, updates her blog on an almost daily basis, like a stock ticker, with the slightest political tremors en la isla. She says she's followed by secret police. A badge of honor, for sure. 2. Boring Home Utopics: La Habana is really like Great Expectations' Miss Havisham. This is the place to see it in all of its decrepit glory. Photographer Orlando Luis Pardo first took to the web when a state publisher dropped a book of his after he criticized the government online. He decided instead to publish the whole book on the blog and now runs it as photolog. 3. Penultimos Dias: When you've fallen behind on your island news, go to Ernesto Hernández Busto's blog. It's a regularly updated aggregator of all things Cuban. Published from Spain, it's probably the best written of all the blogs, with regular contributions from censured writers still living in the country. 4. Laritza Diversent: Another young blogger, Diversent advises Cubans what their legal rights are under the country's spotty, rarely adhered to constitution. Last year, she blogged on the Huff about police beatings. 5. Re-evolución: Sometimes it's easy to read these blogs and shrug them off: Depressing! But Alain Saavedra's version is written in the young, pissed-off voice of the hip-hop DJ he is. In a recent post, he ragged on a youth concert sponsored by the government because it didn't invite reactionary bands such as Porno Para Ricardo. Coincidentally, Saavedra was one of the people who received Porno frontman Gorki Aguila when he returned to Havana last month. 6. The Voice of El Morro: Only 11 percent of the population has access to the Internet. The government grants free passwords only to a small group, and for the other half, it's unaffordable. Think of El Morro as Cuba's digital soapbox. It's a collection of grim testimonies from random residents, such as a woman whose husband is on a hunger strike. 7. Voces Tras Las Rejas: In 2003, some 20 journalists were arrested for writing critical stories about the catastrofuck that is daily life in Cuba. The crackdown earned the nickname the Black Spring. All of the people arrested are still in jail, but they update this blog with stories about what it's like to be a political prisoner. 8. Desde Aquí: Of the 200 estimated blogs, some 25 have a journalistic bent, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Reinaldo Escobar, who was a reporter for the state press, has been furiously covering the recent spate of protests in the wake of dissident Zapato Tamayo's death, paying special attention to Las Damas en Blanco, which inspired Gloria Estefan's march on Calle Ocho. 9. Fake Cuban News: Recent headline: "Russia's Centers for Medical Sciences Ready to Embalm Fidel When Necessary." Been reading our death-meter, have you? 10. El Auditorio del Imbecil: All the blogs use the Interwebs to mock El Maximo and rail against the inadequacies of the government. But Ciro, a 31-year-old Jason Mraz-ish musician, does it in song.

Effective Tools and Strategy: Kicking it up a Notch in Cuba and Beyond

April 8, 2010

Huffington Post- Stephanie Rudat,

Technology is boosting connectivity, engaging and enrolling the masses to push against repression faced by the people of Cuba, but it's going to take unlimited, uncensored access for technology to truly affect change. Creating a way for Cubans to securely communicate with the rest of the world, to freely express their reality and organize for change, is essential. Likewise, those off the island need to be able to easily respond with support and solutions. Free communication is the key that will empower them to use technology to organize and launch a legitimate movement. Movements are significantly powered online to expose the depth of an issue on a grand scale and rally those both affected and not to seek on-the-ground solutions. Without the ability to confidentially access technological resources available, posting blogs, using social media, cell phone technology and more are a gamble for those living under oppressive regimes. Unjust harassment, incarcerations and brutality by Cuban authorities will ensue unless the citizens have access to freely express themselves online and use the tools to proactively seek solutions. Similar circumstances threaten Egypt, Venezuela, China and countless other nations around our globe. The brave leaders risking their lives to take action on any level are a minuscule representation of the people coping with the brass tacks muting their disparaged voices. Often, those hushed by fear have subsequently succumbed to the control their authoritative government demonstrates. In fact, I would argue that many of those same people feel a sense of safety embracing the dictatorship controlling their livelihood. There are many examples of the limited ability of information to penetrate into and out of oppressed countries. Just last month, Roots of Hope, a network established by students seven years ago with programs aiming to promote meaningful exchanges that are mutually empowering to youth on and off the island, choreographed a series of peaceful demonstrations in the wake of "Damas De Blanco" (Ladies In White) halting their ceremonious marches. These rallies in Havana call for the release of the Ladies' sons and husbands -- 53 prisoners of conscience imprisoned for human rights advocacy. Due to the violent persecution that the Ladies suffered at the hands of Cuba's repressive government on March 21, they vowed to stop their peaceful demonstrations. That is, until they got word of the movement to show solidarity being taken by Roots of Hope's network and celebrities including Gloria Estefan, Perez Hilton, Andy Garcia, George Lopez and many more with absolutely no tie to the island. Dressed in white and holding flowers, approximately 100,000 people gathered in Miami on March 25 and a few days later in Madrid, Los Angeles and New York City to acknowledge the repression faced by the people of Cuba. The "Damas," although allegedly subjected to further harassment by authorities, acknowledged the encouragement by releasing doves and marching in unison with the supporters at 6:00 p.m. in the evening on March 25. All in all, the rallies generated attention and provided a sense of community to the participants, but the political dissidents are still incarcerated. The key missing component -- secure, steady, unfiltered, two-way communication -- is needed to open the floodgates. Haystack is a tool with the potential to make significant changes in how people in Cuba communicate via the internet. In fact, it could potentially provide the freedom to securely communicate to the entire world. Haystack has been used in Iran by enabling Iranians to be heard beyond their borders and is shifting the way Iranians organize and advocate on behalf of themselves. Co-created by Guardian's 2010 Innovator of the Year, Austin Heap, Haystack is a new cutting edge anti-filtering software that provides uncensored Internet access to the people of Iran hiding the users real Internet identities while permitting access to websites such as Twitter, Gmail, Facebook and YouTube, which are often blocked by Iran's government. This tool has been critical in granting a degree of freedom of expression to the people of Iran using it since its launch last year. Communication continues to pour out of Iran exposing human rights violations and fueling support for "Green Movement" globally. Unfortunately, Haystack is by invitation only and currently unavailable to the people of Cuba as the United States Government strictly prohibits the export of goods and services to Cuba. Leveraging the opportunity to have unrestricted access to connective technologies does not alleviate the risk of agitating the opposition, but it permits people to democratically choose how they want to use those tools. The opportunity to anonymously organize, and potentially create a movement to affect positive change, cannot be seized until there is software widely available to those who need it. I have a feeling, however, that if we know of specific incidents of discontent without secure Internet access in place at this point, we will hear much more from them with safer access to those tools.
March 2010

Google welcomes chance to export to Iran, Cuba

March 10, 2010

Frank Jordans, Miami Herald

GENEVA -- A senior Google executive welcomed on Tuesday a U.S. decision to relax restrictions on exporting Internet communications services to Iran, Sudan and Cuba. Bob Boorstin, Google's director of policy communications, said the Web search company would now be able to offer some of its other products in those countries, such as the mapping satellite software Google Earth, photo management program Picasa and Internet chat client Google Talk. "This is a great accomplishment," Boorstin told a human rights meeting in Geneva. "We are hopeful this will help people like yourselves in this room and activists all over the world take a small step down what is certainly a long road ahead." The U.S. Treasury Department said the change to existing trade sanctions was intended to help people "exercise their most basic rights" with the help of instant messaging service and e-mail. Google itself has come under fire recently in countries where it operates. Last month, an Italian court held three Google executives criminally responsible for violating the country's privacy laws for allowing a video of an autistic teenager being bullied to be posted online. In January, Google threatened to leave China over attempts to snoop on Chinese dissidents' Gmail accounts from inside the country. China's government denies any involvement. Boorstin described the Italian court's decision as a form of "Internet censorship" that would "encourage repressive regimes." "From now on, you're criminally responsible for anything that appears on your Web site," he said. "That's certainly going to have a chilling effect on what people are willing to put up." On China, Boorstin said Google was already offering a "a censored search engine" through the Google.cn domain to avoid meeting Chinese requirements for storing sensitive data about its users on servers in the country. "If and when we pull out of China and turn off Google.cn, I'm afraid that we will be taking away from the Chinese populace a tool that they have come to value," he said. Boorstin encouraged human rights activists also to rely on platforms other than the Internet for transmitting information.
February 2010

Cuba struggles to preserve past in hard times

February 26, 2010

Jeff Franks, Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) - Every winter, tourists from frozen homelands in the north fill the sunny streets of Old Havana admiring its picturesque colonial buildings and centuries-old squares. World | Lifestyle They sip mojitos in the Bodeguita del Medio where Ernest Hemingway supposedly hung out, eat in atmospheric restaurants along Calle Obispo and stay in lovely old hotels restored to their former glory as part of a massive remake of Havana's historic center by the Cuban government. But if they walk a few blocks on, they leave the manicured surroundings and emerge into a different Old Havana, where broken, unpainted buildings line pothole-filled streets and history is not recreated, but lived in a continuum of decay. There, people live in rundown apartments, get their monthly food ration at spartan government stores and buy their drink at state-run shops where wine and rum are served in old water bottles. With its two very different faces, Old Havana is both the centerpiece of Cuban tourism and a symbol of the city's larger problems. Cuba's capital, founded beside Havana Bay by the Spaniards in 1519, is a place where the past is remarkably intact, but thousands of its historic buildings are threatened by neglect and the government's inability to preserve them. In a race against time, time is winning, except in part of Old Havana where more than 350 buildings have been restored in a widely praised operation led by city historian Eusebio Leal. He and a group of colleagues began the effort in 1967, but it took wings in 1994 when then-President Fidel Castro put Leal in charge of a state-owned firm to restore the old quarter using profits from the money spent there by tourists. "We define our battle in Old Havana as a defense of utopia," Leal told Reuters in an interview. He said tourist spending allowed him to invest $20 million in the project last year as half a million visitors traipsed through Old Havana. PRESERVING THE PAST The amount of money is small compared to the need, he said. A pre-restoration study found 4,000 buildings in Old Havana's 1.3 square mile (3.4 square km) area, virtually all historically valuable and in bad shape. Leal would like to expand preservation to historic neighborhoods like Central Havana and Vedado, and has done a few renovations outside of Old Havana as "sources of inspiration." "But economic resources are decisive, and we cannot stray too far from the source, nor the idea of the core," he said. Havana is a treasure trove of architectural history with block after block of historic buildings in styles ranging from colonial to modernism. Most need repair and many have already fallen. When Hurricane Ike brushed the city in 2008, 67 buildings collapsed, raising fears about what will happen when a big storm hits Havana head on. The most basic problem is a lack of maintenance for many years following the 1959 revolution that transformed Cuba into a communist state. The new government focused on building infrastructure in the impoverished countryside and basically ignored Havana. Leal said Cuba does not have the money to do more, due in part to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo against the island. "We have lived for more than 50 years in an economic and commercial war," he said. Government opponents blame the communist system Fidel Castro put in place and the economic woes that followed. Leal argues that the revolution saved historic Havana from Cuban capitalists, who he said had plans to replace old buildings with new, even in Old Havana. "Without socialism, Old Havana would not be preserved," he said. About 6 percent of Old Havana restoration funds come from organizations such as the United Nations, but more could be done if the government allowed greater private investment from abroad, said Bernd Herrmann, head of the Havana-based Swiss travel agency Cuba Real Tours. Cuba has a problem in that many visitors come - 2.42 million in 2009 -- but, due to insufficient tourist infrastructure and poor service, do not return, Herrmann said. "If they would let in investors, the satisfaction of the clients would be greater. We'd have more repeaters," he said. Other ideas have been floated about how best to save Havana's history, including at least two proposed city plans, one by the architecture school at Florida International University in Miami, the other by Cuban architect Julio Cesar Perez Hernandez. Perez Hernandez said he drew up a plan because the government does not have one and the city desperately needs it. "It's overwhelming. When I see how much should and could be done to give Havana back its glorious image, I suffer." It is likely a moot point for now because Cuba has been hit hard by the global recession, so the government is more concerned with putting food on Cuban tables than preserving the past. There is a social side to the project in Old Havana, where Leal said schools and health clinics have been restored or constructed, and the program's 16 hotels create employment. But many locals say they have to illegally sell cigars to tourists or serve them meals in their homes or just try to befriend them in hopes of getting money because while Old Havana flourishes, they do not. "The people in Old Havana benefit from tourism from the things they do on the side," said Diogenes, who is trying to make his rustic home presentable so he can rent rooms to tourists. "I only want what I need to live. I don't want to be rich." (Editing by Kieran Murray) .

Can social networking open up Cuba?

February 4, 2010

Joe McKendrick- Smart Planet

We’ve talked quite a bit on these pages about the role of social networking in opening up our corporations, providing transparency to management, consumers, as well as sustainability efforts. But social media is political as well as business. In recent months, we witnessed a revolution in Iran supported by social media such as Twitter and Facebook. Can social networking have a positive impact on a long-repressed society just south of the United States? In a new post, Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger, expert on the social issues of computing and former IBM vice president, reports on a recent conference in which the possibilities for social networking to open up Cuban society were discussed. “We should try to reach out to and directly help people in Cuba in any way possible. Internet technologies and social media represent potential mechanisms to empower the Cuban people to better communicate with each other as well as with the outside world. For years now we have seen the power of these technologies, most recently with Iran’s Green movement. “The Internet, mobile phones and related communication technologies are a thorn on the side of repressive governments. These governments try to control them to try to keep their people from using them. However, they cannot ban them outright unless they are willing to cut themselves off from the world altogether, including global trade and tourism. Few countries, e.g., North Korea, are willing to go that far.” Wladawsky-Berger also cites the work of Yoani Sanchez, a Cuban who defied authorities with her blog, Generation Y, started in April of 2007. She still posts everyday, though the Cuban government filtered out her blog so it could no longer be accessed over the Internet within Cuba — and thus, Sanchez cannot read her own posts. Her blogsite is supported by an international virtual community that assists with posting photos and translating her blog into 15 languages. That’s social networking in action! Social media and the Internet are crossing all borders and barriers and energizing societies in ways we have never seen before, or could ever have imagined. We have first-hand, real-time views of the tragedy in Haiti, as well as other disasters and movements around the globe. Our political and economic communities are now global communities.

Cuba Plans Large Railway Investment

February 4, 2010

Latin American Herald Tribune

HAVANA – The Cuban government plans “significant investments” in the island’s railway system this year, acquiring new equipment, state media reported, citing officials. Cuba has purchased 112 new locomotives, 52 of which have already been delivered, for both freight and passenger trains, Cuban Railway Union deputy director Miguel Acuña said. Passenger cars, freight cars, cement cars and a railroad telecommunications system will be acquired this year, Acuña said. State media have labeled Cuba’s railway communications system “destitute.” Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra said in December that Gen. Raul Castro’s government spent $595 million on rail lines and equipment in 2009. Excessive use of equipment, lack of trained workers, shortages of cars and irregular service are among the problems plaguing Cuba’s railroad industry, state media has reported. The Cuban government periodically announces investments in the industry, including the purchase of 100 locomotives from China in 2008 and the acquisition of 28 more locomotives from Russia last year. EFE .

Cuba's Internet revolution edges forward, with limits

February 3, 2010

Isabel Sanchez- AFP

HAVANA — Yoan used to earn 25 dollars a month working as a computer technician for a state company -- and an extra 500 dollars selling Internet access on Cuba's vast and varied black market. The 31-year-old managed 10 accounts for government employees who had authorized email access and would rent out their passwords to trusted clients under certain rules: they could only connect at night or in the early hours, and had to avoid political references. "I did it because I couldn't live off my salary," Yoan said. But the technician had taken a large risk amid a crackdown by the government of President Raul Castro as part of an offensive on illegal businesses. "There was an audit a little while ago, they trawled through the telephone numbers and one customer gave the game away," Yoan said. "They sacked me and I paid a 1,500-peso (60-dollar) fine." Yoan, who also received a ban from working for four years, was a tiny link in the chain connecting Cubans to the illegal network: an email service costs 10-15 dollars per month, it costs 50 dollars per month to navigate the Internet, and one dollar to send or receive an email. "I need to be in contact with my friends and the world, but I can't afford 'underground' Internet so I only have email. I connect at night because that's what my illegal provider tells me to do," said Aida, a 38-year-old former waitress. The Caribbean island connects to the Internet by satellite because the decades-long US embargo prevents access to underwater cables which pass near its coastlines. The government blames the embargo for its limits on the service -- it gives priority to state and foreign companies, academics, doctors and research centers. Dissidents and critics of the Communist government say Cuba, like China, limits Internet access to restrict freedom of information and control criticism of the single-party regime. They say that is why authorities block dissident sites or blogs, such as the award-winning blog of Yoani Sanchez, for being subversive. Cubans can connect to email at controlled state access points for 1.5 dollars per hour, or access the Internet in hotels with cards costing seven dollars per hour. But with the average monthly salary at 20 dollars, that is also out of reach of most citizens. "I can't pay that, that's why I have illegal email to communicate with my father in Miami," said Marilis, a 23-year-old law student. "I've never written anything political," she added indignantly. Raul Castro allowed computer sales two years ago, but Internet access remains limited. Barely 1.4 million of the 11.2 million inhabitants have Internet access, and only 630,000 have computers, according to official figures. Shared access is blamed for slow and patchy connections. Deputy Computing Minister Ramon Linares said recently that the island's connection speeds had increased, and an underwater cable was due to start operating from Venezuela in 2011. That still won't be enough for Aida. "Even if they solve the technical problems, we won't have free access," she complained. "It's clear that those who lead the country decide what we can consult." .
January 2010

Web Access Is New Clinton Doctrine

January 21, 2010

Siobhan Gorman, The Wall Street Journal

The U.S. plans to make unrestricted access to the Internet a top foreign-policy priority, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to announce Thursday. The announcement, which has been scheduled for weeks, comes in the wake of accusations last week that Chinese hackers penetrated Google Inc.'s computer networks. The attack, which also targeted Chinese dissidents, is the kind of issue Mrs. Clinton aims to address, said Alec Ross, a senior adviser. The growing role of the Internet in foreign policy became clear last year during protests in Iran after allegations of election fraud. The government tried to crack down on protesters' Internet communications, but they circumvented digital blockades to send out video and Twitter messages about violence against demonstrators. In one new initiative, the State Department plans to offer financial support to grass-roots movements that promote Internet freedom, Mr. Ross said. Mrs. Clinton also hopes to diminish the "honor" beatings and killings of women in the Middle East by family members who discover they are using social media on the Internet, such as Facebook or Twitter, he said. Mrs. Clinton sees Internet freedom as critical to America's longstanding promotion of democracy abroad, Mr. Ross added. She aims to shrink the proportion of the global population, now 30%, who live in countries that censor the Internet, he said. "When we sit across the table from governments and talk about what matters to us, this is now on the table," Mr Ross said. Other initiatives will include State Department funding for pilot technology programs to promote goals like government transparency, Mr. Ross said. One example could be providing funding for a Web site that allows citizens to rate aspects of their government—much like restaurant reviews are posted on the Internet—to publicize experiences such as bribery. The initiatives build on ad hoc decisions made last year during the Iranian protests, such as the State Department's decision to ask Twitter to delay a planned upgrade at the time to ensure protesters could continue to get their message out. They also mirror policies State has been advocating at the United Nations, where it has been fending off Russian and Chinese efforts to restrict access to information on the Internet on the grounds of national sovereignty, according to people familiar with the talks. In recent months, both Russia and China have signaled a willingness to negotiate on cybersecurity. In November, a top-level Russian delegation met with U.S. officials about cybersecurity for the first time. Russian officials have also been trying to link up U.S. and Russian academics to study how the laws of war and international law might apply in cyberspace. Last month, representatives from a think tank associated with Chinese security services met with U.S. cybersecurity experts to diffuse tensions over U.S. allegations of spying. The State Department has also organized delegations of U.S. executives for trips to Baghdad and Mexico City to share thoughts on how new technologies could be best used in rebuilding the Iraqi government and fighting drug violence. "I've never experienced such government involvement before" in promoting technology internationally, said Jack Dorsey, Twitter co-founder and chairman. Mrs. Clinton's elevation of Internet freedom could signal an important foreign policy shift, said Andrew Rasiej, founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference on technology and policy. "This signals a critical shift in moving U.S. foreign policy from a 20th century world view to a 21st century reality," he said. Advocacy groups supporting Iranian dissidents cheered the new initiatives. "It's a very significant development," said Brett Solomon, executive director of AccessNow.org, a group that has helped dissidents get videos and communications past Iranian Internet barricades. "It underlies the power of new technology to shift the political agenda." Write to Siobhan Gorman at siobhan.gorman@wsj.com .

Cuba, the Internet and Social Media

January 19, 2010

Irving Wladawsky-Berger

Last week I attended the Cuba, IT & Social Media Summit in New York City. The summit brought together leaders in the field to discuss the use of these technologies and capabilities in Cuba, today and in the future. Many, but not all, of the participants were of Cuban heritage, either directly born on the island like me or whose parents were. The meeting was not political in nature. I suspect that most attendees hold views similar to mine regarding Cuba, bemoaning both the repressive nature of the Cuban regime as well as the ineffectual, anachronistic US embargo. But I don’t really know, because politics was not the primary focus of our discussions. The key overarching goal of the meeting was “to empower Cubans on the island through technology, helping them to communicate with each other more freely on the island and with the outside world, to access information more freely, and to share information with the rest of the world.” A second major goal was to start thinking about the future and specifically what is needed to bring Cuba into the 21st century technologically “once laws have been passed that allow the US and Cuba to trade more freely in technology, both in public and private enterprise, and by industry sector.” A very good summary of the Cuba, IT and Social Media Summit, and in particular of its key conclusions and outcomes can be found in this entry of the blog El Yuma by Ted Henken, a faculty member in the departments of Sociology and Black and Hispanic Studies at CUNY's Baruch College. (Yuma is a slang name often used in Cuba to refer to Americans.) The summit was sponsored by the Cuba Study Group, an organization founded ten years ago “to facilitate a peaceful reunification of the Cuban nation leading to a free and open society with respect for human rights, the rule of law and a market-based economy.” Its key objectives include “respect for human and political rights and individual freedoms in Cuba, and denounce the violation of those rights and freedoms”; “substantive economic changes that improve the lives of Cubans”; and “discussion and critical analysis of ideas and formulate policy recommendations that facilitate peaceful change in Cuba.” There will be a transition in Cuba over the next five to ten years, if for no other reasons because nature will eventually take its course. Fidel Castro is 83 years old. His brother Raul Castro is 78. Once they are no longer in the picture, there will likely be significant changes, although we don’t really know what those changes will be like. The more civil and peaceful the transition, the better it will be for everyone, including the Cuban people, the US, most Latin American countries and just about everyone else in the world. The ideal transition would be something like what Spain went through after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. I realize that this is likely both idealistic and naive, but it is good to have stretch goals. Spain is not the only model. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other former communist countries represent a variety of other transition models, across a spectrum of representative governments and individual freedoms. Even former US enemies like Vietnam have made positive transitions in the last decade. Peaceful, positive transitions need to be nurtured and helped along. King Juan Carlos played a major role in overseeing the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain, including standing up to a military coup attempt in 1981. Unfortunately, a Juan Carlos kind of figure has not emerged in Cuba, the US or Latin America with the moral stature to help oversee such a peaceful transition. I keep hoping that when the time comes, such helpful statesmen will emerge. Perhaps Bill Clinton could play such a role. Brazilian President Lula da Silva is another possibility. One could imagine that Juan Carlos himself, who is much revered across Latin America, can once more lend his hand to another historical transition. The European Union, NATO and other such intergovernmental institutions played major roles in the political and economic transition of several former communist states in Europe. The Organization of American States (OAS) is getting ready to play such a role, starting with the re-admission of Cuba into the OAS subject to Cuba’s compliance with all treaties signed by the member states. It is hard to know what the US government is doing in trying to foster such a peaceful transition. As we know, US-Cuban relations are a very controversial issue. Polls show that the majority of Americans favor ending the trade embargo and travel restrictions, as well as establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. However, a relatively small but highly vocal Cuban-American lobby opposes these measures, and has continued to successfully prevent most US government policy changes. While waiting for these strategic policy issues to play out, we should try to reach out to and directly help people in Cuba in any way possible. Internet technologies and social media represent potential mechanisms to empower the Cuban people to better communicate with each other as well as with the outside world. For years now we have seen the power of these technologies, most recently with Iran’s Green movement. The Internet, mobile phones and related communication technologies are a thorn on the side of repressive governments. These governments try to control them to try to keep their people from using them. However, they cannot ban them outright unless they are willing to cut themselves off from the world altogether, including global trade and tourism. Few countries, e.g., North Korea, are willing to go that far. A recent study by Freedom House analyzed the efforts of 15 governments around the world to control, monitor and censor the use of Internet and media technologies by their people, and assigned them a score from 0 (most free) to 100 (least free). Cuba, with a score of 90 was the least free, with China and Tunisia following with scores of 78 and Iran with 74. The report said: “Despite the slight loosening of restrictions on the sale of computer and mobile-phone equipment in 2008, Cuba remains one of the world's most repressive environments for the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs). There is almost no access to internet applications other than e-mail, and surveillance is extensive. Nevertheless, a nascent community of bloggers has emerged on the island, creatively using online and offline means to express opinions and circulate information about Cuban society.” This nascent community of bloggers in Cuba is a breath of fresh air. The most famous Cuban blogger is Yoani Sanchez. Yoani started her blog, Generation Y, in April of 2007. She writes that her blog is “an exercise in cowardice which lets me say, in this space, what is forbidden to me in my civic action.” Her blog was quickly discovered by the world. As her popularity rose, the Cuban government filtered out her blog so it could no longer be accessed over the Internet within Cuba. Ever since then, Yoani has been blogging blind, unable to post or see her own blogs. She now e-mails her text and photographs to a virtual citizens network of friends abroad who then her new entries and help her remotely manage her Generation Y blog. Generation Y is now available in fifteen different languages, with all translations done by her virtual citizens network around the world. Yoani has received a number of international journalism awards for her efforts, including the 2009 Maria Moors Cabor prize from Columbia University and the 2008 Ortega y Gasset award from the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Among other recognitions, Time Magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2008, and the World Economic Forum named her as one of their 2009 top Global Young Leaders. Several months ago, Yoani Sanchez sent a written questionnaire to President Barack Obama, “with some of the issues that keep me from sleeping.” President Obama replied to each of her seven questions. But, he also took the opportunity to send a personal message to Yoani: “Thank you for this opportunity to exchange views with you and your readers in Cuba and around the world and congratulations on receiving the Maria Moore Cabot Prize award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for coverage of Latin America that furthers inter-American understanding. You richly deserve the award. I was disappointed you were denied the ability to travel to receive the award in person.” “Your blog provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba. It is telling that the Internet has provided you and other courageous Cuban bloggers with an outlet to express yourself so freely, and I applaud your collective efforts to empower fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology. The government and people of the United States join all of you in looking forward to the day all Cubans can freely express themselves in public without fear and without reprisals.” None of us can predict when and how Cuba will change, but it is important to start preparing for that day. We all hope that Cuba will soon become a more free and open society, and that it will be able to trade freely with nations around the world including the US. Empowering the Cuban people with technologies like the Internet, mobile phones and social media may seem like small steps in the context of this larger quest, but as history has repeatedly shown, they are important steps that can over time lead to much larger ones.

A Black Market Finds a Home in the Web’s Back Alleys

January 3, 2010

Marc Lacey, New York Times

HAVANA — On one block on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, a mother of two goes door to door selling hair ribbons and other sundries to her neighbors. An old man sells cookies and candies to those who ring the bell at his dilapidated home. A grandmother fills up empty beer cans with low-budget rum, which she sells in the evenings to help make ends meet. Such entrepreneurship is outlawed but thrives nonetheless, and right under the noses of the block captains who are supposed to report such transgressions to the Communist Party chain of command. These are tough economic times in Cuba, and while the black market has always bustled here it seems particularly intense these days, with enterprising Cubans in a constant search of compatriots who have money to spend. There are no classified advertisements in the Communist Party newspaper Granma or the other state-run publications that circulate in Cuba. Rather, sales are made through Radio Bemba, which is not a radio station at all but the country’s extensive gossip network, which takes its name from the Spanish word for lip. Two Cubans in their 20s who left the island for Spain have created a way to make all this secretive selling easier. It is a type of Cuban Craigslist, which allows the small but growing number of Cubans with access to computers and the Internet to buy and sell with less sneaking around. But the authorities, despite loosening restrictions recently on the sale of computers, have repeatedly blocked access to their Web site, Revolico, whose name means commotion. One of the programmers who created the site (www.revolico.com) said in an e-mail message that he and the co-founder were in a constant scramble to get their site past government censors. “We chose the name to make an allusion to the disorder that we are trying to organize,” said the programmer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that his relatives still on the island would not encounter problems with the Cuban authorities. Although he said that Craigslist was the inspiration for Revolico, the Cuban site is designed to upload more quickly on the island’s sluggish connection speeds. And although some of the categories on the site — cars for sale, computers for sale, boys seeking girls, boys seeking boys, for instance — are identical to those on Craigslist, there are many particularly Cuban exchanges. Take the person selling his place in the visa line at the Spanish Embassy to someone trying to leave the island. Or the arranged marriages that are offered to help Cubans find a way to another country. Or all the classic cars, like a 1950 Dodge, a 1956 Chevy or a 1954 Buick, all still running after having been cobbled together with makeshift parts for more than half a century. There is clearly a market for the site, as viewership both on and off the island has steadily climbed and banner advertising, priced in euros, brings in modest sums. The site, which went online in December 2007, is currently accessible outside Cuba as well as to Cubans who use special software to get around the blocking. In January 2008, there were 336,595 page views. That increased to 1,331,161 by January 2009. By August 2009, Revolico said its viewership exceeded two million hits monthly. The offerings on this online bazaar run the gamut, although it is impossible to tell which sellers are legitimate, which are scam artists and which might even be government agents setting a trap. A recent posting offered illegal satellite dishes, which the authorities occasionally seize from rooftops to prevent outlawed foreign broadcasts from finding their way into Cuban homes. Also for sale were English classes, old typewriters, sex toys, purebred dogs and tooth whitening chemicals. People with permission to travel were sought out to buy clothing, electronics and other goods to bring back in their luggage. The founder said he had heard of Cubans practically making a living by buying and selling items through Revolico. A regular customer said he bought Windows 7 from the site for about $5. After calling the number in the Revolico advertisement, a young man showed up at his front door and installed the pirated software on his home computer. The founder said, “In Revolico, one sees Cuba exposed, the daily lives of the Cubans, things that say much about the Cuba of today.” .
December 2009

Amid crisis, Cuba falls short on home-building

December 18, 2009

AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA -- Cuba built about 20,000 homes in 2009, meeting barely 60 percent of its modest annual construction goal and further exacerbating a severe housing crunch, the official press said Thursday. A report prepared for Sunday's session of parliament indicates that authorities missed by more than a third the target of building 32,000 homes this year. There was no reason given for shortfall, reported in the Communist Party newspaper Granma. Cuba's cash-strapped economy has been pummeled by the global economic crisis, however, causing officials to slash imports of food and other basics as the country's foreign debt balloons. In September 2005, Fidel Castro said housing was such a priority that his country would build 100,000 new homes per year. That goal proved so overambitious that by 2008, officials had lowered annual projections to 50,000 homes, then sliced them to 32,000 for 2009 - a bar that still proved far too high. The communist government controls nearly all construction. Even operations as simple as obtaining building materials for home improvement usually mean turning to a black market supplied by state employees who steal goods from work. Cuba reported in 2006 that its housing shortage had reached half a million homes - and that was before three hurricanes hit the island in 2008, leaving tens of thousands homeless. The Cuban parliament meets in full sessions just two days a year and usually gives unanimous approval to proposals put forward by the leadership.
October 2009
Oct. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The Treasury Department says it wants companies such as Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc. to resume instant messaging services in countries including Cuba and Iran that remain under U.S. trade sanctions. Microsoft and Google cut off the use of instant messages by citizens of Iran, Syria, Cuba and Sudan, saying U.S. regulations prohibit the required downloads. Now the Treasury Department is saying the online communications foster democracy and should be restored. “Ensuring the flow and access to information available through the Internet and similar public sources is consistent with the policy interests of the United States,” Adam Szubin, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in a letter last month to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a group that opposes sanctions on Cuba. The company-imposed blackouts show how U.S. trade restrictions can conflict with diplomatic goals, said James Lewis, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We want people to be able to communicate,” Lewis, who administered U.S. export control rules in the 1990s, said in an interview. “But in the normal course of business this stuff is on autopilot. The sanctions system rolls on and generates an answer that is no.” The U.S. began an “interagency effort” to make sure electronic communication is available in nations facing sanctions “to the extent permitted by current U.S. law,” Szubin said in the letter to Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas. Microsoft’s Obligations The conflict is over how to interpret laws that limit trade with countries whose policies the U.S. opposes. In addition to imposing general sanctions, the U.S. restricts exports of civilian technology that could have military applications. Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker, ended access to Windows Live Messenger, its instant-messaging application, last year to meet its “obligations to not do business with markets on the U.S. sanctions list,” spokeswoman Kate McGillem said in an e-mail. The company lets citizens of those nations use its Hotmail e-mail and Live Spaces, a blogging service. Those don’t require downloaded software. Google, based in Mountain View, California, doesn’t permit the download of Google Talk, its instant messaging and voice chat service, or of Google Earth, Google Desktop and other services. It has a “longstanding practice” of using a filtering system to block access to those services from portals in Iran and the other nations under sanctions, spokesman Scott Rubin said in an e-mail. Online Services The prohibitions on access in sanctioned nations remain in effect, according to the companies. Marti Adams, a Treasury spokesman, wouldn’t comment, and declined to grant an interview with Szubin. The Obama administration said in April that it was easing sanctions on Cuba, partly by letting companies such as AT&T Inc. get licenses to operate television, mobile-phone or satellite- radio services in the island nation. “With that in mind, we are deeply concerned that instant messaging services for Cubans and persons living on other countries under sanctions by the U.S. have been discontinued,” Stephens of the Center for Democracy wrote in a May 29 letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Web sites, blogs and online services such as Twitter have been used by anti-government groups to promote their causes and organize protests. China and Iran sought to block Internet access during unrest this year. Social Networking After the disputed presidential election in Iran on June 12, opposition organizers used Twitter Inc.’s messaging to organize street protests. The State Department intervened to dissuade Twitter from shutting down for a planned upgrade, according to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We called and said, ‘Please don’t shut down,’ because this is a major communications loop for people on the streets,” Clinton said in a forum at George Washington University in Washington on Oct. 6. Closely held Twitter is a social networking site that lets users send “tweets,” messages of no more than 140 characters that are open to the public unless the writer limits readers to selected “followers.” Jenna Sampson, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Twitter, didn’t respond to e-mailed questions. Instant messaging, e-mail and other private communications tools are more effective than Twitter alone for democratic activists in countries such as Iran, said Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington. “When you do have an event like in Iran you want all the channels in place, so that people can communicate quickly,” Morozov, who is writing a book about the impact of the Internet on global politics, said in an interview. The risk to companies that they will run afoul of U.S. sanctions is real, said Morozov. Doing business in Iran or Syria “is loss-making, so why should they bother?” he said.

Divided Cuban community meets on "Facebook Planet"

October 15, 2009

Jeff Franks, Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) - Susana has never set foot outside of Cuba but she has seen plenty of pictures of her friends' houses in Miami, their new cars and even the fancy disco they went to the other night. Like more and more of her fellow Cubans, she is getting a glimpse of the larger world through Facebook, the Internet social network that is allowing contact with the Cuban diaspora in ways previously unthinkable from the communist-run island. "It is a way of staying in touch with the rest of the world. You check the pages of your friends living abroad and you see how they live, where they go, who they hang out with. It's like being there," said the 24-year-old pharmacist. "All my Cuban friends who have access to the Internet are now on Facebook," she said. With at least 1.5 million Cuban exiles living abroad -- most in the United States just 90 miles across the Florida Straits from Cuba -- and international phone calls too costly for most Cubans, Facebook provides a new way for the divided Cuban world to come together. President Barack Obama has lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives in Cuba in a slight easing of the long-running U.S. trade embargo on the island, but thousands of Cuban families remain separated. Facebook does not disclose how many people in Cuba have subscribed to the service, but there are several indicators that the number is on the rise --no small feat in a country where Internet access is limited. Alain Ramirez, founder of a Miami-based Facebook group for former students of the prestigious Lenin secondary school in Havana, estimates that 30 percent of the group's 1,750 members are in Cuba. "The number of users in Cuba is growing fast. There are more every day, but they are not very active. They might just log on every other week or two," said the 30-year-old computer scientist who emigrated to the United States six years ago. Facebook has more than 300 million subscribers globally, but Cuba lags most of the world in Internet use. Official figures show that only 13 percent of Cuba's 11 million people have access to the Internet, and in most cases only to a tightly controlled intranet of approved sites, not the full World Wide Web. But they have enthusiastically embraced Facebook, which allows them to learn more about life outside the island, while giving emigres a way to keep up with their homeland. "VIRTUAL ISLAND" In a recent entry, Havana-based Daniela told her 96 Facebook friends how it felt to be among hundreds of thousands of Cubans who flocked to the city's Revolution Square for a September 20 concert organized by Colombian pop star Juanes. "Tell us more, tell us more!," pleaded Aileen, a friend from school now living in New York. Daniela says Facebook has become a "virtual island" populated by Cubans scattered all over the world. "Facebook has created a new community, a new sort of country. I call it Planet Facebook," she said. "There is where we meet. It often makes your day. Some people cry, others share a song or just talk about their new haircut." The network also seems to be blurring the borders of the politically correct in Cuba, where once it was not unusual for people to avoid trouble with the government by cutting off ties with relatives who fled to Miami. Today, the Facebook page of a journalist for the official newspaper Granma shows friends now living in the United States, and a Cuban singer known for his pro-government songs has among his Facebook contacts a columnist for El Nuevo Herald, the Miami newspaper that is often critical of Cuban leaders. Facebook is also proving a useful tool for Cubans who are making plans to leave the island. Susana, the pharmacist, has obtained a visa to go to the United States and will soon leave for Miami. She has been busily conversing via Facebook with her friends who have promised to look after her in her new home. "I got in touch with the ones who are in Florida and they say they will help me find a job," she said. Right now she is using Facebook to pick her costume for the Halloween party friends are planning to welcome her to Miami.

Miami firm says it will lay first US-Cuba fiber

October 14, 2009

AP- Peter Stevenson, Miami Herald

NEW YORK -- A small Miami-based company said the U.S. government has given it permission to lay the first optical communications fiber from the U.S. to Cuba. That could drastically cut the cost of calling the island nation and make the Internet more accessible to Cubans. Treasury Department officials were unavailable to confirm that TeleCuba Communications Inc. has received approval, which is necessary even though the Obama administration eased long-standing restrictions on telecom links to Cuba in April. TeleCuba said Tuesday that its cable will be operating by the middle of 2011. It still needs final permission from the Cuban government to land the cable. A government official in Cuba, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said Cuba has been waiting for the U.S. to approve a "group of companies" seeking to build telecommunications infrastructure. But the official could not confirm whether Cuba would ultimately give them permission to enter the market. Cuba is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that is not linked to the outside world by fiber optics. Instead, it relies on slow, expensive satellite links. While the cable could make calling very cheap, it would be up to the Cuban government to set rates, and it could keep restrictions on Internet access as well. The government of Venezuela, a Cuban ally, has announced that it is building a fiber to Cuba, which could beat TeleCuba by getting to the island next year. But construction hasn't started, and TeleCuba has the advantage of a much shorter route: 110 miles, compared to 966 miles from Venezuela. "We might get into a little race there with them," said Luis Coello, CEO of TeleCuba. TeleCuba projects the costs of its fiber at $18 million, which will be financed by private investors, while Venezuela said this summer that it is planning to spend $70 million. TeleCuba's fiber will follow the route of a defunct 1950s copper telephone cable from Key West to Cojimar, an eastern suburb of the Cuban capital, Havana. Apart from carrying communications, it will have scientific and weather sensors. The capacity of the cable will be 8 to 10 terabits per second, enough for more than 160 million simultaneous phone calls. The last operational copper cable from Florida to Cuba could carry 144 phone calls at the same time.
August 2009

Cuba capable of waging a cyberwar

August 13, 2009

Manuel Cereijo, Miami Herald

During the last few weeks there have been thousands of cyber attacks on computers and computer networks in the U.S. government and private entities. The United States, because of its dependence on computers, is very vulnerable to such attacks. A cyber attack on the United States could crush our country and the world economy, which depends on the United States as the world's leading economy. If they take us down, they cripple everybody. The U.S. government has not publicly identified where the cyber attacks are coming from, but Cuba has such potential. A partially declassified CIA document released several years ago notes that Cuba started in 1991 to study how to interfere with computer networks. This project had a modest budget of $50,000. The Soviet Union maintained in Cuba the Lourdes electronic espionage base, to which Cuba did not have direct access. That base was dismantled in 2002, but there are others. Upping the investment In 1994, Cuba and Russia agreed to build a similar base in Bejucal, south of Havana. It became operational in December 1997 at a cost of $750 million. The Bejucal base shows the importance Cuba puts on cybernetics -- having gone from a $50,000 budget to $750 million in only six years. The Bejucal base has the capacity to listen to U.S. telecommunications, interfere with computer networks, read/change electronic files and, more important, change output commands of computers used to control infrastructure facilities. In 1999, China and Cuba signed an agreement, known as Operation Titan, which allows Chinese personnel to collaborate at the Bejucal base and other facilities in Cuba. Since 2002, Cuba has used China's satellites to operate the Bejucal base, which employs 1,100 engineers, technicians and staff. The Cuban government has emphasized training talented young engineers in computation and cybernetics. A select group has been placed in key positions in cyber facilities there. The Cuban government has declared publicly that computers have replaced canons in the modern asymmetric war. Here's a partial list of other Cuban cybernetic facilities I've found through years of research: • The Electronic Warfare Batallion in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana cost $75 million. Its main task is interfering with telecommunications. • The Cojimar electronic complex, east of La Habana, cost $40 million. • The Wajay farm, also known as the Antenna Farm, near Bejucal cost $15 million and houses hundreds of special antennas. • The antenna farm in Santiago in eastern Cuba is similar to the one in Wajay and cost about $15 million. • The University of Informative Sciences was established in 2003 on the site of the old Russian Lourdes base, enrolling 10,000 students in a five-year program. In the summer of 2004, Cuba interfered with satellite communications from the United States to the people of Iran from the Bejucal base. That operation confirms Cuba's high technology and its close ties with Iran. Terrorism sponsors Cuba and Iran, along with Sudan and Syria, are classified by the U.S. State Department as state sponsors of terrorism in its April report. Cuba is considered to have the most developed cyber infrastructure among those countries. American society, the media and civic and judicial institutions should realize that Cuba's cybernetic war threatens our democratic principles and freedom. We ignore it at our own peril. Manuel Cereijo is an electrical and computer engineering professor who holds patents in manufacturing, telecommunications and control systems. He lectures at the University of Miami.
July 2009
The Miami relatives of a Cuban-American executed by the Castro government in 1960 are suing U.S. phone companies, documents indicate. Survivors of Bobby Fuller have filed suit to confiscate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues posted by such U.S. carriers as AT&T and Sprint from their cooperation with the Cuban telephone monopoly Empresa Nacional de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., also known as ETECSA, The Miami Herald reported Sunday. Fuller's relatives and other Miami families have more than $1 billion in outstanding "wrongful death" judgments against the Cuban government. The newspaper said Fuller was executed by a Cuban firing squad for allegedly participating in a botched raid against the new revolutionary government. The Herald said the family's suit could expose secret details of how U.S. telephone carriers cooperate with ETECSA through third parties to provide coverage between the United States and Cuba, while the phone companies say their arm's-length relationship with ETECSA shields them from direct links with the Cuban government. "The stakes are huge,' attorney Andrew Hall, who won $13 million from Sudan for the deaths of 17 U.S. sailors killed in the terrorist attack on the USS Cole, told the newspaper.
June 2009

Clive Thompson on Cuba's Potential Tech Boom

June 29, 2009

Clive Thompson- Wired,

Back in the '80s, Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Western Europe, with unemployment as high as 17 percent. But the scrappy nation had one advantage: It always invested in education, so while the Irish were poor, they were smart. American tech companies like Dell and Intel eventually realized the island was full of underemployed brainiacs and opened up offices there. The Irish were soon performing tasks such as developing software and working in pharmaceutical manufacturing and research. By the late '90s, the influx of jobs turned the country around: Ireland was filled with people who were smart and also wealthy, among the richest in Europe. The Celtic Tiger was born. Is there another country today with the same potential, one that could erupt in an intelligence-driven boom? Yep, though it's probably not one you'd expect: Cuba. I visited Cuba a few years ago and was surprised at how much it reminded me of Ireland. Everyone was smart, skilled, and seemed hungry for opportunities to improve their lives—perhaps even more so than the Irish had been back in the '80s, because they'd spent decades under Fidel Castro's human-rights-crushing thumb. Now that President Obama is talking about opening up trade, Cuba experts predict that the country could explode with creativity and entrepreneurial innovation. "There's tremendous potential," says Gustav Ranis, an economic-development expert at Yale. Like the '80s Irish, Cubans are eerily well educated, particularly for such an impoverished people. Education is one thing Castro has done right: 99.8 percent of adults are literate, and nearly a third have graduated from high school, many with the sort of vocational training in mechanics and farming the US foolishly let slip a generation ago. Based on UN statistics, one out of five young adults in Cuba graduates college. Cubans also have a hacker mindset. They've needed it to handle the constant privation. They keep 50-year-old cars running with cobbled-together parts. They cadge gray-market Internet access by making friends with local officials—among the anointed few the government allows online. When Soviet food supplies vanished, Cubans turned to urban gardening. If the US embargo ends, Cuba could become an Ireland-like high tech outsourcing resource. "They've got all the skills you need for software programming," says Kenneth Flamm, professor of international affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Cubans, many of whom study English in school, would be particularly good at "localizing" US software for Latin American markets, Flamm says. Plus, Havana is only an hour's flight from Miami, making it convenient for offshoring. Medicine would be another potential area of growth. Cuban health care, particularly preventive care, has been amazingly good; Cuban life expectancy is on a par with that of the US. The country has poured millions into biotech, creating vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B. "Biotech and health tourism have really serious potential," says Vicki Huddleston, a Brookings Institute expert on Cuba. Mind you, white-collar jobs aren't enough. Cuba has more than 11 million people, and gainfully employing that many requires tons of jobs in textiles, light industry, and agriculture. Organic farming, interestingly, could be big: Because the embargo has made it hard to get pesticides, Cuba has used comparatively little of them, which means much of the island is organic-ready, so long as it avoids the "resource curse" and stays away from too much mining and oil drilling. Retaining the social welfare net would also be crucial. Obviously, this is blue-sky thinking. To really open up trade, the Castros will have to liberalize their repressive regime. (An independent journalist I met while visiting in January 2003 was arrested two months later.) There's no telling if or when that will happen. But let's hope it does. In sheer human potential, Cuba is an economic and technological miracle waiting to happen. Email clive@clivethompson.net .

Cuba is "rolling museum" of vintage U.S. cars

June 18, 2009

Tom Brown, Reuters

HAVANA (Reuters) - Elvis Presley croons "All Shook Up" from the CD player as Florentino Marin wipes down his 1955 Buick Century sedan on a central Havana street. "It's always been said that Buicks and Cadillacs were the Kings of the Road," Marin says proudly, admiring the paint job on his two-tone, chrome-plated taxi as it glistened under a few drops of steamy morning rain. "We have a museum here, but it rolls," said Marin, referring to the vintage American cars from the 1940s and '50s that are everywhere in the Cuban capital. The cars predate communist Cuba's 1959 revolution, having rolled off the assembly line decades before the U.S. auto industry's current crisis of steep losses in reputation and market share. They hark back to a time when Detroit's Big Three automakers were the envy of the world and a symbol of American economic power. The years before Fidel Castro swept down from the Sierra Maestra mountains and began his triumphal march across Cuba also came before Detroit embraced so-called "planned obsolescence," a term popularized in the 1950s and early '60s for products designed to break down easily or go out of style. The crisis now threatening the auto lifeblood of Detroit is rooted, at least in part, in the backlash from consumers who learned that U.S. vehicle manufacturers had stimulated short-term demand by ensuring that their products would fail after a certain amount of use. "I don't think they ever meant to build cars that would last as long as this," said Jose Antonio Garcia, who drives a 1953 four-door Chevrolet Bel Air. "This is a tank," Garcia said. "It's not something disposable like the clunkers that came along later." The classic American cars of the early post-war years were indeed durable, as can be seen in the tens of thousands of them still running in Cuba. ENGINE SWAPS Iron-clad chassis, scooped body and once lavishly appointed interior often seem to be the only original parts of the cars built during the heyday of General Motors Corp, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler, now run by Fiat of Italy, that are seen lumbering down Cuba's roads today. A peek under the hood and second-hand paint job on Marin's Buick, for instance, reveals that he swapped out the original V-8 engine for a more fuel efficient four-cylinder diesel powerplant from Toyota Motor Corp. Engine replacements have been made on most of the aging Dodges, Fords and Chevys that serve as taxis alongside the Russian Ladas and new Korean cars in Havana, as high fuel prices force drivers to sacrifice power for savings at the pump. Drivers say most of the engine changes are performed by themselves, with the help of some strong-armed friends or neighbors to cut out the cost of hiring a professional mechanic. "Unfortunately, to tell you the truth, Cubans are very good at improvising," said one driver, who asked to remain anonymous. "It's a question of necessity and because of the shortage of everything here including money," he said. The 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo, imposed by President John F. Kennedy in response to Cuba's alignment with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, has helped ensure that factory-made or even aftermarket replacement parts for American-built cars are extremely hard to come by in Cuba. The embargo, which Cuba calls an "economic blockade," still prohibits U.S. vehicle exports to the island even as some fuel-sipping Chinese-made cars have begun grabbing a share of the tightly controlled market for new cars. Some owners, including members of at least one collectors' club, pride themselves on maintaining their original V-6 and V-8 Detroit motors, however, and the difference can be heard in their distinct rumble rather than the clatter of diesel replacements. "I've got a '55 Bel Air with the original engine and everything," said Robert Enriquez, who added that the only replacement part was the gearbox. "I'm not rich but I wouldn't sell it for anything," added Enriquez. But when he's eking out a living as a cab driver, he drives a modern compact, he said. Cuba's state media, in reports on the U.S. financial crisis, have highlighted events like GM's bankruptcy as symptomatic of everything gone wrong with the United States and the failure of unbridled U.S.-style capitalism. But few if any owners of U.S. cars on the streets of old Havana seem to be gloating about the economic meltdown or the fact that the wheels have nearly fallen off the U.S. auto industry. "Do you think a company as big as General Motors can really go broke?," asked Marin, as he sat behind the wheel of his '53 Bel Air. "We Cubans, as a people, don't hold anything against Americans. In fact we share a lot in common," said Marin, as he waited for his passengers outside Havana's ornate Washington-style Capitol dome. "The bankruptcy of GM will always be a tough thing, that's for sure," he said. (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Philip Barbara) .
May 2009

Cellphones, pirated signals spread in Cuba

May 25, 2009

El Nuevo Herald

HAVANA -- Before leaving home for work, Aurelio makes sure he carries the touch-screen cellphone with music player and camera that he bought from a Spanish tourist. In today's Havana, a phone like that is a symbol of power. Aurelio (who asked that his surname not be published) is a privileged member of a class of Cubans who try to maintain an above-average standard of living without running into a system that not only discourages individual initiative but often punishes it. 'In my opinion, people who work in the hotel, tourism and transportation industries have a greater purchasing power and use cellphones more frequently,' Aurelio said. ``And I believe that will continue until the day some things change.' Cubacel, a company operated by the Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA), has a monopoly on mobile telephones on the island. The connection fee is as high as $65. A charge is made for both reception and transmission that vary from between 45 and 60 cents per minutes. That's steep in a country where the average monthly salary is about 400 Cuban pesos (about $18). SLOW PROGRESS When it comes to mobile phone access, Cuba holds the last place (behind Haiti) on the list of Latin American and Caribbean countries -- 0.2 phones per inhabitant or less than 5 percent of the population. First on the list is Argentina. Cuban authorities estimate that by the year 2013 there will be 1.4 million lines available, including regular users and prepaid-card users. For the Cuban government, communications are a vital frontline. The traditional and inflexible control of information for the past half century has been challenged in recent years by new technologies. There are about 20 independent blogs, such as Generation Y, where dissident voices freely express their vision of reality. On occasion, personalities in the opposition have participated in video-conferences with exiles in Miami. Despite the official restrictions and the slowness of the connections, the Internet and the boom in cellphone use have been very useful to human-rights activists, who transmit their denunciations abroad with a speed that was unthinkable years ago. Since the 1990s, television has been the censors' Achilles heel. Thousands of Cubans, mostly in Havana, watch Spanish-language telecasts from Miami. U.S. State Department officials estimate that 10,000 to 15,000 parabolic antennas are in use in Cuba. Amaury, a Havana resident who rents rooms to foreign tourists for about $30 per night, pays about $10 a month to receive a pirated TV signal. That expense does not dramatically dent his monthly family budget -- about $450. 'Here, we pick up Miami channels such as Univisión and Channel 41 [America TeVé],' said Amaury, who also asked that his surname not be published. ``The only problem is that you can only watch the channel selected by the owner of the parabolic antenna.' DISTRIBUTION The pirated signal is distributed by a neighbor through coaxial cables, amplifiers and frequency boosters that normally blend with the ordinary electric lines. According to Amaury, the capricious limitation of the TV service is not objectionable because -- he and his girlfriend agree -- Cuban television is ``boring.' Cuba has five television channels, at least two of which offer only educational programming. One of them, Multivisión, began to broadcast round the clock nine months ago. It was a desperate effort by the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television to provide more attractive programming and to slow the increase of pirated subscriptions. Recently, the government announced that it will initiate a study to launch digital TV 15 years from now, increasing the number of channels and improving the signal in remote areas. Meanwhile, operations are underway to dismantle illegal connections and break up a business that, so far, has defied the authorities' strict vigilance. In March, the Cuban press reported the arrest of several citizens for illegal economic activities that included the dissemination of television signals broadcast by the U.S. company DirecTV. Darris Gringeri, a spokesman for DirecTV in New York, refused to comment on the issue. During the investigation, the Provincial Tribunal of Havana concluded that the accused had contacts in the United States. Allegedly, accomplices of the accused across the United States opened DirecTV accounts for the sole purpose of furnishing the codes and installation devices needed to capture the international signal in Cuba. HARSH PUNISHMENTS Punishment for illegal possession and installation of parabolic antennas ranges from 3 to 5 years' imprisonment, fines and confiscation of goods, according to each case. Amaury, 41, does not know for sure how his neighbor obtained the antennas and repeaters, but said that neither the fines nor the confiscation of the equipment used for the distribution of satellite signals ``will make clients forget cable television.' According to him, every so often a van from the Ministry of Computer Sciences and Communications drives through the neighborhood detecting unauthorized frequencies. 'That happened in the Vedado neighborhood, but two or three days after the police came and cut the special cables, the neighbors reinstalled the connections,' he said. The authorities have been particularly watchful of citizens' access to the Internet. There is still no official response from Cuba to the suspension of a series of restrictions on communications and TV linkage to the island announced recently by President Obama. U.S. INVOLVEMENT In fact, U.S. firms can already establish fiber-optic and satellite connections and offer portable-telephony services. However, Cuba insists on having access to a network of underwater Internet cables that would provide faster connections, in violation of the rules of the trade embargo imposed in 1962. Price is one of the main obstacles to widespread Internet use. The connection from hotels and ETECSA branches costs as much as 10 CUC per hour. Recently, some hotels have denied the use of computers to Cuban citizens, claiming the existence of a joint regulation by the Ministry of Tourism and ETECSA, although its contents has not been published. To the government, the usual explanation for the lack of a Web infrastructure that satisfies the population's demands blames the economic crisis and the U.S. embargo. 'It sounds good but it doesn't compute,' said Xiomara, 21, a student of engineering. The government restrictions 'are economic, not political,' she added. Xiomara stood on line for more than 30 minutes, one day in May, to use a computer in an ETECSA office at Obispo Blvd. in Old Havana. The government, she said, has no idea as to what 'dissatisfied' young people can do. 'They want to wear us out, but I think that things are going to be difficult for them,' she said. ``Young people in Cuba are more restless than ever.' .

Cuba building six sugar mills under ALBA plan

May 7, 2009

Marc Frank, Reuters

HAVANA, May 4 (Reuters) - Cuba is building six sugar mills for countries participating in a Venezuelan-led cooperation program called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), the official trade union weekly Trabajadores said on Monday. Reporting from the heart of he country's machine-building industry in Villa Clara province, the paper said some of the mills would be fitted to produce ethanol and the industry was also supplying spare parts for ALBA countries. "Six mills are being built, and some will be fitted with technology to convert them to ethanol producers," the paper said. ALBA, begun by Venezuela and Cuba, also includes Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua and Dominica, but the article did not say where the mills will be located. The contract is a boom for Cuba's machine-building industry, which built eight sugar mills for domestic use between 1965 and 1985, and has seen supply contracts for the domestic sugar industry dwindle as it is downsized. Since the decade began Cuba has closed some 90 mills, all built before the 1959 revolution. Some of the closed mills and parts were sold to Venezuela. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Lisa Shumaker) .
April 2009

Cuba readies for possible influx of U.S. tourists

April 13, 2009

Jeff Franks, Reuters

VARADERO, Cuba (Reuters) - Behind the mangroves that skirt the blue waters of Cuba's Bay of Cardenas, a 1,500-slip marina is taking shape as the island's tourism industry braces for what could be its biggest challenge yet. The Americans are coming -- or they may be, soon. Rock jetties jut out into the bay and beyond them a plot of land the size of several football fields is taking shape, reclaimed from the water as part of a big new marina project at Varadero, a beach resort 80 miles east of Havana. "The Americans will come here in their yachts and they'll put them in the marina," said a security guard, gesturing to the earth-moving and sand-dredging behind the mangroves. "It's so close, they're expecting a lot of them," he added, referring to the United States just 90 miles away. The United States and Cuba have been separated by a wide ideological gulf since Fidel Castro's 1959 Revolution. For most of that time, Americans have been prohibited by their own laws from traveling to the communist-led Caribbean island under a 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo. But that may change. Legislation to free travel by Americans to Cuba is pending in the U.S. Congress, and backers expect it could be approved in what they see as a developing thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations under U.S. President Barack Obama. "If the travel ban is lifted, you'll probably see hundreds, hundreds of American yachtsmen going to Cuba the next day," said Timothy Ashby, a former U.S. Commerce Department official who studies Cuban commercial issues. Cuba's government and people have been anticipating this moment for a long time, but questions about their readiness for an onslaught of American visitors are being raised. The doubts focus on the capacity and quality of Cuba's tourist infrastructure, but also on possible political effects on an island that has resisted U.S. influence for 50 years. After years of animosity with the United States, Cuban leaders do not like to say that developments such as the Varadero marina, and other big golf and leisure projects, are being built with the American market in mind. The official line is that Cuba is preparing for visitors from the whole world and if that includes Americans, so be it. But the United States is the natural market for Cuba, whose economy is reeling from the damage inflicted by three hurricanes last year and the ongoing global financial crisis. CONTROLLING A TOURISM BOOM A study for the International Monetary Fund estimated that as many as 3.5 million Americans could visit Cuba annually if the travel ban was lifted. But travel experts say 500,000 is a more likely maximum the Cuban government would allow in the early years because it does not have enough facilities for more. "Cuba is ready to absorb another half million visitors a year, but not another million, just because of hotel capacity," said a foreign businessman in Cuba's travel industry. "I'm sure they will try to control as much as they can in order to avoid a boom that nobody can control. Every country in the world would try to do the same," he added. One of Cuba's biggest sources of cash in recent years has been foreign tourism, which brought in 2.3 million visitors and $2.5 billion in revenues in 2008. According to government statistics, the island had about 55,000 hotel rooms in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available. At least 10,000 more are under construction, and others are on the drawing boards. Experts say Cuba will need more four- and five-star hotels for Americans, but also more and better restaurants, shops, rental cars and other tourist amenities. Before Fidel Castro took power on January 1, 1959 in a guerrilla uprising, Cuba was a U.S. playground where Americans swilled booze during Prohibition and gambled and partied the night away in Mafia-built casinos and nightclubs in the 1950s. They came in boats and planes, and ferries carried them back and forth across the Straits of Florida from Key West. They filled up Havana hotels like the Plaza and the Inglaterra and hung out at Sloppy Joe's bar or the Tropicana night club. "AMERICANIZATION" DEBATE In 2007, Cuban government figures show just 40,000 people visited from the United States, although the overall figure is said to be far higher because many come to the island through other countries on visits that are illegal under U.S. law. By comparison, 660,000 came from Canada, the top supplier of tourists to the island, followed by Europe. Opponents of the Cuba embargo hope more American visitors could open up future opportunities for U.S. investors in a Cuban market now dominated by Europeans and Canadians. "I think there's going to be a lot more pressure from the likes of Marriott and Hyatt and Starwood and others to allow U.S. investment," said Ashby. Because of its proximity, travel experts say it is inevitable the United States will one day dominate Cuba tourism again. Within 10 years, said one industry source, perhaps 70 percent of the island's visitors will be American or Canadian. When that happens, said Nigel Hunt, head of Cubaism Ltd, an Internet travel sales site, Europeans who currently make up about 40 percent of Cuba tourists may go elsewhere. "If Cuba becomes Americanized, it would probably be less attractive to Europeans ... That's what makes Cuba interesting, modern American culture is not so pervasive here," he said. The possible "Americanization" of Cuba is a selling point in Washington for lifting the travel ban. Supporters say the more Americans who visit the island, the more pressure there will be for an economic and political opening on the island. While Cuba's leaders may fret over the prospect of large numbers of Americans arriving, ordinary people in Varadero who depend on tourism for a living seem much less worried. "Not one person here has anything against the Americans," said hotel cook and taxi driver Jorge Mendives as he puffed on a cigarette outside the stately Mansion Xanadu hotel, built in the 1920's by U.S. millionaire Irenee du Pont de Nemours. "Let them come to Varadero in their boats or whatever because for us the Americans mean one thing -- more money". (Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta, Esteban Israel and Rosa Tania Valdes in Havana and Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Editing by Pascal Fletcher) .

Technology helping lift veil on real Cuba

April 8, 2009

Myriam Marquez, Miami Herald

There are giant cockroaches climbing Havana's National Museum of Art, metal elephants outside the Cuban Capitol building and, in a standing-room-only theater crowd this week, there was Tania Bruguera's public performance art involving spontaneous calls for libertad! The roaches, like Fidel Castro's bitter monicker for exiles he called gusanos (worms), are an exhibit called Sobrevivientes, survivors. Perhaps these 21st century bugs survived nuclear war -- or lived through 50 years of a regime that has tried and failed to blow up the human spirit. You decide. The elephants -- like the real ones that never forget who wronged them -- are part of a project called Memory & Memorias during the 10th Havana Biennial, an international art show that gives artists some cover. For now. But it was Bruguera's use of a white dove -- and two actors, dressed in military fatigues, who put the dove on each speaker for a one-minute Cuban reality check -- that sparks the imagination. Like those who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s after Cuba lost its Soviet sugar daddy, this latest generation of artists presses for the freedom to share their views, even as Raúl Castro continues his brother Fidel's gerontocracy in the name of the New Man's survival. IMMEDIACY The difference today is technology. These artists can get their message out with an immediacy others never could. Video of Bruguera's free-for-all, posted by Generación Y blogger Yoani Sánchez on YouTube.com, speaks to the yearning of free souls everywhere. 'Tania gave us the microphones, we who have never been able to deliver our own speeches,' Sánchez wrote in her blog. ``Rather, we have had to suffer under the hot sun the speechifying of the others. 'A dove rested on our shoulders, probably equally well-trained as that other one fifty years ago,' she wrote, referring to Fidel Castro's first speech in Havana in 1959 when a dove landed on his shoulder, as if the Holy Spirit were anointing him leader for life. ``However, none of us who spoke considered ourselves chosen, none wanted to stay -- for fifty years -- shouting into the microphones.' FINDING A WAY Realize that Sánchez lives in Havana, and does so with independent Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar. Her award-winning blog, which started in 2007, lets the world know what is really happening. Few Cubans can read it because the government controls Internet access, but they are an enterprising lot, finding ways to make do. Just a few hundred miles away, 300 young people will kick off the GenerAcción conference at the University of Miami on Friday. The past six years, the 2,500-member Raices de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope, has held conferences at Duke, Princeton, Georgetown, Harvard, looking to build links with young people on the island. 'The beauty of Raices is that people have very different views and work together for one cause -- that is, empowering Cuban youth for change,' said Verónica Nur Valdés, a recent graduate born in Miami of Cuban parents. ``I've learned how much hope there is on the island, how much these young people are sacrificing day to day for change.' Because when the art show ends and the tourists leave, Cuba's new generation will keep exposing the contradictions that have left them poorer but wiser than the cockroaches that surround them.

Technology helping lift veil on real Cuba

April 3, 2009

Miriam Marquez, Miami Herald

There are giant cockroaches climbing Havana's National Museum of Art, metal elephants outside the Cuban Capitol building and, in a standing-room-only theater crowd this week, there was Tania Brugera's public performance art involving spontaneous calls for libertad! The roaches, like Fidel Castro's bitter monicker for exiles he called gusanos (worms), are an exhibit called Sobrevivientes, survivors. Perhaps these 21st century bugs survived nuclear war -- or lived through 50 years of a regime that has tried and failed to blow up the human spirit. You decide. The elephants -- like the real ones that never forget who wronged them -- are part of a project called Memory & Memorias during the 10th Havana Biennial, an international art show that gives artists some cover. For now. But it was Brugera's use of a white dove -- and two actors, dressed in military fatigues, who put the dove on each speaker for a one-minute Cuban reality check -- that sparks the imagination. Like those who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s after Cuba lost its Soviet sugar daddy, this latest generation of artists presses for the freedom to share their views, even as Raúl Castro continues his brother Fidel's gerontocracy in the name of the New Man's survival. IMMEDIACY The difference today is technology. These artists can get their message out with an immediacy others never could. Video of Brugera's free-for-all, posted by Generación Y blogger Yoani Sánchez on YouTube.com, speaks to the yearning of free souls everywhere. 'Tania gave us the microphones, we who have never been able to deliver our own speeches,' Sánchez wrote in her blog. ``Rather, we have had to suffer under the hot sun the speechifying of the others. 'A dove rested on our shoulders, probably equally well-trained as that other one fifty years ago,' she wrote, referring to Fidel Castro's first speech in Havana in 1959 when a dove landed on his shoulder, as if the Holy Spirit were anointing him leader for life. ``However, none of us who spoke considered ourselves chosen, none wanted to stay -- for fifty years -- shouting into the microphones.' FINDING A WAY Realize that Sánchez lives in Havana, and does so with independent Cuban journalist Reinaldo Escobar. Her award-winning blog, which started in 2007, lets the world know what is really happening. Few Cubans can read it because the government controls Internet access, but they are an enterprising lot, finding ways to make do. Just a few hundred miles away, 300 young people will kick off the GenerAcción conference at the University of Miami on Friday. The past six years, the 2,500-member Raices de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope, has held conferences at Duke, Princeton, Georgetown, Harvard, looking to build links with young people on the island. 'The beauty of Raices is that people have very different views and work together for one cause -- that is, empowering Cuban youth for change,' said Verónica Nur Valdés, a recent graduate born in Miami of Cuban parents. ``I've learned how much hope there is on the island, how much these young people are sacrificing day to day for change.' Because when the art show ends and the tourists leave, Cuba's new generation will keep exposing the contradictions that have left them poorer but wiser than the cockroaches that surround them.
February 2009
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba launched its own variant of the Linux computer operating system this week in the latest front of the communist island's battle against what it views as U.S. hegemony. The Cuban variant, called Nova, was introduced at a Havana computer conference on "technological sovereignty" and is central to the Cuban government's desire to replace the Microsoft software running most of the island's computers. The government views the use of Microsoft systems, developed by U.S.-based Microsoft Corp, as a potential threat because it says U.S. security agencies have access to Microsoft codes. Also, the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the island makes it difficult for Cubans to get Microsoft software legally and to update it. "Getting greater control over the informatic process is an important issue," said Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes, who heads a commission pushing Cuba's migration to free software. Cuba, which is 90 miles from Florida, has been resisting U.S. domination in one form or another since Fidel Castro took over Cuba in a 1959 revolution. Younger brother Raul Castro replaced the ailing 82-year-old leader last year, but the U.S.-Cuba conflict goes on, now in the world of software. According to Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba's University of Information Sciences, about 20 percent of computers in Cuba, where computer sales to the public began only last year, are currently using Linux. Nova is Cuba's own configuration of Linux and bundles various applications of the operating system. Rodriguez said several government ministries and the Cuban university system have made the switch to Linux but there has been resistance from government companies concerned about its compatibility with their specialized applications. "I would like to think that in five years our country will have more than 50 percent migrated (to Linux)," he said. Unlike Microsoft, Linux is free and has open access that allows users to modify its code to fit their needs. "Private software can have black holes and malicious codes that one doesn't know about," Rodriguez said. "That doesn't happen with free software." Apart from security concerns, free software better suits Cuba's world view, he said. "The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty." (Editing by Jeff Franks and Bill Trott) .

Cuba calling: Cellular accounts up 60 percent

February 9, 2009

AP, Miami Herald

HAVANA -- Cuba's telecom monopoly said Sunday that cell phone accounts have risen 60 percent to nearly a half-million since the communist government made private service available to ordinary islanders last year. Once restricted to foreigners and Cubans with key state jobs, cell phones have been available to all Cubans since April, when President Raul Castro's government lifted the ban. The communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde reported in its Sunday edition that some 480,000 cellular lines are now in use, compared with 300,000 before the change. The government recently lowered the activation charge to about $65 from $120 -- half a year's wages on the average state salary. Most new cell users activated the service with money sent by relatives abroad, tips from tourism jobs or earnings from the island's ubiquitous black market economy. Prepaid cards are used to place calls. The government also has increasingly assigned cellular phones at highly subsidized prices to homes unable to receive regular phone service because of a deficit of lines.

Cuba begins construction on coastal oil rig

February 5, 2009

Miami Herald

HAVANA -- Cuba has begun erecting its first independently operated horizontal oil drilling rig in shallow waters off the north coast. Cuban engineers trained in Canada are drilling the well near the coastal town of Boca de Camarioca, close to the beach resort of Varadero, roughly 95 miles east of Havana. It should be operational by the end of the year and will run 400 meters below ground while extending out into the Caribbean Sea some 3.7 miles, the government news agency Prensa Latina reported Wednesday.

Cuba drills first independent horizontal oil well

February 4, 2009

AP- International Herald Tribune

HAVANA: Cuba has begun erecting its first independently operated horizontal oil drilling rig in shallow waters off the north coast, state media reported Wednesday. Cuban engineers trained in Canada are drilling the well near the coastal town of Boca de Camarioca, close to the beach resort of Varadero in Matanzas province, 95 miles (150 kilometers) east of Havana. It should be operational by the end of the year, running 1,315 feet (400 meters) below ground and under the sea floor while extending out into the Caribbean Sea some 3.7 miles (6 kilometers), the government news agency Prensa Latina reported. The well marks the first time the island has begun horizontal drilling without support from international partners. Cuba independently operates its largest oil field, the nearby onshore Varadero field discovered by Russian scientists in 1971, but the communist government relies on energy companies from Canada, Spain, Norway, India, Malaysia and China for other drilling operations onshore or using horizontal drilling in shallow coastal waters. U.S. companies are barred by Washington's economic embargo, which enters its 48th year this month, from nearly all trade with this country. Cuba state media has reported that the island produced "more than 4 million tons" of crude in 2008, though no exact figure has been given. That translates to roughly 28 million barrels of crude oil. Venezuela and its socialist President Hugo Chavez, who has become Cuba's chief economic benefactor since the collapse of the Soviet Union, send the island 92,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for social programs, including Cuban doctors who provide free care. Cuba's domestic production is exclusively heavy oil with a high sulfur content. Cuba's deep, offshore waters in the Gulf of Mexico could contain large quantities of lighter, sweet crude, although a single test well in 2004 turned up only modest discoveries. The government has said it will soon begin exploration in deeper waters, although it has not announced a date.
January 2009

Cuba struggles with recovery after three hurricanes

January 21, 2009

USA Today- Alan Gomez,

LOS PALACIOS, Cuba — More than four months have passed since Cuba was hit by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike; more than two months since Hurricane Paloma made landfall. Yet earlier this month, Gerardo Danilo Fuentes crawled along the wooden beams of a roofless house. He had no materials yet to build the roof. He was just getting the structure ready for the day those materials arrive. "Every once in a while, the state comes and gives out some supplies," said Fuentes, 49, a furniture maker. "But that's it. If your furniture was destroyed, if you lost your food …" His voice trails off, and he shrugs. Cubans praised their government for its evacuation planning that resulted in only seven deaths from the three hurricanes. The contrast with the United States' handling of Hurricane Katrina is not lost on residents here. Still, many in this rural town on the western edge of the island remain upset over the pace of recovery and question whether Cuba's government — in which a centralized bureaucracy determines where every piece of aid goes — can handle the recovery. "Some people are still sleeping in their houses looking up at the moon," said Juan Carlos Romero, a retired baseball player. The government has put the cost of the damage at $5 billion — an overwhelming amount for such a small country, equivalent to more than one-tenth of its annual economic output. More than 530,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. More than 30% of the island's crops were wiped out, forcing a country that already imports about $2 billion a year in food to bring in even more to keep people from going hungry. U.S. relations still tense Raúl Castro, who has been running the country since Fidel Castro underwent emergency surgery in the summer of 2006, has turned to new and old allies for assistance. Russia, China, Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia have sent aid. Smaller Caribbean neighbors have also helped. As has been the case for the half-century that the Castro brothers have ruled the island, cooperation with the United States was difficult. The U.S. offered up to $6.3 million to the Cubans because, in the words of outgoing U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, "the best interests of the Cuban people will come before political differences." Cuba declined the offer. Alberto Gonzalez of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., said if the U.S. really wanted to help it would've removed the economic embargo it maintains on Cuba for a short time to allow more assistance to come in. "That's like if I have you held by the neck and I offer you an aspirin. If you want to help me, help me," Gonzalez said. He said without U.S. help, and as other countries suffer from the global economic crisis, Cuba has a clear shortage of building materials. And some Cubans on the island said that has led to sometimes infuriating methods to distribute the few supplies available. Fuentes said the state provides metal slabs to cover up homes that lost their roofs, but no nails. And because most people in this rural area make about 200 Cuban pesos a month — or about $8 at real exchange rates — there's little chance for people to get things on their own. Food hard to come by Instead, they must wait their turn in line — and who gets what is determined by government and Communist Party officials. Gonzalez said that's the fairest way to ensure the most needy receive help first. He concedes that the system sometimes breaks down, explaining that officials may put someone in the back of the line if they have a personal problem with them. "But I can assure you that it happens in the most democratic way possible," he said. Providing enough food has also been a struggle. Jose Manuel Varona, a farmer from Los Palacios, said they have been told to hold back on planting staples of Cuban cuisine such as rice, yucca and plantains in favor of faster-growing crops. The Cuban government has also granted a six-month subsidy to people in the storm-affected areas to augment the monthly quota of food each Cuban receives at a discount. Several people in Los Palacios said the help from the Cuban government has been as good as can be expected. "Nobody is going hungry here," Hermina Ferrer Valles said. Down the street, state officials sent in a clown to entertain the children in the neighborhood. Gonzalez said musical performers, athletes and government officials have visited to ensure that morale remained high. Jose Saure, 39, watched as a neighbor patched together a roof with damaged pieces of wood. He said any country facing such a force of nature would struggle. As an example, he pointed north. "Like Katrina," he said.
October 2008

Hurricanes worsen housing deficit in Cuba

October 10, 2008

Miami Herald

FLORIDA, Cuba -- The wooden one-room shack where Humberto Díaz lived in central Cuba is technically still standing, but the planks that made up its roof snapped into multiple pieces when Hurricane Ike sent a palm tree crashing through. He spent a recent afternoon scrounging materials off the floor to use in rebuilding, and hopes to buy shingles at about $4 apiece. Díaz doubts the Cuban government help will come in time: Too many people are waiting. 'The last time a storm damaged my house, it took the state four months to get me materials,' he said, covered in wood chips as he chopped the remains of the palm that claimed his house. ``We'll have to rebuild it ourselves.' Díaz counts himself among the more than two million people on this island whose roofs were smashed or their entire homes toppled with the passage of two devastating hurricanes. By the Cuban government's count, some 440,000 homes were damaged during hurricanes Gustav in August and Ike eight days later, in September. An estimated 63,000 of them were destroyed. Cuba, already reeling from a serious housing shortage, has nearly doubled its deficit in homes, while the tab to replace them mounts in the billions. With scarce resources and coast-to-coast wreckage, the country is faced with the daunting task of housing storm victims while simultaneously trying to rebuild its agricultural industry and thousands of government buildings. Food shortages have begun to plague the capital, and the government will probably be forced to spend money first on groceries. The government estimates that it needs $5 billion to rebuild. 'We take a few steps forward, and a few steps back,' said Kike, one of Díaz's neighbors. TOO MUCH LOST Experts say the task is so overwhelming that Cuba is unlikely ever to accomplish it. Too many structures were lost in a country that already had thousands of people living in temporary and substandard shelter. People simply have to make do. Díaz, whose house in Camagüey province was bigger before he lost the back half to a different storm, is staying with friends. The Tejada family, who lived outside Floro Pérez in the northeastern province of Holguín, have been sleeping at a school each night. When morning comes, they roll up their belongings so children can attend class while the storm refugees go home and rebuild. Rosa Arrencibia, 47, said 42 people crammed into her sister's three-room house in Camagüey. José Armando Valdez is 81 and hitches a ride every day between his house in Santa Lucía in Camagüey to his son's in Guardalavaca in Holguín to sleep. 'At least I have half of my roof,' Valdez said. ``I can stay under the half that's there for now. The people who lost their whole roofs should be helped first.' Even before the storm, the Cuban government press said the national housing deficit was 600,000 units, up from 530,000 five years ago. The government boasted of building 110,000 houses last year, then acknowledged that they had not even come close. 'Nothing justifies fraud or trickery like was produced last year when a number of houses were reported as finished, and they weren't,' Vice President Carlos Lage said last year. The National Housing Institute adjusted its goal to 50,000 new homes a year. At that rate, it would take at least 20 years to build all the homes Cuba needs. According to media reports, the government had built just 22,558 by June this year. 'Hurricanes have been hitting Cuba forever, and never, never, never was it like this time,' said Florida International University architecture professor Nicolas Quintana, a former Havana city planner. ``What will it take to rebuild? Rebuild how? Are you talking tin roofs and wood walls? If you really want to rebuild, you need a good $50 billion.' During recent trips to the island, Miami Herald correspondents saw trucks of construction materials criss-crossing battered highways. But residents whose homes had crumbled said help was likely to take months to reach them. 'We are talking about mind-boggling numbers,' Quintana said. ``That's a real situation over there.' He said the blow was made more fierce by the fact that many houses had already deteriorated. Experts agree that the resources to make repairs just aren't there, particularly since many of Cuba's revenue-generators such as tobacco also took a hit. 'My suspicion is that it's not going to get fixed,' said Tómas López-Gottardi, of the University of Miami's School of Architecture. ``Most of that destruction was just waiting to happen. The hurricane just made it quicker. Everybody agrees: They just don't have the materials.' The U.S. State Department offered Cuba $6 million in building supplies to help tens of thousands of families, but the Cuban government declined the offer, saying it needs the embargo lifted temporarily so the government can buy the supplies it needs. Such a moratorium would require an act of Congress and is unlikely, experts said. 'From an economic point of view, I do not see Cuba being able to recover as I define recovery,' said José Azel, Director of the Cuba Business Roundtable at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. ``I do not see Cuba being able to muster the financial resources.' DISPLACED IN '04 The Associated Press recently reported hundreds of families are living in squalor in East Havana, where the government placed them in temporary shelter after Hurricane Charlie in 2004. Like the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, they are still there awaiting sturdier structures. 'They told me it would be six months, but that was in 2004,' said María Escalona, 48, a kindergarten supervisor who lives with her husband and 22-year-old son in two rooms with concrete walls and a leaky roof in Bahía, a community of temporary homes in East Havana. ``I want out of here already.' The Miami Herald correspondents who contributed to this report from central and eastern Cuba are not identified here because they lacked the visa required by Cuba to report from the island. The article was written by Frances Robles in Miami..

CUBA: Emerging community of bloggers?

October 9, 2008

IPS, Miami Herald

HAVANA, Oct 6 (IPS) - Blogging has finally hit Cuba, despite the challenge of gaining access to the Internet and the limited number of home computers on the island, and the emergence of a Cuban community of bloggers may soon be more than just wishful thinking. "I think blogging from Cuba is an important way of making our reality and opinions known and of communicating with the rest of the world," Roger Trabas, a self-taught computer programmer and author of a site called "Kilómetro Cero", told IPS. "The biggest challenge is getting an Internet connection," admitted Trabas, who has to access the Internet from work and also deal with problems such as low speed. Due to the nearly half-decade U.S. embargo, Cuba can only connect to the Internet via satellite, which limits bandwidth dramatically and makes data transfer more expensive. This could change with the laying of an underwater fibre optic cable from Venezuela, which is scheduled to be completed in 2010. Only 5.2 percent of the respondents to the 2007 Survey on Access to Selected Information and Communication Services, conducted by the National Statistics Bureau (ONE), used a computer at home, while 88.8 percent used computers at their place of work or study. Government policy has prioritised access to the new information and communication technologies in scientific and educational centres, cultural institutions and state bodies, over individual use. "It’s not easy, but it all depends on how determined you are," observed Trabas, who writes about a variety of subjects on his website, from computer programming to aspects of life in Cuba. "Most blogs are not profit-oriented, as there are no economic benefits to be gained from hosting a blog; but you do profit in knowledge, in being able to share with others, and in self-discovery," he added. Trabas teamed up with David Chapet, a French entrepreneur and blogger who has been living in Havana for the past 12 years, to create the Bloggers Cuba website and organise the first "Blogging on Our Own" Meeting, which was held on Sept. 27 at the governmental Computer and Electronic Engineering Palace in the Cuban capital. The first gathering of what could well develop into the island’s blogging community brought together a small group of bloggers, people involved in online journalism, and fans of this experience, from both Cuba and France. Blogs are websites typically set up by individuals to express their interests and opinions on all sorts of issues. Many blogs allow readers to post comments, giving way to the establishment of the transnational social networks that are increasingly popular today. Nobody knows exactly how many blogs are produced in this Caribbean island nation. The Bloggers Cuba directory lists a mere 14 personal web pages, while the site "Blogs sobre Cuba," which includes blogs hosted from other countries, attests to some 650. For its part, the directory of the non-governmental Cuban Journalist Union (UPEC) indexes a total of 174 blogs. In its State of the Blogosphere 2008 report, the blog search engine Technorati reveals that as of Sept. 20 there were 133 million blogs worldwide. Of that total, only 7.4 million had posted new information in the last four months, and approximately 1.5 million had updated their information during the week prior to the study’s completion. The boom in blogs has raised new questions in the world of communications, and in particular in journalism, which to some extent feels threatened by the appearance of millions of potential reporters of reality. "It’s very interesting to see the emergence of grassroots journalism in Cuba, because it is a trend that has been growing globally for a long time now," Anidelys Rodríguez, a professor at the University of Havana School of Communications, told IPS. Rodríguez, who teaches a digital journalism course, views this "citizen journalism" boom as a form of pressuring the local media into improving the quality of their news coverage and expanding the issues they cover. "It’s important for people in Cuba to reflect on and talk about their country from the perspective of their own experiences, from what they feel, and not from the ultra specialised view that the Cuban media has, with its own agenda and specific interests that don’t always coincide with those of the people," she said. One of these experiences in citizen journalism, the blog "Generación Y" posted by 33-year old graduate in philology Yoani Sánchez, was awarded the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Prize for Digital Journalism by the Spanish newspaper El País. While the first "Blogging on Our Own" meeting ended without any formal agreements, the participants concurred on the need to create a community, whose platform could be the Bloggers Cuba site. "The first step is the most important, and we’ve taken it," said Trabas. "I hope to see the community grow, to see those who have Internet access using it to write things that matter, to generate information." "From here it can only grow, and I think there’s no stopping it," said the 34-year-old blogger. (END/2008) .
September 2008
PLAYA GUARDALAVACA, Cuba -- The hammer will not leave Alfredo Pérez's side as he sleeps under the night sky. With no roof over his head -- like many in this seaside village -- Pérez uses the hammer to protect his family's valuables from intruders who may want to pilfer the crumbled chunks of brick, rusty nails, and aged wooden beams he has salvaged and plans to use to rebuild his home 'poquito a poquito' or ``little by little.' Supplies are hard to come by. Even the rusty nails bent out of shape are a hot commodity throughout the northeastern provinces hardest hit by Hurricane Ike -- a storm that slammed into this region on Sept. 7 as a major Category 3 storm with 125 mph winds and gained strength at various times during its two-day trek across the island. 'This will set us back 100 years,' Pérez said of Ike's impact on Cuba, an island in which many regions outside the capital city of Havana still rely on horse and buggy as a means of transportation. Whatever Ike's winds did not take from the Pérez family was left at the mercy of the thrashing waves. Their home, like numerous others in the town, was steps away from the turquoise blue sea. 'Do you know what an atomic bomb does?' asked resident José Armando León, 72, standing near an open field where his house once stood in the neighboring city of Banes. ``This is what happened here, it's like an atomic bomb was dropped and we were left with nothing.' The ferocity of Ike's island-wide path of destruction is no longer news to villagers who have been living in the devastation for two weeks. They understand the magnitude of the storm -- the fact that more than 444,000 homes were damaged across the country, 932 of those in the northeastern Holguín province. They know about the eight storm-related deaths and that thousands of acres of crops like banana and sugar cane were ravaged. They can deal with the thought of not having a roof over their head -- grateful that neighbors, relatives and schools offer shelter. Even hunger is not much of an issue as neighbors share food and batches of rice and plantains are cooked at local schools for dinners. The information most residents here seek from outsiders trickling in from more populated urban areas is any updates on reconstruction efforts. With phone lines still down, villagers rely on those passing through town to relay information. And rumors are rampant. VENEZUELAN HELP Some residents said local leaders have told them the Venezuelan government was tallying the homes without roofs and would dispatch supplies and workers to help rebuild. Others clung to hopeful rumblings that churches outside of the country were going to be allowed to bring donations to the remote areas. While hoping for supplies to come in, most families aren't waiting around for the government to fix their crumbling homes, clear the roads or erect downed electric poles. 'We're just helping until the government can come out and help. It's all of our duty,' said Hugo Alberto Betancourt, 80, as he and three others attempted to position the concrete post of an electric pole into place in Banes. Outside of the nearby beach town of Gibara, just 30 minutes west of Banes, a man named José Ricardo, 32, washed his buggy in a stream that covered what was normally the road out of town. When the water finally subsides, he and other neighborhood volunteers plan to clear the drainage system of all the debris caused by Ike. He said the neighbors had no qualms about fixing the road themselves in the absence of government assistance. 'We do it for the good of everyone,' he said. ``Do you know what it's like to have to pull off your shoes and roll up your pants to walk in the water everyday?' Like his neighbors, Pérez wasted no time trying to figure out which pieces of wood were long enough to form into the shell of a roof. His wife, Irene, 60, walked about the neighborhood attempting to find spoons, cups, clothes that the sea waves pushed as far as three blocks from their home. Irene said she regretted leaving behind these essentials and family photos she had posted on her walls when she followed government orders to evacuate before Ike struck. The family fled to Banes where sturdier concrete apartment buildings fared better. She has not spoken much since Ike hit. 'I feel that if I open my mouth to talk about this my soul will escape out of my body,' Irene said, as tears rolled down her blue eyes. LUXURY HOTEL The Pérezes don't know when power will be restored, but from their house they can see a couple of blocks down the road where the state-run luxury hotel Las Brisas has power running via generators. The government has placed a special focus on making sure hotels and urban centers have power, assuring that the mainly European tourists have air-conditioned rooms and hot running water. The state-run newspaper Ahora, which covers Holguín province, recently reported that recovery priority has been placed on the tourism industry in the eastern provinces. 'The damage to hotels is recoverable,' a hotel representative told Ahora. ``We have the resources needed to return to normality in a short time and get ready for the upcoming season.' Down the street from Pérez's house, the Villa Bahia -- a seafood restaurant and popular tourist bar -- was shut down because of damage. But soon after Ike passed, government employees traveled from the southeastern province of Granma to help in recovery efforts. They gathered broken bits of brick by hand, attempting to form a wall. 'If we fix this now, it's good for the tourists,' said a construction worker named Rufino as he laid down a brick. ``If it's good for the tourists, it's good for us.' Repairs on the island have been a patchwork affair. Some towns have had their straw-roof homes replaced with metal sheets just a week after the storm. In other towns, residents have been given two pieces of metal here, some straw for their roofs there. Further delaying progress in the eastern provinces is the fact that areas on the western end of the island like Pinar del Río and the Isle of Youth were battered by back-to-back storms starting with Hurricane Gustav on Aug. 30. Pérez predicted he would be able to rebuild his roof within a month. But he was not sure when he might be able to replace the other basic possessions lost to the storm, including a mattress, plates and cups. DAILY TREK His wife has joined neighbors on a daily trek. When the sun begins to set, she heads inland by foot to spend the night at a friend's apartment more than 30 minutes away. Her husband, like other men of Playa Guardalavaca, stays behind with the hammer at his side to guard what's left of their tattered home. Looking toward the tranquil sea whose ferocious waves swept away their possessions, Pérez repeated the mantra spoken by many throughout Cuba's remote areas. '`La vida no es facil,' he said. ``Life is not easy.' The name of the correspondent who filed this report was withheld because the journalist lacked the visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.
HAVANA -- The bricks were exposed, scaffolding held up the roof, and there were huge holes inside the walls. But the family living in the crumbling building on Cuba's famed Malecón at Crespo Street thought it was safe to return home Wednesday. Hurricane Ike had finally left the island and headed out to sea. They were wrong. Soaked by Ike's rains and battered by decades of neglect, the building collapsed with one of its occupants -- a father -- still inside, making him the fifth storm-related casualty on the island this week, according to media reports. Men in hard hats furiously moved rubble in wheelbarrows in the hopes of finding him alive. 'I pulled a boy this high from the rubble,' a man named Pedro, holding his hand up to his chest, told The Miami Herald. 'He was crying -- `My dad. Please help my dad' -- but I couldn't get him out. He's still in there.' Firefighter Lt. Col. Rolando Menéndez told The Associated Press that the man had returned to his seaside home without official approval, and a concrete piece of the building's fourth floor slipped loose and fell on him. Neighbors told The Miami Herald that even though Ike battered eastern Cuba before it finally left the island Tuesday, the worst for Havana comes now: when buildings collapse from the weight of the wet cement. Ike was still in the Gulf of Mexico Wednesday night, barreling toward the Texas coast. The Category 2 storm was expected to intensify, possibly to a Category 4, before it makes landfall by the weekend. In Cuba, Ike left a deep scar. 200,000 DESTROYED The Cuban Housing Institute said 200,000 homes nationwide were damaged, including 30,000 total losses and the majority of the others roofless. Adding the houses damaged by Hurricane Gustav when it walloped Cuba's western province Aug. 30, the tally comes to 320,000 -- a staggering figure in a nation already enduring a woeful housing shortage. So much housing is in precarious shape that 2.6 million people -- nearly a quarter of the country's population -- left their homes in advance of the storm. In Havana province, 115,408 people evacuated. In the nation's capital so far, 67 buildings have totally or partially collapsed, so civil defense official Luis C. Gongora said on the Mesa Redonda news show. Four aged buildings in a single block crumbled into rubble, The AP reported. Cuban television showed footage of a collapsed building and police escorting out a woman and her baby. Experts say at least 70 percent of Havana's housing stock is unsafe, meaning that in the United States, they would be condemned. The 500-year-old Cuban capital holds the world's largest collection of Spanish colonial buildings, but many are so deteriorated that they regularly crumble under heavy rainfall. Buildings erected in this century are in even worse condition, Florida International University architecture professor Nicolas Quintana said. About 1,400 decaying buildings must be abandoned each year for fear of collapse. Hurricane Dennis damaged 1,800 homes in Havana alone, and Lili in 2002 ruined 15,000 nationwide. In 2004, 65 collapsed from the weight of Charley. 'That building has been a wreck since 1990 -- for 18 years we've been asking to have it repaired,' one resident of the collapsed building where the father was trapped told The Miami Herald Wednesday. ``Parts of the roof have fallen twice, once when my wife was pregnant. It's a lack of respect to make us live there.' Residents learned the hard way to walk in the street. 'You can't walk on the sidewalk,' said one Old Havana resident named Carmen, ``because chunks of the building come falling.' The government has been on a mission in the past years to renovate many buildings, particularly ones in tourist areas. Still, too many buildings are held up by makeshift props. 'I see stars every night when I sleep,' said Roberto, who lost his roof to the storm. ``The rain ruined my furniture, and I spent the morning bailing out water.' Homes in the eastern provinces bore the brunt of Ike's force. In Camagüey province alone, officials said, 40,000 homes lost their roofs. In Santiago de Cuba, 3,358 homes were affected, 538 totally and 441 partially collapsed. In the town of Nuevitas, 4,500 homes were damaged. In Baracoa, remains from an old cemetery had come out of coffins and into Calixto García Street, according to Juan Antonio Monet, a human rights activist. 'The strong rains flooded the Cemetery de Baracoa and remains just started popping out of their resting places,' Monet said. ``Here it has been disastrous. In one block in the Matas neighborhood, there are five houses in a row that all collapsed.' He said 11 of his city's 28 neighborhoods were destroyed. 'On some streets,' Monet said, ``all you see is ruins.' RESERVOIRS FILLING Authorities said hundreds of thousands of people, particularly in Granma province, were still in shelters as reservoirs filled to dangerous levels. In the western province of Pinar del Río, struck by storms twice in 10 days, more than 6,000 people were evacuated Wednesday as rivers began to overflow, civil defense official Olga Lidia Tapia said on the nightly news. Cuban television broadcast dramatic aerial views of Holguín province, where every building was roofless. In Holguín alone, 37,000 homes were destroyed and 8,600 acres of crops were lost. 'What's been seen until now is only the tip of the iceberg of what has occurred,' said Yosvani Anzaro, an independent journalist in San Germán, a town in Holguín. ``There are towns that have totally disappeared and others that will never be the same, since most of the houses are damaged or destroyed.' Marlene Cruz, 37, went by bike to Caletone, a beach town where she had a home. Where there had been hundreds of houses, she counted a dozen still standing. 'It was the scene after a bombing, like I have seen in the movies,' Cruz told El Nuevo Herald by telephone. ``I started to sob inconsolably.' The name of the correspondent who filed this report is being withheld because the reporter lacks the journalism visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island. Additional reporting was conducted in Miami by staff writers Frances Robles, Elaine de Valle and Patricia Mazzei, and El Nuevo Herald staff writer Wilfredo Cancio.
July 2008

Cuba Resumes National Highway Construction

July 29, 2008

Cuban News Agency

Ernesto Capdet Wert, director of Villa Clara's Highway Administration Center, said authorities are evaluating the state of the unfinished road located between kilometres 260 and 320 of the highway. The construction of the national highway was halted in the late 1980s because of the severe economic crises as a result of the strengthening of the US economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba. The highway runs 600 kilometres in total across the island in three parts. The longest stretch spans from Pinar del Rio to Sancti Spiritus. The two other stretches that were completed are: one running from Palma Soriano to the city of Santiago de Cuba and the other connecting the provinces of Santiago de Cuba with Guantanamo. The plans also include adding a lane to the Guantanamo to Santiago de Cuba stretch and extending the 8-lane highway from Taguasco (Sancti Spiritus) to Ciego de Avila. Cuban Minister of Construction Fidel Figueroa said that to build one kilometre of highway costs 1 million Cuban pesos, a cost he said could increase due to the skyrocketing price of oil..
NEW DELHI, July 1 (Reuters) - Cuba has invited Indian firms to invest in a planned 150,000 barrels a day refinery in the island nation, India's oil ministry said in a statement on Tuesday. It also sought India's help in upgrading and expanding its existing refineries at a meeting in Madrid on Monday between Indian Oil Minister Murli Deora and his Cuban counterpart Yadira Garcia Vera, the statement added. The two countries have finalised the India-Cuba Hydrocarbon Agreement for co-operation in the oil and gas sector, it added without elaborating. ONGC Videsh Ltd, the overseas investment arm of state-run explorer Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC.BO: Quote, Profile, Research), has stakes in nine exploration blocks in Cuba, and total ownership of two. (Reporting by Nidhi Verma, Editing by Mark Williams).
June 2008

Cuba says few citizens have phones and computers

June 26, 2008

Reuters- Mark Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) - Forget iPods, BlackBerries and other electronic gadgets, most Cubans are still waiting for telephones and less than five percent have a computer, the government reported on Thursday. The National Statistics Office (http://www.one.cu) released 2007 telecommunications data showing there were 1.241 million telephone lines in the country of 11.2 million inhabitants, of which 910,000 were residential and the remainder in state hands. Mobile phones numbered just 330,000. There were 4.5 personal computers per 100 residents, but most of those were in government offices, health facilities and schools. The report was issued two months after Cuban President Raul Castro legalized the sale of computers and cell phones, though their high cost puts them out of reach of many. Until the sales were permitted, Cubans mostly obtained computers on the black market and cell phones through foreigners, who have used them in Cuba since the 1990s. The report said more than 10 percent of the population had access to Internet, but access in most cases is to a Cuban government Intranet and no data was available for access to the full Internet. The number of telephone lines and computers has doubled since 2002, according to the report, which did not show any cell phones in use then. By comparison, Latin American neighbor Mexico, with a population of 108 million, has 20 million telephone lines and 50 million cell phone users, according to industry statistics. World Bank figures showed that in 2006, Mexico had 13.6 computers and 17.5 Internet users for every 100 people. Cuban officials blame the longstanding U.S. embargo for the country's last place status in the region in communications and point out they are in first place in health and education. The move to allow computer and cell phone sales was part of reforms by Castro, who replaced his brother Fidel Castro as president in February, aimed at easing economic hardship faced by Cubans..
May 2008
HAVANA (AP) — A top Cuban official said Friday that Raul Castro's government would consider loosening Internet restrictions on ordinary citizens newly allowed to purchase computers — but Washington's decades-old economic embargo makes it impossible. "We aren't worried about the citizenry connecting from their homes," Telecommunications Vice Minister Boris Moreno told a small group of reporters. "But problems with technology and resources have made it necessary to give priority to connections that guarantee the country's social and economic development," he said, referring to an islandwide network that lets Cubans receive e-mail and view domestic Web sites. The rest of the worldwide Web is blocked to most citizens in Cuba, which has access controls far stricter than in China or Saudi Arabia. Only foreigners and some government employees and academics are currently allowed unfiltered home Internet service, and many Cubans turn to the black market for expensive, slow dial-up accounts. Computers for home use were also not available until two weeks ago, when state stores began selling them to the public as part of a series of small quality-of-life changes since Raul Castro replaced his elder brother Fidel in February. But Moreno said the government is unable to offer Cubans comprehensive Internet for their new PCs, citing its long-standing complaint that the American embargo prevents it from getting service directly from the United States nearby through underwater cables. Instead, Cuba gets Internet service through less reliable satellite connections, usually from faraway countries including Italy and Canada. "Free access is not on the table at the moment," Moreno said. Moreno said that in the next two years authorities hope to link to fiber-optic service from Venezuela, which has replaced the Soviet Union as Havana's chief economic benefactor. He also criticized Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose posts about the struggles of daily life on the island have drawn worldwide notice and recently won her Spain's Ortega y Gasset Prize for digital journalism. Moreno said the 32-year-old Sanchez was deeply affected by coming of age during the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the Cuban economy to its knees. He said he found it sad that she "speaks ill of a government that didn't close the university where she studied in a moment of crisis.".

Planean construcción de complejo petrolero

May 8, 2008

El Nuevo Herald

Técnicos cubanos planean la construcción del primer polo petroquímico del país, que levantará en Cienfuegos, en el centro de la isla, en colaboración con Venezuela durante los próximos cinco años, informó la televisión local. "Estamos tratando de hacer una macrolocalización (...) ubicando una primera versión de estas plantas sobre el terreno', dijo Julio Sánchez, director de expansión de la refinería de Cienfuegos. Se trata de una primera planta de refinación profunda del petróleo, destinada a la obtención de diésel, nafta y gas, que después puedan ser utilizados en la segunda, de petroquímica. La televisión dijo que ya están en Cienfuegos representantes de una empresa extranjera, "en proceso de contratación', que suministrará la tecnología. "A inicios de 2009 concluirá esta etapa de conceptualización del proyecto' y "a partir de 2010 comienza toda una fase de construcción hasta 2013', dijo Sánchez. El polo petroquímico cubano en Cienfuegos, un viejo sueño de Fidel Castro, fue sugerido por el presidente venezolano Hugo Chávez a fines de 2007, cuando inauguró la refinería de Cienfuegos, una empresa mixta de ambos países. Chávez ofreció entonces contribuir con la tecnología venezolana con ese fin. El pasado mes, la ministra de Industria Básica de Cuba, Yadira García, afirmó que en el 2009 debe reiniciarse la perforación petrolera en las aguas profundas de la Zona Económica Exclusiva (ZEE) de la isla en el Golfo de México. Los trabajos de perforación reiniciarían los sondeos para encontrar petróleo en esa región, que ya comenzó la hispano-argentina Repsol-YPF con resultados prometedores, aunque sin la viabilidad para comenzar la explotación comercial. Repsol-YPF comparte derechos a riesgo con la noruega Norsk Hydro y la india Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) en seis de los 59 bloques en que Cuba tiene distribuida esa área para la explotación petrolera. Junto a estas empresas también tienen contratos la malasia Petronas, la canadiense Sherrit, la venezolana PDVSA y la vietnamita PetroVietnam, mientras que la brasileña Petrobras analiza la posibilidad de adquirir derechos para participar en la exploración de la zona..
April 2008
HAVANA: First comes the stink of diesel, then a metallic roar, and finally a tower of black smoke that tells you the "camello" ? the camel ? has reached your stop. These hulking 18-wheeled beasts, iron mutants made of two Soviet-era buses welded together on a flatbed and pulled by a separate cab, have long been Havana's public transport nightmare ? bumpy, hot and jammed with up to 400 passengers at a time. But their gradual disappearance is a telling sign of change in the twilight of the Fidel Castro age. The last "camello" is expected to go out of service in Havana on Sunday night. The camello, so named for its humped front and rear sections, is being eclipsed by thousands of new city buses from China as the government under Castro's brother, Raul, resuscitates a public transportation system on the brink of collapse. Route M-6, running from the capital's southern outskirts uptown to the University of Havana, is the city's last remaining camello route, and municipal authorities say they have been told to pull all camellos off it this weekend. "I think we should build a monument to the camello," said retiree Salvador Carrera, a camello passenger. "It has been an extraordinary thing." The capital aside, camellos are far from extinct. The government has an island-wide fleet of more than 1,000, and those from Havana could be used to augment bus service elsewhere, transportation employees say. Like those ubiquitous Detroit cars that predate the U.S. embargo, the camello is a definer of Cuba on wheels, but without the fun of a San Francisco cable car ride or the clean efficiency of the Washington, D.C. Metro. What it lacks in glamor, it makes up for in sheer mass that dwarfs its Chinese successors. "We can carry up to 400 people. The bus cannot," lamented conductor Estela Doira. "I'm happy, also sad, because the camello handles a lot more than the bus." At the start of a camello run one morning last week, it took just over five minutes for 75 passengers to swarm up the steep steps and through the narrow doors at the rear. Doira hung out of a window to make sure no one got stuck. The doors, thin metal with sharp edges, shut with a metallic crack that sounded sharp enough to sever limbs. The fortunate got one of the 58 plastic seats, while the rest had to stand. Each alighting passenger paid Doira 20 centavos, less than an American penny. Camellos have no shock absorbers, and every pothole sends a violent jolt through one's feet. At each stop more passengers crowd in ? people carrying infants, backpacks, gardening tools and beer bottles stuffed with black market honey. Baby-faced soldiers squeeze in beside college students in hot-pink sunglasses and elderly men looking thin enough to be crushed in the crowd. It's hard to work one's way on or off, and the driver in his cab can't hear people screaming, "The door! Open the door!" "Move it, companeros! Move to the front!" they yell. With no air conditioning, the tropical heat quickly becomes unbearable, and the stench sets in ? fresh sweat and body odor, mixed with exhaust and rotting food. Those seated stick their heads out of the windows. "Only in Cuba. In other countries people wouldn't put up with so much," whispered retiree Mari Gonzalez, who was fortunate enough to snag a seat. Cubans joke that camellos are racier than a Saturday night at the movies ? full of sex and crime, pickpockets and gropers. Overheard conversations between passengers feed the onboard rumor mill: Fidel Castro is dead. No, wait, he's healthy again; he spent last weekend at the beach. The peso will strengthen against the dollar. Or maybe will be replaced with a new currency. The camello was born in response to fuel shortages in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost its annual US$6 billion (?3.8 billion) in subsidies. The economy has since recovered thanks to heavy borrowing from China and nearly 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela. Cuba is spending US$2 billion (?1.3 billion) to upgrade public transportation and has imported 3,000 modern buses just for the capital. The Yutongs are less sturdy than the camellos and crews are repaving streets to spare them wear and tear. Fares are double the camello's but offer far more seats and a dramatically smoother ride. Riders can climb on and off easily, ensuring faster trips. Carmen Lopez, waiting for a Chinese bus to whisk her to her janitor's job, said she's glad to be rid of the camellos but doesn't believe she's seen the last of them. "When the new buses break down," she said, "they will bring the camellos back again.".
March 2008

Cyber-Rebels in Cuba Defy State’s Limits

March 6, 2008

New York Times- James C. McKinley Jr.

HAVANA — A growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups has been mounting some challenges to the Cuban government in recent months, spreading news that the official state media try to suppress. Last month, students at a prestigious computer science university videotaped an ugly confrontation they had with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly. Mr. Alarcón seemed flummoxed when students grilled him on why they could not travel abroad, stay at hotels, earn better wages or use search engines like Google. The video spread like wildfire through Havana, passed from person to person, and seriously damaged Mr. Alarcón’s reputation in some circles. Something similar happened in late January when officials tried to impose a tax on the tips and wages of employees of foreign companies. Workers erupted in jeers and shouts when told about the new tax, a moment caught on a cellphone camera and passed along by memory sticks. “It passes from flash drive to flash drive,” said Ariel, 33, a computer programmer, who, like almost everyone else interviewed for this article, asked that his last name not be used for fear of political persecution. “This is going to get out of the government’s hands because the technology is moving so rapidly.” Cuban officials have long limited the public’s access to the Internet and digital videos, tearing down unauthorized satellite dishes and keeping down the number of Internet cafes open to Cubans. Only one Internet cafe remains open in Old Havana, down from three a few years ago. Hidden in a small room in the depths of the Capitol building, the state-owned cafe charges a third of the average Cuban’s monthly salary — about $5 — to use a computer for an hour. The other two former Internet cafes in central Havana have been converted into “postal services” that let Cubans send e-mail messages over a closed network on the island with no links to the Internet. “It’s a sort of telegraph service,” said one young man, shrugging as he waited in line to use the computers at a former Internet cafe on O’Reilly Street. Yet the government’s attempts to control access are increasingly ineffective. Young people here say there is a thriving black market giving thousands of people an underground connection to the world outside the Communist country. People who have smuggled in satellite dishes provide illegal connections to the Internet for a fee or download movies to sell on discs. Others exploit the connections to the Web of foreign businesses and state-run enterprises. Employees with the ability to connect to the Internet often sell their passwords and identification numbers for use in the middle of the night. Hotels catering to tourists provide Internet services, and Cubans also exploit those conduits to the Web. Even the country’s top computer science school, the University of Information Sciences, set in a campus once used by Cuba’s spy services, has become a hotbed of cyber-rebels. Students download everything from the latest American television shows to articles and videos criticizing the government, and pass them quickly around the island. “There is a whole underground market of this stuff,” Ariel said. The video of Mr. Alarcón’s clash with students was leaked to the BBC and CNN, giving the world a rare glimpse of the discontent among the young with the system. His answers to the questions seemed evasive. Asked about the ban on travel, Mr. Alarcón suggested that if everyone who wished to were allowed to travel, there would not be enough airspace for the planes. Another event many people witnessed through the digital underground was the arrival in the United States of Carlos Otero, a popular television personality and humorist in Cuba who defected in December while on a trip to Toronto. Illegal antennas caught signals from Miami television stations, which youths turned into digital videos and shared. Though the event smacked more of celebrity news than politics, it would never have been shown on the official media. Some young journalists have also started blogs and Internet news sites, using servers in other countries, and their reports are reaching people through the digital underground. Yoani Sánchez, 32, and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, 60, established Consenso desde Cuba , a Web site based in Germany. Ms. Sánchez has attracted a considerable following with her blog, Generación Y, in which she has artfully written gentle critiques of the government by describing her daily life in Cuba. Ms. Sánchez and her husband said they believed strongly in using their names with articles despite the possible political repercussions. Shortly before Raúl Castro was elected president last week to replace his ailing brother, Fidel, Ms. Sánchez wrote a piece describing what sort of president she wanted. She said the country did not need a soldier, a charismatic leader or a great speaker, but “a pragmatic housewife” who favored freedom of speech and open elections. Writing later about Raúl Castro’s first speech as president, she criticized his vague promises of change, saying they were as clear as the Rosetta Stone was when it was first found. Both essays would be impossible to publish in Cuba. “The Internet has become the only terrain that is not regulated,” she said in an interview. Because Ms. Sánchez, like most Cubans, can get online for only a few minutes at a time, she writes almost all her essays beforehand, then goes to the one Internet cafe, signs on, updates her Web site, copies some key pages that interest her and walks out with everything on a memory stick. Friends copy the information, and it passes from hand to hand. “It’s a solid underground,” she said. “The government cannot control the information.” It is spread by readers like Ricardo, 28, a philosophy student at the University of Havana who sells memory sticks to other students. European friends buy blank flash drives, and others carry them into Cuba, where the drives available through normal channels are very expensive and scarce. Like many young Cubans, Ricardo plays a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. He doubts that the government will ever let ordinary citizens have access to the Internet in their homes. “That’s far too dangerous,” he said. “Daddy State doesn’t want you to get informed, so it preventively keeps you from surfing.” Pedro, a midlevel official with a government agency, said he often surfed Web sites like the BBC and The Miami Herald at work, searching for another view of the news besides the ones presented in the state-controlled media. He predicted that the 10,000 students studying the Internet and programming at the University of Information Sciences would transform the country over time, opening up more and more avenues of information. “We are training an army of information specialists,” he said..
January 2008

House swapping thrives in Cuba

January 29, 2008

Marc Lacey- New York Times

HAVANA -- Virtually every square foot of this capital city is owned by the socialist state, which would seem sure to put a damper on the buying and selling of property. But the people of Havana, it turns out, are as obsessed with real estate as, say, condo-crazy New Yorkers, and have similar dreams of more elbow room, not to mention the desire for hot water, their own toilets and roofs that do not let the rain seep indoors. And although there is no Century 21 here, there is a bustling underground market in homes and apartments, which has given rise to agents (illegal ones), speculators (they are illegal, too) and scams (which range from praising a dive as a dream house to backing out of a deal at the closing and pocketing the cash). The whole enterprise is quintessentially Cuban -- socialist on its face but really a black market involving equal parts drama and dinero, sometimes as much as $50,000. These days, insiders say, prices are on the rise as people try to get their hands on historic homes in anticipation of a time when private property may return to Cuba. Officially, buying or selling property is forbidden. But the island has a dire housing shortage despite government-sponsored construction. And that has led many Cubans to subdivide their often decaying dwellings or to upgrade their surroundings through a decades-old bartering scheme known in Cuban slang as permuta. SOME SIMPLE SWAPS Some of those housing transactions are simple swaps. The government permits those, tracking each one to keep an up-to-date record of the location of every last Cuban. Many moves, however, are illegal and involve trading up or down, with one party compensating, with money, another party giving up better property. A 1983 film, Se Permuta, portrays how complex the system can get: A mother scheming to get her daughter away from a boyfriend she dislikes organizes a multipronged property swap. Of course, the deal, which would have involved about a dozen people and taken mother and daughter from a tiny apartment into a spacious colonial-era house, ends up in a mess, as does the mother's meddling in her daughter's love life. 'It's very Cuban,' Juan Carlos Tabio, who wrote and directed the film, said of his country's real estate bartering process. ``There aren't enough houses, and families can't buy them. So they trade.' Many, if not most, Cubans live in the same dwellings their families owned before the revolution; others have been assigned units by the state. But almost every Cuban is either plotting to upgrade residences or knows someone in the midst of the labyrinthine process. Here is how it works. Imagine a married Cuban couple with two children and a baby on the way who find their two-room apartment in the historic Old Havana neighborhood too cramped. What are they to do? Well, with the help of an agent known as a runner they might start by locating a bachelor from the countryside looking to come to the capital. They could arrange for the newcomer to move into a tiny apartment in Chinatown and move its residents -- who also have a house in Miramar where their elderly grandmother lives -- to a first-floor unit they sought in Central Havana. The Central Havana flat is available because the residents have divorced; so the former wife would go to the bachelor's country house, near where her parents live, while her former husband would go to Old Havana. The Old Havana family that started the whole process would then head to their dream house in spacious and quiet Miramar. EXTRA HURDLES Sound complicated? It is. And the government adds even more hurdles by trying to regulate the swaps with a variety of forms and fees as well as inspections of the properties involved to ensure that they are of roughly equal value. All trades have to be endorsed by the government, but Cubans say slipping money to bureaucrats increases the chances that deals of unequal properties -- as in those that involve money and carry the taint of capitalist yearning -- will be approved. Cuban authorities occasionally make busts, but find the trades difficult to control. 'It's something people shouldn't do, but they do and we know it goes on,' said Jose Luis Toledo Santander, a professor of law and a member of Cuba's National Assembly.
December 2007

Makeover designed for Havana's Malecón

December 24, 2007

Miami Herald- Wilfredo Cancio Isla

Havana's famed Malecón could become the future site of seven public gathering places that could modernize the popular avenue, yet still protect its urban tradition. The idea to reconstruct seven kilometers of the Malecón -- from a castle at one end to where it feeds into the mouth of the Almendares River -- is the final chapter of 'Havana and its Landscapes,' a study aimed at the architectural rescue of the capital city under the auspices of Florida International University in Miami-Dade County. In charge of the project is prominent Cuban architect Nicolás Quintana, a professor at FIU who has become an expert on the way Cuba looks today by poring over textbooks, photos, illustrations, maps and virtual images of island scenes. The result will be a two-volume book of almost 500 pages. It will first be published in English and later in Spanish by the end of next year, when an exposition is planned at FIU of 32 mock-ups of the Havana of the future. It will include 28 minutes of 'virtual reality' footage showcasing local landscapes. There is also a symposium on the subject planned for November 2008. Last week, Quintana put the final touches to the history of Havana in 38,000 words. He also evaluated the 12 mock-ups of the face-lift planned for the Malecón, done by a group of design school alumni. 'What we have done is find the seven points where people can congregate and will allow visitors and residents to enjoy the Malecón like the great urban icon that it is, and should continue to be in the future,' said Quintana, 82. The sections of the Malecón selected as potential popular gathering spots are those that intersect with well-known avenues: Prado, Belascoaín, Galiano, La Rampa, Línea, Calle G and Paseo. Quintana considers that this concept will allow the Malecón to continue as 'Havana's great sofa,' a place where people gather to socialize or eat an ice cream cone. Begun in 2004 with a budget of $325,000, the project was conceived as a 'comprehensive and multifaceted' study dealing with what is needed to rescue the city of Havana from its ruin without impacting its architectural flavor or urban identity. The idea for the architectural probe was conceived by Cuban-American urbanization experts Sergio Pino and Anthony Seijas. 'The radicalization of reconstructing everything can be as dangerous as actual destruction,' Quintana said, noting that was one of the disciplines of modern architecture that flourished in Cuba in the middle of the last century. The architect insists the investigation will net 'a wealth of ideas, not definitive solutions' to rescue and protect the city of Havana once democratic change takes hold on the island. 'This will be an invaluable reference document, but we won't pretend to impose our vision on the architects and urban planners that will assume the revitalization of the that city,' he said. For guidance, the architectural study will be based on the study of geographical plans of the city and information culled via satellite, complemented with recent photos of the facades of buildings and entire neighborhood blocks in Havana. For the historical data, they have scoured copies of the Archives of the Indies, Cuba's national library and the University of Havana, and they have numerous anonymous collaborators on the island. Before launching the project, its supporters said they were open to input from professors, architects and individuals, but they never imagined the positive response they received from residents. 'The cooperation of the people of Cuba has been very touching,' said Quintana, who left the island in 1960 and has never returned to his native country. 'More than 500 photographs have been sent to us by different means and sometimes in blind e-mails, or a CD is dropped in the mail,' he said. ``We've had many people offer their help. In reality, the help of my fellow countrymen has touched me and has made me push harder for this study.' To prepare the mock-ups of the Malecón, Quintana used photos of the area, building by building, that surrounds the Malecón in the neighborhoods that border Old Havana and the tunnel leading to Almendares. The study's promoters admit that Cuban authorities have been aware of the project since its inception. In November, the University of Alicante in Spain announced that Cuba's historical society had viewed proposals to modernize the Malecón. 'We have not hidden information about our study,' Quintana said. ``We have only refused to cooperate with the destroyers of the Cuban way of life, because this project is to develop freedom and I believe that's how the project is viewed by the young people inside the island who are helping us.'.

Old Havana's boom good only for some

December 13, 2007

Miami Herald- James C. McKinley Jr.

HAVANA -- These days, when Eusebio Leal Spengler walks the streets of Old Havana, people treat him like a rock star. Ladies kiss him on the cheek and whisper that they love him. Children point at him. He pumps the hand of a tour guide he knows. 'Ladies and gentlemen, there goes the man most responsible for the restoration of the buildings you see here,' the guide tells his flock. It is not an exaggeration. Over the past 40 years, Leal, the official historian of Havana, has pulled off a most unusual feat. While much of Cuba's infrastructure has crumbled and its economy has limped along, he has rebuilt and refurbished more than 300 landmark buildings in Old Havana. ATTRACTIVE STREETS The center of the city was once a dark warren of cobblestone streets, worn facades and decaying ruins. Now it has some streets that rival Prague or Paris for cleanliness and beauty. Tourists throng the Plaza de la Catedral, with its 259-year-old cathedral, and wander up Calle Obispo, a street lined with luxury shops, to the Floridita, the plush bar where Hemingway drank mojitos and daiquiris. 'There were years when not everyone believed in this,' Leal said. ``But now it's easier, because now you can see all the people, how they support you . and this makes it possible to continue at least for a little while longer.' Yet the renovation has gone only so far, and tens of thousands of people are still trapped in squalid buildings just blocks from the refurbished zones, giving rise to grumbling among some residents that the renovation amounts to a Potemkin village for visitors. They point out that few Cubans can afford the $7 drinks at the Floridita, and by law Cubans cannot stay in the restored hotels, even if they could afford the rates of $150 a night. 'The reconstruction doesn't have anything to do with the state system we live in,' said Yadira Amoros, a 30-year-old single mother who was using a plumber's wrench to try to get water flowing to her dingy apartment a block from Calle Obispo. ``None of this benefits us.' Leal says the key to the renaissance of the old city has been a strategy of restoring old hotels, restaurants and historic sites to attract tourists, then using the revenue from tourism to finance more restoration. In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost billions in subsidies, Fidel Castro gave Leal's office extraordinary powers to collect taxes and reap the profits of tourism in the old center, through a state-owned company called Habaguanex. Leal has plowed the profits back into the construction work, not only for hotels, but for schools and residences as well. 'It's a law to try to save the patrimony rather than sell it, in the moment when the country was in a very profound crisis and all of us were looking for a way to eat, a way to get to work,' he said. As a result, the Spanish town founded in 1519 around a deep harbor has come back to life, along with a treasure trove of buildings in the baroque and neoclassical styles. More than 350 buildings have been renovated, about a third of the 1.5-square-mile center marked by the old city walls. The United Nations has praised Leal's development model and named the zone a World Heritage Site. More than 220 buildings are being refurbished. But just a half block from the Bodeguita del Medio, a famous eatery favored by Hemingway that is constantly mobbed with tourists, Cubans troop into a sparsely stocked government store to get their monthly rations of beans, powdered milk, cigarettes and soap. POVERTY CONTINUES One reason for the continued poverty is that the workers in the hotels, museums, restaurants and hotels reap little of the tourist money. All receive a state salary of $10 to $20 a month in Cuban pesos plus a bonus of $12 in hard currency, but most of the profits from the businesses go to the renovation efforts. Those workers are the lucky ones. Others hold down jobs and receive a salary only in Cuban pesos. Even with subsidized food and free healthcare and education, Cubans complain that they cannot make ends meet and that they must resort to selling stolen goods or running confidence schemes aimed at tourists. 'Everyone has to do something,' said one man, who ran a state-owned grocery store for a $12 salary. ``I sell cigars.'.

Old Havana Gets a Lift, but Cubans Don’t Benefit

December 7, 2007

New York Times- James C. McKinley Jr.

HAVANA — These days, when Eusebio Leal Spengler walks the streets of Old Havana, people treat him like a rock star. Ladies kiss him on the cheek and whisper that they love him. Children point at him. He pumps the hand of a tour guide he knows and, on discovering the tourists are from Ireland, he recommends that they visit the Calle O’Reilly, named for an Irish-born general in the Spanish Army who revamped the city’s defenses in 1763 and married a Cuban heiress. “Ladies and gentlemen, there goes the man most responsible for the restoration of the buildings you see here,” the guide tells his flock. It is not an exaggeration. Over the past 40 years, Mr. Leal, the official historian of Havana, has pulled off a most unusual feat. While much of Cuba’s infrastructure has crumbled and its economy has limped along, he has rebuilt and refurbished more than 300 landmark buildings in Old Havana, from fortresses built in the colonial days to famous nightspots and hotels of the city’s swinging era just before the Cuban revolution. The center of the city was once a dark warren of cobblestone streets, worn facades and decaying ruins. Now it has some streets that rival Prague or Paris for cleanliness and beauty. Tourists throng the Plaza del Catedral, with its 259-year-old cathedral, and wander up Calle Obispo, a street lined with luxury shops, to the Floridita, the plush bar where Hemingway drank mojitos and daiquiris. “There were years when not everyone believed in this,” Mr. Leal said, as he walked up Calle Obispo and shook hands with well-wishers. “Years when there was a lot of work, a lot of difficulties, but now it’s easier, because now you can see all the people, how they support you, they give you a smile, some happiness, and this makes it possible to continue at least for a little while longer.” Yet the renovation has only gone so far, and tens of thousands of people are still trapped in squalid buildings just blocks from the refurbished zones, giving rise to grumbling among some residents that the renovation amounts to a Potemkin village for visitors. They point out that few Cubans can afford the $7 drinks at the Floridita, and by law Cubans cannot stay in the restored hotels, even if they could afford the rates of $150 a night. “The reconstruction doesn’t have anything to do with the state system we live in,” said Yadira Amoros, a 30-year-old single mother who was using a plumber’s wrench to try to get water flowing to her dingy apartment a block from Calle Obispo. “None of this benefits us.” Mr. Leal says the key to the renaissance of the old city has been a strategy of restoring old hotels, restaurants and historic sites to attract tourists, then using the revenue from tourism to finance more restoration. In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba lost billions in subsidies, Fidel Castro gave Mr. Leal’s office extraordinary powers to collect taxes and reap the profits of tourism in the old center, through a state-owned company called Habaguanex. Mr. Leal has plowed the profits back into the construction work, not only for hotels, but for schools and residences as well. “It’s a law to try to save the patrimony rather than sell it, in the moment when the country was in a very profound crisis and all of us were looking for a way to eat, a way to get to work,” he said. As a result, the Spanish town founded in 1519 around a deep harbor has come back to life, along with a treasure trove of buildings in the baroque and neoClassical styles. The 300 renovated buildings represent about a third of the structures in the 1.5-square-mile center marked by the old city walls. The United Nations has praised Mr. Leal’s development model and named the zone a World Heritage Site. Among the hotels are the Ambos Mundos, where Hemingway used to write in a corner room, and the Santa Isabel, a small colonial inn favored by former President Jimmy Carter and Jack Nicholson. Everywhere there are construction crews gutting buildings and rebuilding the interiors. The sounds of jackhammers mix with the sounds of traditional Cuban combos playing son and salsa hits for tourists. More than 220 buildings are being refurbished. One project under way is the restoration of Sloppy Joe’s Bar and the hotel above, once a fixture in downtown Havana for journalists, writers, artists and other hangers-on among the intelligentsia. Just a half block from the Bodeguita del Medio, another famous eatery favored by Hemingway that is constantly mobbed with tourists, Cubans troop into a sparsely stocked government store to get their monthly rations of beans, powdered milk, cigarettes and soap. Yeisi Rodriguez, a nurse who grew up in the neighborhood, said the renovations had certainly improved the atmosphere. Yet she was still living in a partitioned area of her father’s apartment with her husband and a 3-year-old toddler. Together they get by on state rations and about $20 in salary. She said she could not afford to shop at the stores along Calle Obispo where the tourists go. “Where the shops are, it is much more beautiful than it used to be,” she said. “But I cannot buy there. It’s difficult. They are always fixing something, but what are we going to do with this amount of money?” Mr. Leal is acutely aware that much of the population has yet to benefit from the renovation. “It pains me to see every day the border that divides what has been restored and what remains to be restored, and every day it is more urgent and harder, and it pains me a lot that many people still cannot receive any benefit,” he said. One reason for the continued poverty is that the workers in the hotels, museums, restaurants and hotels reap little of the tourist money. All receive a state salary of $10 to $20 a month in Cuban pesos plus a bonus of $12 in hard currency, but most of the profits from the businesses go to the renovation efforts. Those workers are the lucky ones. Others hold down jobs and receive a salary only in Cuban pesos. Even with subsidized food and free health care and education, Cubans complain that they cannot make ends meet and that they must resort to selling stolen goods or running confidence schemes aimed at tourists. “Everyone has to do something,” said one man, who ran a state-owned grocery store for a $12 salary. “I sell cigars.”.
September 2007

Cuba secures US$100mloan from Venezuela - To restore its railways

September 27, 2007

Jamaica Gleaner- Reuters

Venezuela granted Cuba a US$100-million loan to improve its railways, Cuban media said on Tuesday, as the island nation moves to rebuild its dilapidated infrastructure after years of economic crisis. Cuba's Communist Party newspaper Granma said Venezuela's Economic and Social Development Bank signed a credit agreement with Cuba's Banco Exterior to upgrade tracks, signals and communications. "With this credit, the rails will be completely restored to their original condition to carry freight and passengers," Cuban Transportation Minister Jorge Luis Sierra was quoted as saying in Caracas. Sierra said Cuba's recovering economy required better railways and that trains would be able to travel at 100 kilometres per hour (62 mph) from the current 40 kph. Exports boost economy Service exports to Venezuela and other countries, a guaranteed oil supply from the oil-rich South American ally, soft Chinese trade credits and high nickel prices have buoyed Cuba's import-dependent economy after a decade-long crisis that followed the demise of its benefactor, the Soviet Union. After spending more than US$2 billion since 2005 to modernise its electrical grid and eliminate power blackouts, Cuba has set about overhauling its transport system, government officials say. Few Cubans own cars, so they must wait hours for buses and trains, or else hitch-hike to get around. Many still use bicycles and horse-drawn carts. The number of passengers moved by public transport in Cuba last year was just 21 per cent of the 1989 level, while cargo movement was one-third of the pre-crisis level, according to official statistics. Signed contracts Cuba recently signed contracts to purchase more than 6,000 buses and 100 locomotives from China, civilian passenger and cargo planes from Russia, 100 railway freight cars from Iran, and thousands of motors for antiquated Soviet-era trucks. After low wages, the lack of public transportation is the biggest complaint levelled at the government by Cubans, followed closely by poor housing and high food prices. The government announced earlier this month an increase in bus passengers in Havana for the first time since the early 1990s, and said people carried per day would double from 500,000 in 2006 to a million by the end of this year..
May 2007

Cuba's 'Battle of Ideas' seeks to bolster image

May 25, 2007

Miami Herald- Mike Willams

HAVANA -- They call it the 'Battle of Ideas,' but it's far more than a propaganda war against Cuba's archenemy, the U.S. government. Over the past decade, what started as a catchy revolutionary slogan has turned into a campaign to refurbish long-neglected houses, schools, hospitals and other buildings, as well as a guiding principle for the transformation of Cuba's educational system and other institutions. 'The Battle of Ideas is more than just ideological,' said Dr. Francisco Blardoni, director of the Fructoso Rodríguez Orthopedic Hospital in Havana, which was expanded as part of the campaign. ``You must have action and a basis in reality. All of these works are being done to improve the situation of the Cuban population.' Propaganda campaigns have always been a staple of life in communist Cuba. Instead of advertising consumer goods, billboards carry revolutionary sayings, portraits of fallen heroes and defiant calls to defend the country against American imperialism. There is now a high-level minister in charge, with broad powers extending to every corner of Cuban society, from the reorganization of universities to the refurbishing of Cuban weather stations. At the heart of the campaign is Cuba's communist leader, Fidel Castro, 80, who reportedly was immersed in details of the program before he fell ill last summer and turned over power to his brother, Raul. FOCUS ON SOLUTIONS 'Fidel spent more than 7,000 hours planning all of this,' said Otto Rivero, a member of the Cuban Council of Ministers charged with overseeing the campaign. ``The guiding principles are that there are no problems without solutions, that we must act with speed and that the priority is the interests of the population over the bureaucratic contradictions.' The U.S. government and Cuban exiles in the United States assert that most Cubans endure stark repression, low wages, poor health care and almost no chance to buy the few material goods available. While there is no independent verification of the statistics, Cuba is clearly attempting to repair its dilapidated infrastructure and deliver more goods and services. The campaign comes against a backdrop of never-ending speculation about Cuba's future. Critics say Castro's successors will face a restive population tired of decades of material want, especially the island's millions of young people, for whom the glories of the 1950s revolution are mostly stale textbook lessons. Viewed in that context, the Battle of Ideas and its slow progress at rebuilding the island's crumbling infrastructure could well be Castro's final effort to help his revolution survive. 'We hear complaints from Miami about Cubans saying they get poor healthcare,' Blardoni said. ``If you had come to this hospital three years ago, you would have found a place badly in need of repair. But we have made those repairs and are serving our people with the latest and best technology.' The roots of the Battle of Ideas go back to the case of Elián González, the Cuban boy who survived a 1999 raft trip to Florida that claimed the life of his mother. Elian became the center of a nasty tug-of-war between Cuba's government and Miami's Cuban exiles. After months of angry rhetoric, the boy was finally returned to Cuba. But instead of fading away after Elián returned in 2000, Cuba's propaganda barrage gradually broadened into the Battle of Ideas. Now, seven years after Elián's saga, the campaign has been enshrined as part of Cuban's national identity. Armed with charts and graphics, Rivero recently briefed foreign reporters, marching through reams of statistics about the Cuban economy, educational system, infrastructure challenges and health-care accomplishments. MEASURING SUCCESS Success in the Battle of Ideas, the reporters were told, can be tallied by thousands of projects that have been accomplished in institutions across Cuban society. Among these are the restoration of 84 hospitals, the expansion of 498 small clinics and the installation of 155 high-tech medical machines. Dozens of run-down schools have been rebuilt, and 34,877 new social workers trained to aid the population. All levels of education have been reorganized with a focus on information technology, and university classrooms have been moved into Havana's suburbs and cities around the island. Every child gets computer instruction from age 6, along with English classes beginning in the third grade. The Battle of Ideas even extends to the effort to train the next generation of Cuban Olympic champions, along with the opening of youth video clubs, in which more than 20,000 young people have created short movies and video presentations..

Exhibit, website show Havana in high-res

May 25, 2007

Miami Herald- Enrique Fernandez

Havana Today in Images, a Miami Dade College photo exhibit that opens today at the Tower Theater in Little Havana, raises new though uncertain hopes among Cuban exiles for the reclamation of their property in a post-Castro Cuba. The exhibit, which was organized by a Florida International University-based NASA office in collaboration with MDC, matches satellite images of specific zones of Havana with building-by-building, street-level photography. A link on the project's website (http://no-more.com) clicks to an affidavit that can be filed, with supporting documentation, claiming ownership of the building photographed. But whether the project will eventually help people reclaim property confiscated under Fidel Castro's regime is uncertain. 'Whether this is considered proper evidence depends on who would be processing these applications,' says Tania Mastrapa, who runs a Miami consulting practice on property reclamation in Cuba (www.mastrapaconsultants.com). 'I have not heard of these claim mechanisms being used in other countries,' says Mastrapa, whose doctoral thesis at the University of Miami examined post-Communist property claims in the Czech Republic and Nicaragua and the lessons they could have for Cuba. Still, she says, ``owners can see how their building is being used, if there's a sign for a restaurant, for example, or what shape it's in. Then they can decide if they want to try to reclaim it. 'A lot of people outside Cuba don't even know if their property still exists because of hurricanes, deterioration of buildings and lack of maintenance,' Mastrapa says. The project's creator and director, Naphtali David Rishe, says it has 'no political message.' Rishe heads FIU's High Performance Database Research Center and NASA Regional Applications Center, also at FIU. The latter is a branch of the agency that looks for non-governmental uses for NASA technology. 'Like Velcro,' says Rishe, unfastening such a strap on his sandal at his Miami Beach office. Rishe, who says he has had 'no contact with entities in the Havana government,' had the street-level photos taken on the sly by Cuban Americans visiting the island on family visit visas. They used innocuous-looking high-definition cameras and devices that identify the buildings' longitude and latitude coordinates. One application of Rishe's project will find enthusiasts on both sides of the Florida Straits: the reconstruction of Havana. 'In Cuba there is a lot of information on the destruction of the city,' says architect Nicolás Quintana, who along with the dean of FIU's Architecture School, Juan Antonio Bueno, heads the Havana and its Landscapes project. ``But this photographic project is very important at the level of detail.' Since 2004, Quintana and his associates at FIU have been working on a vision of the future of Havana that hopes to guide Cubans, Cuban Americans and others to eventually rebuild the badly dilapidated city. The street-level photos of Havana Today in Images will constitute 'a historical register of what buildings looked like, because many are doomed to disappear,' Quintana says. In his oceanfront office, Rishe calls up on his laptop the image of a badly deteriorated Havana building. He navigates toward detailed sections of the high-definition photo, showing Moorish arches, barely discernible in the rubble. 'Got to apply some stucco,' Rishe says, smiling. So far, about 1,000 buildings have been photographed at street level. A few will be on display at the show, along with a wall-sized satellite photo of sections of Havana. The other buildings will be shown in a computerized slide show. On the issue of exiles trying to take back property, Quintana, who owned property in Havana but does not plan to try to reclaim it, thinks a great deal of wisdom must be exercised. 'You just can't evict people who've been living in a residence for 35 years,' he says. ``There has to be some social justice.' Quintana supports eventually issuing bonds to compensate for losses caused by the Castro government. 'It does not have to be a big compensation,' he says, ``just a symbol of what was lost.' Rishe hopes his project will help Havana become ``a better space while preserving its cultural heritage.' 'Havana could become, once again, the Florence of the Americas,' Rishe says..

Cuba to modernize its ethanol production

May 23, 2007

Miami Herald- Andrea Rodriguez

HAVANA -- Cuba is quietly modernizing its ethanol-producing facilities, despite Fidel Castro's repeated assertions that making more of the biofuel could starve the world's poor. The island plans to upgrade 11 of its 17 refineries, which produce up to 180 million liters annually of ethanol from sugar cane, said Conrado Moreno, a member of Cuba's Academy of Sciences. The refineries currently produce alcohol for use in rum and other spirits, as well as medications and cooking on the island. But the improvements will give Havana the capacity to one day produce fuel for cars, Moreno told reporters at a conference on renewable energy. Ethanol produced in Cuba is not for cars now, but 'in four or five years, we'll see,' he said. In a series of editorials in state-run newspapers, Castro has railed against a U.S.-backed plan to produce ethanol from corn for cars, claiming it will cause prices of farm products of all kinds to spike and make food too expensive for poor families around the globe. The 80-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery and stepping aside in favor of a government run by his 75-year-old brother Raúl, the defense minister. Officials insist his health is improving. In contrast to Fidel Castro, who has depicted corn-produced ethanol for cars as a potential global catastrophe, Moreno conceded the variety produced from sugar cane could bring economic opportunity to some 'isolated communities' in Cuba. Brazil is the world's leading producer of ethanol from sugar cane. In March, it signed an agreement with the United States to promote ethanol production in Latin America and create international quality standards to allow it to be traded as a commodity like oil. That agreement helped spark the editorials from Castro, which have been read repeatedly on state television and radio. In them, Castro distinguishes between the cane ethanol Cuba produces and the corn-based biofuel common in the United States..
March 2007

Hitchhiking gets thumbs up in Cuba

March 19, 2007

Miami Herald- Will Weissert

HAVANA --Laura García doesn't have a car and the change in her pocket won't cover a 15-cent bus fare. But standing by a crumbling overpass, sweating in her shorts, sunglasses and skimpy top, the 18-year-old says a free ride is only an outstretched thumb away. 'People will take you. You can always find drivers to help,' said García, who studies law in Havana and was going to see her parents in Pinar del Rio, a 90-minute ride west. Hitchhiking is a way of life in communist Cuba, where cars are scarce, a gallon of gas costs a third of a civil servant's monthly salary, and public transportation is unreliable and overcrowded. Lately things have worsened, with even acting President Raúl Castro admitting in December that public transport was ``practically on the point of collapse.' Last year, the government announced the purchase of 7,000 buses from China, and hundreds more Chinese buses are said to be on the way since Castro took power from his ailing brother Fidel in July. Meanwhile, the hitchhikers are everywhere -- at street corners, crosswalks, stop lights. Whole families with luggage hitch to and from the airport. On the capital's outskirts, government inspectors wave down government vehicles. Those with empty seats must take hitchhikers, a law that results in 68 million free rides a year, according to the Communist Party newspaper Granma. CIVIC DUTY Most drivers believe it's their civic duty to give free rides, but sometimes a hitchhiker will hop in uninvited. Janeth González, 20, who climbed into a car stopped at a light, told the stranger at the wheel that she was headed to her home in downtown Havana. No big deal -- 'Even the police do it,' she said. Cubans call hitchhiking 'pidiendo botella,' or 'asking for a bottle' -- an age-old Cuban phrase connoting something for nothing. Melba, an 18-year-old dance student still in her black tights as she hitchhiked from school, said she had been hitchhiking alone since she was 14. Preferring not to give her surname, she said the only problem she ever had was when the car that picked her up sideswiped another and she was delayed for two hours while the police sorted out blame. 'It would have been faster to take the bus that day,' she said. But it usually isn't. While aging school and passenger buses from Canada, Russia and Europe bounce along to uncertain schedules on Havana's potholed streets, more common are 18-wheelers known as 'camellos,' or 'camels,' because of their humped metal trailers and ability to pack in 200-plus sweaty passengers seated or clinging to ceiling bars. The graffiti-splotched vehicles usually have no number or destination sign. But as a camello shudders to a stop and passengers surge aboard, they seem to know exactly where it's headed. 'It's chaotic, difficult. But the good thing is they wait for everyone to get on,' said Maria Luisa Fernandez, a 38-year-old high school teacher waiting for a camello in the shadow of Havana's capitol dome. ``We go on top of one another, but we all go.' The fare is a mere penny, but pickpockets and purse-snatchers, largely unheard of elsewhere in Cuba, are a problem aboard camellos, and women are sometimes groped. The diesel-powered behemoths became common in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's economic lifeline. Aid from oil-rich Venezuela has helped ease transportation woes, though there are still too few camellos to go around. They are supposed to be phased out with the arrival of new buses. ACQUIRING A CAR Buying a new car and most used ones requires state permission, which is hard to get. But Cubans can own vehicles built before the 1959 revolution, including the classic, if weather-beaten, Mercedes, Hudsons, Mercurys and Buicks still cruising the streets, running on diesel to beat the $4 price of a gallon of regular gas. Awaiting a camello after a night shift at an energy plant, Néstor Pérez, a 40-year-old in a Cleveland Indians T-shirt, said hitchhiking is more comfortable than the bus -- but that he's at a disadvantage. 'If I have a pretty woman standing next to me, they will always stop for her,' he said. ``It's a waste of time for me.'.
February 2007

Cuba embraces open source

February 17, 2007

Miami Herald- John Rice

HAVANA - Cuba's communist government is trying to shake off the yoke of at least one capitalist empire -- Microsoft -- by joining with socialist Venezuela in converting its computers to open-source software. Both governments say they are trying to wean state agencies from Microsoft's proprietary Windows to the open-source Linux operating system, which is developed by a global community of programmers who freely share their code. 'It's basically a problem of technological sovereignty, a problem of ideology,' said Hector Rodriguez, who oversees a Cuban university department of 1,000 students dedicated to developing open-source programs. Other countries have tried similar moves. China, Brazil and Norway have encouraged the development of Linux for a variety of reasons: Microsoft's near-monopoly over operating systems, the high cost of proprietary software and security. NATIONAL SECURITY Cuban officials, ever focused on U.S. threats, also see it as a matter of national security. Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes, an old comrade-in-arms of President Fidel Castro, raised suspicions about Microsoft's cooperation with U.S. military and intelligence agencies as he opened a technology conference this week. He called the world's information systems a 'battlefield' where Cuba is fighting against imperialism. He also noted that Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates once described copyright reformers -- including people who want to do away with proprietary software -- as 'some new modern-day sort of communists,' which is a badge of honor from the Cuban perspective. Microsoft did not return calls seeking comment. Cuba imports many computers preloaded with Windows and also purchases software in third countries such as China, Mexico and Panama. Valdes is a hard-liner who favors uniforms and military haircuts, but the biggest splash at the conference was made by a paunchy, wild-haired man in a T-shirt: Richard Stallman, whose Free Software Foundation created the license used by many open-source programs, including Linux. Middle-aged communist bureaucrats and ponytailed young Cuban programmers applauded as the computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology insisted that copyright laws violate basic morality; he compared them to laws that would punish people for sharing or modifying kitchen recipes. Stallman also warned that proprietary software is a security threat because without being able to examine the code, users can't know what it's doing or what 'backdoor' holes developers might have left open for future entry. 'A private program is never trustworthy,' he said. KEEPING CURRENT Cuba also has trouble keeping proprietary software current. Its sluggish satellite link to the outside world makes downloads of updates agonizingly slow. Many of its computers run copied programs. And U.S. companies, apparently worried about American laws restricting trade with Cuba, are increasingly blocking downloads to the island. Cubans try to get around the problem by putting software updates on a server located on the island. But many computers wind up unpatched and vulnerable. Cuba's Cabinet also has urged a shift from proprietary software. The customs service has gone to Linux and the ministries of culture, education and communications are planning to do so, Rodriguez said. And students in his own department are cooking up a version of Linux called Nova, based on Gentoo distribution of the operating system. The ministry of higher education is developing its own. Rodriguez's department accounts for 1,000 of the 10,000 students within the University of Information Sciences, a five-year-old school that tries to combine software development with education. Cuba is also training tens of thousands of other software and hardware engineers across the country, though few have computers at home. Most Cubans have to depend on the slow links at government Internet cafés or schools. Rodriguez shied away from saying how long it would take for Cuba to get most of its systems on Linux: ``It would be tough for me to say that we would migrate half the public administration in three years.' But he said Linux use was growing rapidly. ``Two years ago, the Cuban free-software community did not number more than 600 people . In the last two years, that number has gone well beyond 3,000 users of free software, and its a figure that is growing exponentially.'.
Havana, Feb 15 (EFE).- An information technology fair is underway in this nation in which surfing the web, for the vast majority of citizens, is a pipe dream. The International IT Convention and Expo lacks the sector's heavy hitters such as IBM and Microsoft, which like other U.S. information technology and software companies observe their nation's decades-old trade embargo against the Communist regime. In any case, their market here would be miniscule. Cuba, whose 48-year-old one-party government tightly controls inhabitants' access to information, has the lowest rate of Internet use in the hemisphere, with 0.9 percent of the population of 11 million able to connect, according to figures from a U.N. agency. Even most of those do not have unfettered access to cyberspace, with government-issued licenses and permits required for greater degrees of freedom to navigate. Computer "clubs" made up mostly of young people and authorized and overseen by the state are one of the main venues where a select few Cubans can point and click. Individual citizens in Cuba are barred from having Internet service at home. Some professionals, particularly in the fields of culture, education and health, can hook up to a restricted and monitored web. Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes said at Monday's inauguration of the fair that Cuba intends to "advance" in the IT field, but he also declared that new information technologies "are becoming one of the mechanisms for global extermination." The Castro government "must overhaul strategies and actions that contribute to the constant heightening of the security levels of our networks," he said. Some 1,3000 delegates from 28 countries are represented at the fair, with the Russian firm Kaspersky, the Vietnamese Hanel and the Chinese Haier among the companies. The Netherlands-based NEC Phlips Unified Solutions has a booth, but an executive of the company told EFE it certainly didn't come to Cuba thinking about making money. "One goes to another type of fair to do business. Cuba has its idiosyncrasies, but business is not one of them," he said. At the heart of the expo is the Chinese-Cuban consortium Gran Kayman Teleco S.A. (GKT). That firm has the contract to supply hardware and software for social development projects carried out under the auspices of the so-called "Battle of Ideas." The catchphrase refers to Cuban government projects designed to foment revolutionary fervor following the years of harsh austerity here after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been a major benefactor to the island. Chinese state communications and IT giant ZTE has a partnership with GKT, but the bigger firm's presence here is nominal. Yang Qi, sales manager for the Caribbean for ZTE, said his company's regional focus is on cellular telephones, but with only some 100,000 of the devices in use in Cuba, the market here is not a big attraction. The press freedom group Reporters without Borders last October criticized the Cuban regime for drastically restricting Internet usage. In a study titled "Going online in Cuba: Internet under surveillance," the group refuted Havana's contention that the extremely low rates of Internet usage are due to the U.S. trade embargo. Havana says the embargo deprives the island of underwater fiber-optic cable and forces it to opt for costly and less effective satellite connections. "This may indeed explain the slowness of the Cuban Internet and the endless lines outside Internet cafes, but in no way does it justify the system of control and surveillance that has been put in place by the authorities," RSF said. The organization said the government has made it a priority to impede the free flow of independent, online reports and information as part of an overall strategy of controlling the media. The press group said that in Internet cafes, universities and youth computer clubs, police have installed software programs that trigger an alert message when "subversive" keywords are used..

Suggested Books