It’s not the first time actor Andy Garcia asserts the Internet’s role in raising awareness about repression in Cuba. "Between flip cameras, cell phones and bloggers the world is finally finding out what most of us already knew, but most people did not believe,” he said last month, prior to leading a 5,000 person solidarity march in support of dissident group The Ladies in White through Los Angeles’s Echo Park.

Garcia refers to the increasing viral exposure of violence imparted on leaders of the Cuban opposition: blogger Yoani Sanchez, the Ladies in White, as well as the hunger strikes of Guillermo Fariñas and deceased Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Their often-overlooked plight has made its way up the Internet’s long tail and to the top of the international mainstream media.

But much less attention has been paid to another fact: the Cuban government also has a growing presence online. Websites such as cubadebate.com and blogs such as the Orwellian-named “Cambios en Cuba” publish articles and YouTube videos with a pro-government spin. Raul Castro even has his own Facebook fan page with over 2,000 fans.

The democratic nature of the Internet does not take sides. It can benefit the internal opposition by making it more visible, and can also be useful to the regime, allowing for its own blend of “propaganda 3.0” via Facebook and Twitter.

Yet, it’s clear by now that the Internet has had a far greater impact in empowering Cuban civil society than in boosting the Communist government that controls its access.

The same argument can be made about travel.

There is no question that Cuban tourism and travel bring hard currency to the regime. After all, the State owns all hotels, clubs and stores—even the money spent in the black market eventually ends up in the regime’s coffers.

But make no mistake, totalitarianism thrives on isolation. The State controls access to currency, information and people, precisely because these provide something dangerous to everyday citizens: agency.

Just ask Yoani Sanchez. She argues that access to “resources and money” from Americans, like access to the Internet, would benefit Cuban citizens; “For our part, [we ]would benefit from the injection of money that these tourists from the north would spend in alternative services networks...without a doubt, economic autonomy would result in ideological and political autonomy, in real empowerment.”

Miriam Leiva, founding member of the Ladies in White, agrees: “many thousands of Americans visiting Cuba would benefit our society…Firstly, through the free flow of ideas, and further, by pressing the government to open up self-employment to provide goods and services, such as renting rooms, because the capacities in the hotels would be surpassed."

In the last year, President Obama’s policy of unlimited family travel has done more to break Cuba’s isolation than TV Marti in its 20 years of existence. Recently, The Miami Herald reported that the rise in Cuban family travel, currently at 25,000 monthly visitors, is boosting the economic wellbeing of thousands of Cuban families with U.S. relatives. Imagine what we could do for the Cuban people if all Americans were allowed to travel.

Over 100,000 Cuban Americans marched in support of the Ladies in White in the U.S. last month. Isn’t it time to take it further? To show solidarity by helping to create conditions inside the island that, as Sanchez and Leiva believe, would benefit the Cuban people?

Advocates of the status quo will argue that in Cuba it is illegal for Cubans to approach foreigners. However, anyone who’s been to the island can tell you that the law fails to keep average Cubans from interacting with tourists anywhere they go. And think about it: if contact with American tourists wasn’t a threat to the government, then why is it illegal?

Internet access and unrestricted travel present both advantages and drawbacks to the Cuban government. However, we cannot continue to deny that increased access to the outside world strongly benefits the Cuban people overall.

Andy Garcia was right when he said that the Internet is an invaluable tool to reduce the isolation of the Cuban people. Yet, when only three percent of Cubans have Internet access, the most efficient means to connect with the outside world is still the good-ol’ fashion way: face-to-face.

Ricardo Herrero is a Young Professional Board Member of the Cuba Study Group.  



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