Questioning Cuba's dotcom revolution

The Dec. 20 opinion piece "Dotcommies Take Over Cuba" by Timothy Ashby and Elizabeth Bourget paints an inaccurate picture of Cuba's technical and computer capabilities.

*None of Cuba's three state-owned Internet service providers is permitted to offer residential service to Cuban nationals. There are not "more than 2,000 post offices offering Internet access." There are plans to give Cubans access to a limited, government-controlled intranet.

*There is no fiber-optic cable between Florida and Cuba.

*Only about 2 percent of Cubans have telephones in their homes, much less a modem.

The article also asserts a Cuban "economic transformation by following a policy based on technology, markets, and new capital." But only some 150,000 Cubans (out of a population of 11 million) are privately employed. Private business, beyond single-family vendors and tinkers, is illegal. What business is allowed is prohibitively taxed and forced to rely on the black market for supplies. No Cuban workers have the right to organize or bargain collectively. Cuban commercial banks do not exist.

The Cuban government seeks to direct limited access to foreign markets, capital, and know-how toward one end: keeping its regime afloat - so it can continue to deny its citizens their fundamental rights. But without democratization and the free flow of ideas and capital inherent in the World Wide Web, Cuba will never become "the Caribbean's digital hub."

Charles S. Shapiro Washington Coordinator for Cuban Affairs US Department of State

Authors' response:

Cuba's five (not three) Internet service providers currently offer service to businesses and academic institutions. We heard conflicting stories about the current number of post offices that are Web-enabled or linked to the Net, but visited one in Havana where anyone (including ordinary Cubans) can go to use the computer terminals for e-mail. Similarly, most major hotels offer Internet access to anyone, Cuban and foreigner alike.

It is true that only a small percentage of Cubans have resident telephones. They use post offices for telephone access, which is the reason that Internet service is being made available at these sites. Cuban officials told us that 2,000 post offices will be linked to the Internet this year, and this seems possible. Wireless Internet access is developing quickly to "leapfrog" the telephone system (which is nonetheless being privatized and upgraded).

Fiber-optic cable is being laid throughout Havana; the fiber ring around the capital is finished. The biggest barrier to Internet access for Cubans is price, not regulation.

The cable between Florida and Cuba exists, but has not yet been connected to a US terminal because of the US embargo. The ARCOS 1 trans-Caribbean cable (developed by a consortium that includes major US telecom companies) is being laid; ARCOS 2 (an offshoot to connect Cuba) will be completed within three years.

We found the Cubans to be highly entrepreneurial. The government has definitely adopted a policy of gradually allowing more private economic activity. Cuba is definitely investing heavily in IT training and education, as well as in infrastructure. The statement in our article that this new policy is one based on "technology, markets, and new capital" is actually a quote from a senior Cuban government official. Evidence for this is pervasive throughout Cuba.

Timothy Ashby and Elizabeth Bourget Sonrisa Foundation Los Gatos, Calif.

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