Cuba's Irreversible Internet

The Huffington Post

By: Emily Parker

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."

Those words illustrate the power of the Internet in Cuba. In countries where the state controls the media narrative, the Internet allows ordinary people to tell their own stories. Over the years, determined activists like Laritza have made great efforts to get online. They would save their writing on flash drives and then post their blogs from hotels or embassies. But they are a minority. Because Internet access has been so limited and expensive, most ordinary Cubans have remained disconnected. As a result, their voices are not heard outside of the Island.

Ernesto López, a photographer from Havana, put it this way: "The Cubans who are online are mostly government officials and a few dissidents. Neither represent the majority of the Cuban population who have our own Cuba, the Cuba of all of us."

Now that more Cubans are experiencing the real-time Web, this situation is finally changing. There are now Wi-Fi hot spots across the island. For $2 an hour, people can video chat, send emails or check what's happening on Facebook. The U.S. embargo only exacerbated Cuba's disconnectedness, and the new relationship with the United States is likely to bring even more Cubans online. Cubans' clear excitement about their newfound connectivity, limited as it still may be, shows that the genie is out of the bottle. Now that Cubans have a taste of the Internet, they will only want more.

This is not to say that the Internet will open the floodgates of information. China has hundreds of millions of people online but it also has systematic censorship. It is too soon to know to if Cuban authorities will emulate this model. But even if they do, the Internet can still have a transformative effect. Cubans will receive better and faster information. More people will make their voices heard, both inside and outside the country. Ordinary Cubans will have a chance to tell the story of their country, in their own words.

As López puts it, "In connected countries like the United States, political parties use the Internet to spread their message and to get votes, and businesses go online to sell their products. Ordinary citizens and artists can also use websites and blogs to inform people about social or environmental causes, or even just a concert. Imagine if all that was possible in Cuba."

Emily Parker is a fellow at New America and author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground." Parker is a member of the Policy Council of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing American businesses and non-profit groups to support the ongoing U.S.‐Cuba normalization process.