By Marc Frank in Havana
Communist Cuba is slowly lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding its people and economy as demands from a more educated public, the information age and the need to manage better its affairs erode concerns about US snooping and the secretive instincts of bureaucrats.
Just a few years ago hardly any Cuban statistics were available online. Land use, sales at agricultural markets and monthly tourism arrivals, among other reports, were considered restricted information.
It took months to obtain a few initial printed figures covering the previous year’s economic and social performance. A statistical abstract of domestic information on one year was not published until the end of the next.
But Raúl Castro has demanded more accurate information since he stepped in for Fidel Castro, his ailing brother, in July 2006 and officially became president in February last year.
In a speech to parliament in 2006 he attacked shoddy data as “preventing us from knowing what has been done and what remains to be done”.
A relative deluge of readily available information has since appeared at the website of Cuba’s National Statistics Office reinforced by graduates of its University of Information Sciences. “Without a doubt the government is looking more at different phenomena, from demographics to social and economic issues,” says Oscar Maderos, the young director of the NSO.
With celebrations on Thursday marking the 50th anniversary of Fidel’s triumphant arrival in Havana during the Cuban revolution, the information on the site is one of the more tangible signs of thawing government control under Raúl’s presidency.
Last year the initial data for 2007 were released in January and the statistical abstract made available online in June. October 2008 agricultural market sales and November tourism data have already been posted on the site, along with dozens of previously secret reports, such as a study of internal migration.
Mr Maderos says the increasing skill of local webmasters and domestic demand are driving the improvement, rather than outside users.
“We were swamped with demands for national, provincial and even municipal information due to the universalisation of higher education,” he says.
Few students have computers, internet access or even phone lines, but they can view the website using the government-controlled intranet at work, school and local state-run computer clubs.
Controversy still swirls over the reliability of the information coming to light and important data remain secret: for example, the most recent nickel production figures, debt and some balance of payments information, crime statistics and details of the countries from which overseas health workers – Cuba’s most important source of foreign exchange – send back service revenues.
Mr Maderos insists the information published by his office is credible gives a detailed computer-aided explanation on how thousands of his employees gather it across the land. “We have more offices than anyone else in Cuba except the association of small farmers,” he says.
Even so, users differ about the usefulness of the information on the website.
“I do use the page and find it surprisingly good because it’s Cuba and I wouldn’t have thought they would make so much information available,” says a London-based debt broker, who wished to remain anonymous.
Pavel Videl at University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy says: “The page has improved a lot. There is more transparency for us to work with. What’s strange is that they seem to be alone because you do not see similar progress with other institutions that manage statistics, for example the central bank’s page.”
G.B. Hagelberg, an international agriculture and sugar industry analyst, who often uses the website, says:
“Government statistics across the world are not immune to manipulation. The only way to keep them reasonably honest is by creating competition within the system . . . and there is none in Cuba.”
In a country where the state still dominates economic activity, Mr Maderos admits that his office has two roles: “To serve and control.”
Information remains restricted because of US sanctions, he says. “Why would the information we do release be false? You can’t forget our situation. We are under siege. It would be great if some day that changed, but for now we remain vigilant.”