By Ian Katz | Baltimore Sun
A Microsoft Excel class is just getting started at 6 p.m. in a steamy, cramped room at the Youth Club of Computing and Electronics. The eight adult students are focused on their screens and their teacher’s every word.
The Youth Club, where Cubans of any age can take courses for free at 600 mini-schools nationwide, is the linchpin of President Fidel Castro’s grass-roots campaign to promote computer literacy. This branch sits on a street strewn with garbage in Old Havana. Several windows at the front entrance are cracked.
The computers are slow, but the teachers seem competent, and the students are serious. When one student tries to get rid of the pesky paper clip figurine that keeps popping up to offer help, he accidentally closes his spreadsheet, and a full-screen photo of a young Castro appears.
The Youth Club reflects the complexities of Cuba’s technology policy. The government is not only trying to teach basic computing as part of an overall push on education, but also hoping to develop a formidable software industry.
For most Cubans, however, the ambitious tech plans stop at the Internet. Cubans are allowed to use e-mail and an intranet of government Web sites on topics from the weather to literature, but access is expensive for the average worker. Typically the government approves Internet access only for foreigners and a select group of Cubans. These include certain officials, academics, journalists and employees of foreign companies - though some people use the accounts of friends or relatives.
At a March ceremony in Havana marking the 15th anniversary of a national computer education center, Castro said Cuba needs to get used to a “new world that keeps changing around us.” At the same event, he promoted the idea of grooming software developers at the University of Computer Sciences, a campus about 50 miles south of Havana that aims to attract the country’s brightest tech students and teachers.
That seemingly progressive approach contradicts Cuba’s Internet policy, said Damian Fernandez, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
“The effort to curtail Internet usage goes against the government’s attempt to bring Cuba into the 21st century and globalize its economy,” Fernandez said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t restrict and modernize. This is condemning the country to the third or fourth world decades from now.”
The computer literacy campaign is part of Cuba’s “long-term strategy for development to take advantage of its well-educated work force,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and dean of American University’s School of Public Affairs. If the effort is successful, he said, the government could develop a software industry along the lines of its advanced biotechnology sector. However, the lack of Internet access “puts a crimp in that strategy, because so much cutting-edge information appears first on the Internet,” he said.
Cuba’s intranet offers software-related courses from database and Web design to artificial intelligence. However, without permission to use the Internet, prospective techies can’t download software, take online classes at Spanish-language programming site lawebdelprogramador.com or ask for help on message boards.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has placed Cuba on a list of 15 Internet “enemies,” in a group that includes North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and China. In February, the group said Cuba uses the U.S. embargo as a “pretext for a repressive policy toward the Internet. The chief reason for keeping citizens away from the Internet is to prevent them from being well-informed.”
Analysts point out that the Internet is even more limited in Cuba than in China, which allows widespread access but filters out content it doesn’t want users to see. In Cuba, the access itself is restricted. Cuban officials have spoken about the need to manage what can be viewed on the Internet. They also contend that the country would have more connections if the embargo didn’t prevent necessary infrastructure from entering the country, a position the United States rejects.
The Youth Club, echoing the official view, says on its Web site that its mission is to “teach our youth to correctly utilize the information highway ... because it is a tool to communicate our truth, the reality of the Cuban Revolution.”
The government has set up kiosks where foreigners can access the Internet and where Cubans have access to e-mail and the intranet. At a separate network of kiosks, which have air-conditioning and better computers, only foreigners are allowed.
For a Cuban, one hour online costs $1.60, about 15 percent of the average monthly salary. On a recent morning at one Havana kiosk, all 20 computers were being used by Cubans sending e-mails, mainly to friends and relatives outside the country. No one was using the intranet.
Government opponents complain that the government monitors e-mails. Guillermo Farinas, a dissident journalist, went on a hunger strike in January, telling journalists that the e-mail access he had used to send articles abroad had been blocked. He has been fed intravenously at a hospital, but the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists reported June 6 that Farinas was unconscious and his health was deteriorating.
Cuba’s Internet policy contrasts with its effort to cultivate software developers at the tech university, which was constructed in 2002. The government did not grant a request to visit the school, though it occasionally shows off the campus, such as during a November 2004 visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Ian Katz writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.