Community Technology in Cuba

May 12, 2016

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Report on the April 2016 Delegation Trip*

Peter Miller

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Driving away from the Literacy Campaign Museum, Jesus-in-Havana, our Amistur guide, causally pointed out the bus window as we passed two women walking together, “Look, there’s Che’s daughter.” It was an iconic moment, confirmed by the photo of Aleida in Wikipedia, for, along with all the reasons you might suppose, I had recently completed a presentation on “Che Guevara and ICT4D in Cuba” for an Information and Communications Technology for Development conference in June.

Information and communications technologies are clearly one of — if not the hot button issue in developing US-Cuba relations. The undeveloped state of Cuba’s technology infrastructure is as well known as its multitude of old cars, and cries of Internet censorship are high up on the list of U.S. accusations of Cuban communist crimes, albeit in the face of revelations of no less than three illegal covert USAID “regime change” technology-related fiascos leading up to the historical December 17, 2014, joint normalization announcements by Presidents Obama and Castro.

Thus, it was a special opportunity for the delegation, organized by the Community Technology Network of the Bay Area and Altruvistas.com, whose directors, Kami Griffiths and Malía Everette, became friends when they were on staff at Global Exchange where Malía oversaw their “Reality Tours” to Cuba. The itinerary was combination basic tour for those new to the island — Habana Vieja, the Malecón, La Plaza de la Revolución, the National Museum of Fine Arts — integrated with a specialized community technology program: we got to meet with three ministries dealing with technology and the National Lawyers’ Guild whose director brought along the president and two vice presidents of the Informatics Law special interest group.  It was my second trip in less than a year and I came with a projects agenda to meet and connect with specific people and institutions.

The ministry presentations gave us the official view; the sessions with players in Cuba’s social and community technology development arenas were more give and take, and reflected an informative contrast. Ties with the US-Cuba solidarity community, the National Network on Cuba, and with ICAP, the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos, the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples helped insure a good selection across the spectrum.

Cuba’s technological “backwardness” and thin telecommunications infrastructure belie its high literacy and achievements in specialized technology areas such as organic farming, turning a lack of soil chemicals due to the embargo into an environmental and agricultural virtue, and its medical system is another example. InfoMed is its Stockholm Challenge Award-winning national online health information system, its online portal used by well over 100,000, doctors and medical personnel and patients and ordinary citizens in need of information and services. The director of the National Information Center of Medical Sciences and other InfoMed staff showed us its scope in terms of content and design. With Open Source as the country’s official platform, an orientation driven by what it shares with other poor, technology-developing nations (limited financial resources for proprietary applications) and what is particular to Cuba (the blockade), Cuba has an international leadership role with a system that reaches into the arenas of literacy and computer literacy and the practical application of ICT across a wide range of social uses and applications.

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One hears about the growing number of wifi hot spots in Havana, but what underscores the digital inclusion and equity that Cuba prides itself on generally are the community centers where access, support, and education take place, the state telecom Etecsa-run telecentres, what a Granma editorial on “The digitalization of society, a priority for Cuba” refers to as Public Navigation Centers, and especially, the jovenclubs, jovenclub.cu, the 600 youth community technology centers throughout the country. While our visit to the national headquarters was curtailed, the unannounced informal visit a couple of us made to a local center was greeted with, after an initial hesitancy, a most welcoming hospitality shown us by a staffer with English more fluent than our limited Spanish, who took us through its busy rooms and facilities, ending at the informational bulletin board with its large staff directory and listing of training course options, almost all in Microsoft applications, underlining one of the major challenges in Cuba’s technological development which seeks to emphasize Open Source.

We made follow-up plans to discuss possible volunteer involvement and cross-country telecommunications exchanges and programs, with a similar effort initiated with an afrocuban community project in Matanzas and plans to connect with Mel King and the South End Technology Center in Boston.

Our exchange with the University of Havana’s Computer Science Dean and their Director of Information Services demonstrated that Cuba technology academics and practitioners are very interested in sharing their experiences and plans and in making contacts and learning from others, though there is no source of funding for them to travel on their own. In an exchange about developing support for this we learned that corporate technology money is acceptable, even from those who have been involved in regime change projects, but U.S. government money is not welcome. We discussed possibilities for a Cuba program at the upcoming international Community Informatics conference in Prato, Italy in the fall.

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There was more give and take at a presentation on and discussion about El Paquete, the multi-terabyte collection of digital material distributed in place of broadband Internet; a visit to the home of Roberto Salas, photographer of the Revolution by way of Brooklyn and New York City; and an animated meeting with the Director of the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez de la Naturaleza y el Hombre.

One of the highlights of the trip was our meeting with International Relations staff of the National Library, Biblioteca Nacional de Cuba Jose Martí, in their Media Room to deliver a hard drive contribution to assist with their patrimonial archive project, both at the main branch and in the provinces, and begin to explore legal ways to ramp up the equipment support program.

If not hard drives for the National Library or used PC’s that can be donated to a school, community center, or library, flash drives are good thank you and appreciation gifts to bring along on visits.

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* A shortened version of this report is in the May 12 Brookline Tab to complement the Brookline May Town Meeting warrant article 20, “Resolution Calling for an End to the United States’ Economic, Commercial and Financial Embargo against Cuba and Respect for Cuba’s Sovereignty.”

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