I was in Havana this past Friday when Yoani Sanchez was snatched by Cuban police and brutally beaten. The officers didn't draw blood this time--after all, they are professionals--but they left enough bruises and welts to remind her and others that using the Internet to defy the regime can get you hurt or worse.
Sanchez, 33, is an award-winning blogger whose site, Generation Y, provides one of the best glimpses of what it is like to live in Cuba today. I had returned to Cuba to gain a better understanding of how Sanchez and others were using the Internet to change the country. The beating speaks volumes.
The fact is, Sanchez has a loyal following; her blog gets more than a million hits per month. But, too few of those visitors are from inside Cuba. Only foreigners, select government employees and some academics are currently permitted home Internet service. Many Cubans turn to the black market for expensive, slow dial-up accounts. The government blames the lack of Internet, like everything else, on the 47-year old US embargo. The real barrier is the limited infrastructure and the exorbitant cost to surf the web. The price of a personal computer is beyond the reach of most Cubans and at 10 Cuban pesos (CUCs), a single hour at an Internet cafe is equal to nearly one month's salary for the average worker. Like rent, liberty and the freedom to dream, the Internet is a very expensive proposition in today's Cuba.
The state of the Cuban economy is much worse than when I was there a few years ago. There is also more despair and cynicism among the people. The hope of quick action by the new US Administration is giving way to a deeper pessimism that they may be in for years more of hell. If a Noble Peace Prize winner won't act who will?
The one bright spot for the economy is the growing wealth of Cubans with help from family members outside of the island. Easing by the administration of restrictions on money transfer by Cuban Americans has had a tangible change--for some. This has created a stratum of the few who are starting to live more modern lives. It is also producing a tense dichotomy. Since the revolution, there have always been a small slice of people with money, but they were the politically connected. And, there are good jobs that pay well in the country, but they too have been reserved for the politically connected. That reality has been baked into the resignation of the masses. But the idea of regular people with family wealth is another matter. It says ordinary people can get ahead without dark ties to the regime.
It was a small, safe step perhaps (in keeping with the Obama style), but freeing up the flow of money is proving to be a disruptive act: freeing up the flow of information would be even more disruptive. If we want to change Cuba for the better, improve the human rights record and flush out the corrupt in the government open it up to the light of the Internet.
In a white paper to Congress earlier this year, the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy group advocated some specific steps to make a difference.
The Administration should use the existing authority to issue specific licenses to U.S. carriers wishing to provide service to Cuba, as long as a fair market price is negotiated and the transaction benefits the Cuban people. Moreover, the Administration should eliminate license requirements for NGOs working to provide everyday technology, such as cell phones, DVDs, camcorders, computers, flash drives and printers, to support civil society. The Administration should also provide a general license for U.S. relatives of Cuban nationals to pay for the internet and satellite services of their family in Cuba, as well as to send them applicable technological equipment.
With a stroke of his pen the President could make these things happen overnight, make no political enemies at home and still be competitive in Florida in 2012.
Truth is, connecting Cubans to the rest of the world is bad for Fidel Castro (still very much in charge) and his two henchmen, fear and ignorance. The people, armed with information, will break the chains that hold them down.
Lying in the street after her beating Sanchez recalls in her blog the next day "I managed to see, however, the degree of fright of our assailants, the fear of the new, of what they cannot destroy because they don't understand, the blustering terror of he who knows that his days are numbered."
Perhaps the Internet Age demands a new kind of Noble Peace Prize winner. Someone like Yoani Sanchez.
Tom Hayes is a veteran Silicon Valley marketing executive and the author of the national bestsellerJump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business (McGraw-Hill). His new book with co-author Michael S. Malone, No Size Fits All (Penguin/Portfolio) arrives in bookstores November 12.