Fidel Castro, Internet junkie

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Fidel Castro is back from the dead (his words) and has been reincarnated as an Internet junkie. Not only is he a prolific blogger on Cuba’s online Granma newspaper but, it turns out, the 84-year-old greybeard consumes 200 to 300 news items a day on the Web and is fascinated by the WikiLeaks site, with its trove of 90,000 formerly secret U.S. documents on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The “resuscitated” revolutionary is smaller and shakier than he was before the intestinal illness that prompted him to hand power to his younger brother in 2006, but no less verbose. He spoke with the editor of the Mexican newspaper La Jornada for five hours, during which he raved about the profound impact of the Web. “Do you know what this means, comrade?” he asked, like some sort of Rip Van Winkle waking up in the 21st century. The Internet, he said, “has put an end to secrets.... We are seeing a high level of investigative journalism, as the New York Times calls it, that is within reach of the whole world.”

Well, not the whole world. Cuba, for example, has the lowest level of Internet penetration in the hemisphere, plus severe government restrictions and censorship affecting those who do have access. A Brookings Institution report says that Cuba has 1.3 million users, or 13% of the population, according to Cuban government statistics — or about 2.6% by international estimates. Either way, that’s lower even than impoverished Haiti’s 23%.

In the interview, Castro blamed the U.S. trade embargo for denying Cuba access to an underwater fiber-optic cable, forcing the island to rely instead on expensive satellite access at a cost of about $5 an hour to consumers — a third of the monthly wage of the average Cuban. President Obama issued a directive last year allowing telecom providers to enter into agreements to extend cable to Cuba, although only as far as the shore, not onto the island; a company from a third country or the Cuban government itself would have to finish the job. For that reason, or possibly because American firms are skittish about the Cuban state-controlled economy, nothing has happened. Venezuela is likely to provide cable access to Cuba before the U.S. does.

In the meantime, the technological limits and high costs, as well as the U.S. trade embargo, have served the Cuban government’s political interest in maintaining its grip on media and information, which is why the Castro interview offers delicious irony. Castro called Web communication “the most powerful weapon that has existed” and extolled its power to break a stranglehold on the media by “the empire” (that means the United States, of course) and “ambitious private groups that have abused it.” But the fact that it is such a powerful weapon is, of course, precisely why unfettered access for all Cubans isn’t really on Big Brother Fidel’s mind.

His younger sibling, President Raul Castro, began allowing all Cubans to buy personal computers in 2008, but a private Internet connection requires government permission, which is not easily granted, and most people have access only to a Cuban intranet, a national e-mail system with approved websites and journals. On the World Wide Web, Cubans encounter filters and blocks on any information coming or going that might be construed as unfriendly to the Cuban government.

Besides Fidel Castro, Cuba has about 300 bloggers, about 100 of them unauthorized, including several who are highly critical of the government. They have a terrible time communicating with the world and have to resort to all sorts of tricks to circumvent government barriers, including phoning the information to friends abroad for posting on servers outside Cuba. The most famous blog is Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y, which nets more than 1 million hits a month and is available just about everywhere but in Cuba, which may explain why she hasn’t been muzzled; another reason may be that she is equally critical of the U.S. and its trade embargo. (She was, however, beaten and her blogger husband was attacked by a mob.) Sanchez helped Jose Luis Pardo and others establish Voces Cubanas, an independent site with about 30 bloggers who chronicle the trials, deprivations and beauty of Cuban daily life in words and pictures.

Cuban law bans using the Internet to spread information that is against what the government considers to be the social interest, norms of good behavior, the integrity of the people or national security. This is in line with other policies stifling free expression. This year, the government announced the release of 52 political prisoners, but so far only about half have been freed from jail and sent into exile. There’s no indication that the state’s tolerance for dissent has increased, or that those who express views contrary to the government’s will escape harassment and detention in the future. On the contrary, five dissidents were taken into custody following a rare protest at the University of Havana last month at which they shouted “Down with the Castros!”

Fidel Castro didn’t comment on the ruckus. In fact, he held his own rally at the university last week wearing his trademark army fatigues for the first time in years. Funny, though, he didn’t talk to the students about Internet freedom and the wonders of the Web.