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Cuba’s Low Level of Internet Use: Not a Policy of Restricting the Flow of Information

If you want to find examples of governments restricting the flow of information on the internet for political purposes, look to the United States and its allies, and not to the low-level of internet use in Cuba, which, notwithstanding press reports to the contrary, is a consequence of Cuba’s comparatively low-level of economic development, not communist ‘totalitarianism.’

August 22, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

cuba-computerPart of the dogma of capitalist societies is that communist states are inherently restrictive and ‘totalitarian’, in contrast to liberal democracies, which are portrayed as beacons of liberty. Communist states, we’re told, suppress dissent, while capitalist states allow it to flourish. This, of course, is nonsense. All states, regardless of how they’re organized economically, suppress dissent under circumstances of grave threat, and relax repression as danger diminishes. Those that are the most free, are those that face the least danger. Highly restrictive societies are typically highly threatened. The restrictions in the Soviet Union from its birth in 1917 to its collapse in 1991 are pointed to as proof of the totalitarian nature of communism (or “Stalinism”), but the reality that the country was in a permanent state of crisis is ignored, and restrictive measures have long been recognized as legitimate and necessary under emergency conditions, including in liberal theory and practice. Wave after wave of aggression crashed against the Soviet Union from its birth until its collapse. These included the aggressions of Wilhelmine Germany, the intervention of the Entente powers in the Civil War, Japan’s harassment of Soviet borders in the 1930s, the invasion of Nazi Germany, the Cold War, and Reagan’s program of spending the Soviets into bankruptcy. The objective of each aggression was the total annihilation of the communist state.

Totalitarianism has not been a stranger to liberal democracies either. Despite being sheltered by two oceans, having no hostile powers on its borders, and facing no realistic threat of invasion, the US state in two world wars invested its executive with dictatorial powers. These were used to direct the country’s economy, control the flow of information, crackdown on dissent, and herd potential fifth columnists into concentration camps. Even today, despite facing the comparatively minor threat of potential blowback from the political Islamic forces it has long supported to disrupt secular Arab nationalism [1], the United States, Britain, France, Canada and Australia have invested the political policing functions of their respective states with growing powers of surveillance and disruption.

Philosopher and historian Domenico Losurdo observes:

In reality, although protected by the Atlantic and the Pacific, every time it has rightly or wrongly felt itself imperilled, the North American republic has proceeded to a more or less drastic reinforcement of executive power and to more or less heavy restrictions on freedom of association of expression. This applies to the years immediately following the French Revolution (when its devotees on American soil were hit by the Alien and Sedition Acts), to the Civil War, the First Word War, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the Cold War. Even in our day, the sequel of the attack of 11 September 2001 was the opening of a concentration camp at Guantanamo, where detainees have been imprisoned without trial, and without even being informed of a specific charge, regardless of age. However terrible, the threat of terrorism is minor compared with that of invasion and military occupation, not to mention nuclear destruction. [2]

The restrictive practices, or ‘totalitarianism’, of communist states are not inherent. They are, instead, defensive measures against external threat. Cuba and North Korea have been under a greater sustained threat of invasion and military occupation than any other country (and North Korea is additionally under the threat of nuclear destruction.) It is in these countries that the pressure for restrictive practices is most acutely felt. Nor are restrictions on civil and political liberties unique to communist states. They are also found in abundance in capitalist countries, as well.

To illustrate how the dogma in capitalist society conditions its mass media to portray communist countries as inherently restrictive, consider a recent Wall Street Journal article on the expansion of internet access in Cuba (“Cubans get a tantalizing taste of the internet,” August 19, 2015).

The article attributes the comparatively low level of internet use on the Caribbean island to a theorized desire of Cuban authorities to control the flow of information, rather than to a more likely explanation, namely Cuba’s low level of economic development. We would expect that more developed countries would have a higher level of internet use, and less developed countries a lower level. If the level of internet use in Cuba is on par with that of other countries at the same level of economic development, the country’s low level of internet use can be explained by economic development, not a desire to restrict access to the internet to control the flow of information.

The graph below uses World Bank data to show the relationship between internet use per 100 people and GDP per capita. If the Cuban government deliberately restricts internet use, we would expect Cuba to depart significantly to the right of the trend line. Instead, it falls close to it, meaning the level of internet use in Cuba is typical of countries at an equal level of economic development. We can dismiss, therefore, the view that the Caribbean island’s low level of internet use is due to the government deliberately restricting access to the Web. The Wall Street Journal’s explanation of the low level of internet use in Cuba is a political argument, intended to mislead and discredit, not illuminate.

Internet users per 100At 30 users per 100 people in 2014, internet use in Cuba was on par with that of Egypt (32) and El Salvador (30) and greater than in Guatemala (23), Honduras (19), India (18), Nicaragua (18) and Haiti (11) (World Bank). The average for Central America, a region on which the United States has lavished much attention to keep it free from communist ‘totalitarianism’, was 29, virtually equal to that of Cuba. If Cuba’s low level of internet use is indicative of Havana deliberately restricting access to the internet to control the flow of information, then the governments of Central America, along with Egypt and India, must also be ‘totalitarian.’

More fertile ground for identifying governments that impede the flow of information for political purposes can be found in the US orbit, among such trusted US (and capitalist) allies as South Korea, Turkey, Britain, Canada and the United States itself.

The South Korean police state vigorously effaces online content it doesn’t want South Koreans to see. When a computer user in South Korea clicks on an item on the North Korean Twitter account, a government warning against illegal content pops up. In 2011, South Korean authorities blocked over 53,000 internet posts for infractions which included having a kind word to say about North Korea. In the same year, the South Korean police state deleted over 67,000 Web posts that were deemed favorable to North Korea or which criticized the US or South Korean government. Over 14,000 posts were deleted in 2009. [3]

In Turkey, “thousands of Web sites are blocked by the state, mostly without any publicized reason.” [4]

In Britain, government officials have met with representatives of Twitter, Facebook and BlackBerry “to discuss voluntary ways to limit or restrict the use of social media to combat crime and periods of civil unrest.” Free-speech advocates liken these policies to those the British government “has criticized in totalitarian and one-party states.” [5]

The Canadian government recently passed legislation that would give its spy agency, CSIS, authority to disrupt “radical websites” and remove “terrorist propaganda” from the Internet—that is, restrict the flow of information on the Web. [6]

As for the United States, in 2009 “the U.S. Treasury Department ordered the closure of more than eighty websites related to Cuba that promoted trade and thus violated U.S. legislation on economic sanctions.” [7]

If the United States, South Korea, Turkey, Britain and Canada restrict the flow of information on the Internet for political reasons, how is it that Cuba is totalitarian, but these states are beacons of liberty?

Two further points.

First, the United States has waged a campaign of economic warfare against Cuba for over five decades. It’s impossible to say how large the Cuban economy would be today had it been allowed to develop unimpeded, but some estimates put the cost to Cuba of US economic aggression at $750 to $975 billion. [8] One analyst estimates that “Without the blockade, the Cuban standard of living today might well be equal to that of Western Europe.” [9] If so, internet use in Cuba would likely resemble European levels of 76 per 100 people, rather than today’s 30.

Second, the US propaganda system can’t mention internet access in Cuba without making reference to blogger Yoani Sanchez, whose online newspaper 14ymedio “is blocked in Cuba,” according to The Wall Street Journal. [10] There is a good reason for this. Sanchez’s web site appears to be a hostile project of the United States, a country in a virtual state of war with Cuba. Despite her status as a grassroots dissident, Sanchez’s web site is miraculously “available in no less than 18 languages….No other site in the world, including those of major international institutions such as the UN, World Bank, IMF, OECD, and the European Union, has as many language versions available. Not even the U.S. State Department web site or the CIA has such a variety.” [11]

Moreover,

The site hosting the blog of Sanchez has a bandwidth 60 times higher than Cuba has for all its Internet users! Other questions inevitably arise about it: Who manages these pages in 18 languages? Who pays the administrators? How much? Who pays for the translators who work daily on Sanchez’s site? How much? Furthermore, the management of a flow of more than 14 million visitors monthly is extremely expensive. Who pays for that? [12]

Jose Luis Martinez, a spokesman for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, attributes the blocking of 14ymedio to the Cuban government’s desire “to have some type of control” and of being “a totalitarian regime trying to operate in the 21st century.” [13] US client state Egypt has locked up nearly 500 of Sanchez’s fellow political bloggers [14], while Washington’s strategic partner and major arms buyer Saudi Arabia has sentenced one blogger to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for his dissident views [15], yet Havana, the ‘totalitarian regime’ that insists on ‘some type of control’, has spared Sanchez a similar fate. By Martinez’s reasoning, Egypt—which receives $1.3 billion annually in military aid from the United States, second only to Israel [16]—must be a totalitarian state on steroids. And yet it suffers none of the denigration Western news media heap on Cuba.

Losurdo observes that if Cuba’s measures for repressing some political dissent are totalitarianism, then West Germany, which did not shrink from repressing communists, and which, like Hitler, banned the Communist Party, would also have to be regarded as totalitarian. [17] The same could be said of South Korea, whose infamous National Security Law continues to be used to lock up leftists. The South Korea police state recently disbanded one left-wing party, stripping its legislators of their parliamentary seats, and jailing a handful of its members, including the lawmaker Lee Seok-ki. [18]

Decades of low-intensity warfare against Cuba carried out by the United States, including a blockade, unremitting military threat, sabotage, support for fifth columnists, and occasional terrorism, has created a de facto state of war. Nevertheless, Cuba has reacted to this situation with measures no more drastic than those implemented in the United States during two world wars, [19] and no more drastic than those once implemented in West Germany and currently practiced with vigor in South Korea.

It’s not ‘totalitarian’ Cuban government policy that has limited internet use in Cuba. Internet use in Cuba has been limited by the comparatively low level of development of the Cuban economy and the US economic aggression which has stifled it. What restrictions Cuba has implemented are warranted defensive measures against the predations of its hyper-aggressive neighbor to the north. This, however, would be news to those who follow the mass media in capitalist societies. The sole interest of these media when it comes to Cuba and North Korea is to discredit ideological competitors through the propagation of dogma which treats the warts of all societies as uniquely present in those of communism and absent in those of capitalism.

1. See Robert Dreyfus, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, Holt Paperbacks, 2005 and Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam, Serpent’s Tail, 2010.

2. Domenico Losurdo. War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century. Verso. 2015. p 58.

3. Stephen Gowans, “South Korea’s Police State Wages War on Proponents of Democracy,” what’s left, January 27, 2015.

4. Sebnem Arsu, “Internet filters set off protests around Turkey”, The New York Times, May 15, 2011.

5. Ravi Somaiya, “In Britain, a meeting on limiting social media”, The New York Times, August 25, 2011.

6. “Tell Parliament-defeat police state bill C-51!”, People’s Voice, February 5, 2015.

7. Salim Lamrani, “The Contradictions of Cuban Blogger Yoani Sanchez,” MRZine, December 11, 2009.

8. Aida Calviac Mora, “With Obama in the White House, the blockade hasn’t changed at all”, Granma International, September 16, 2010; Thomas Kenny, “Interview with Thomas Kenny co-author of Socialism of ‘Betrayed Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1917-1991,” PoliticalEconomy.ie, March 16, 2015.

9. Kenny.

10. Ryan Dube, “Cubans get a tantalizing taste of the internet,” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2015.

11. Lamrani.

12. Lamrani.

13. Dube.

14. Jeffrey Fleishman, “In Egypt, a blogger tries to spread ‘culture of disobedience’ among youths,” The Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2009.

15. Jay Solomon and Felicia Schwartz, “U.S. rebukes Saudis for sentencing blogger to 1,000 lashes,” The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2014.

16. Carol E. Lee and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. seeks to allay concerns of allies on Iran nuclear deal,” The Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2015.

17. Losurdo, p. 312.

18. Gowans.

19. Losurdo, p. 312.

Written by what's left

August 22, 2015 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Cuba

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