Watching, Rooting, and Supporting this thing called "The New Cuba" from the inside out (Consultant | Producer | Sensei)

Posts from the ‘Internet’ category

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(Relentless Creators: Slim use of Internet time means USB sticks are golden. Photo: NPR)

This week was a big week for Cuba tech startups. Ten young Cuban tech leaders were awarded a chance at more “next level” resources. We realize that most foreigners view Cuba as a place stuck in time with its old cars and 19th century architecture, but the bodies that inhabit these relics are now hungry millennials chasing the 21st century. Today, hundreds (maybe thousands) of Cuban youth are graduating from computer science schools into a country with barely any internet. Most Cuban businesses do not even have a proper website, although there is a large trend in business owners building at least a Facebook page. It’s only been the last 1-2 years, that we’ve discovered a few company websites and mobile applications pop up in this country. After working tirelessly in their homes with no internet the last few years, a few Cuban tech stars have emerged from this clandestine scene, and are paving the way for newer generations to understand the potential Tech gold rush of their motherland.

If you’re an American and found yourself in Cuba, you’ve probably been frustrated at the fact you can’t Google your way through the country as a guide. Sure, there has been new US/Cuban phone company deals with Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T, but if the roaming charges haven’t murdered you, then the spotty service has blocked the search anyways. Cuba is not yet an open satellite culture for checking internet easily. Logins require “pay by the hour” scratch off cards issued by State owned phone company, ETECSA. But things are moving at a bizarre tortoise pace since 2015 (some believe too slow, others fear it’s too fast). The fact remains, Cuba has tripled the number of Wifi zones on the island, from 65 (at the end of 2015) to more than 200 at the beginning of September 2016. The latest news is that ETECSA announced it will make 5 miles of the Malecon, Havana’s famous seafront boulevard, a Wifi spot by the end of 2016. Despite all these announcements, at home full internet is another conversation and a ghost of a service, much less trying to start a new tech business this way. Laptop sessions in public parks are a big thing in Cuba. Still, the young ones  find a way. “Resolviendo” or “Inventando” are the common words spit out.

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(The Team at Alamesa. Photo by @Engage_Cuba)

But things are changing for users. If you had been really dialed into the scene before arriving to Cuba, you would have been tipped off to a cool restaurant app called Alamesa, which lists 900 restaurants with addresses, phone numbers and reviews — and it works brilliantly offline. Game-changer. Who is the creator of this app? His name is Ariel Causa Menendez, and this week, the young Cuban was awarded for his invention by the recent 10X10KCuba contest along with 9 of his industry peers in a competition that sought to select the 10 most promising Tech startups in Cuba today.

What exactly is this contest? “10x10KCuba seeks to help talented programmers and entrepreneurs in Cuba integrate themselves into the startup community in the Americas” says John McIntire (Chairman of Cuba Emprende Foundation). More importantly he adds, “It also provides them with the resources and networks to support the growth of their businesses”.

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The 10 winners this year are:

Alamesa (Havana) Entrepreneur: Ariel Causa Menéndez. www.alamesa.nat.cu
An information platform for users who wish to explore and be involved with Cuban gastronomy.

Conoce Cuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Eliecer Cabrera Casas. www.cnccuba.com
A platform for the advertising of and search for businesses, including a directory and maps, which allow the businesses to display any information they wish to consumers.

Cuba-Room (Havana) Entrepreneur: Wendy Rafael Bokly Plana. www.cubaroom.net
An online service to search for and book lodging in less than 24 hours, for travellers looking for bed and breakfast accommodations at different price points.

Cubazon (Havana) Entrepreneur: Bernardo Romero González. www.cubazon.com
An online marketplace for purchasing any product produced by the private sector in Cuba, to be delivered to family or friends resident on the island with the utmost security and professionalism.

GuiArte (Havana) Entrepreneur: Adan Leiva Blaya. www.lbpromo.com
A continuously updated digital directory for domestic and international users of activity in Cuba’s arts and cultural scene, with the information organized by categories and profiles.

Isladentro (Havana) Entrepreneur: Indhira Sotillo Fernández. www.isladentro.net
An easy-to-use platform offering a quick and reliable guide for information and geographic location on any place, business or other points of interest. An app where your business will make an impact.

Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy? (Havana) Entrepreneur: Juan Luis Santana Barrios. www.kehaypahoy.com
A digital platform aimed at promoting Cuban culture, in which customers have the opportunity to showcase their offerings through different channels.

Knales (Havana) Entrepreneur: Luilver Garces Briñas. www.knal.es
An efficient SMS platform to advertise events, products, services and other information, customized for each user.

MiKma (Havana) Entrepreneur: Janse Lazo Valdés. www.mikmacuba.com.
Advertising and booking platform for house rentals (in Cuban pesos) which will revolutionize the way that market operates.

NinjaCuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Victor Manuel Hernandez Moratón. www.ninjacuba.com
A website for finding talent and searching for jobs in Cuba’s tech sector.

Each of the ten winning businesses receives the following prize packages, conservatively valued at $10,000 per winner:

• Two Dell laptops via EMC
• One year of cloud credits from Rackspace
• Online English or Mandarin courses from iTutorGroup
• For two entrepreneurs from each business, two weeks of immersion in a tech/start-up environment in one of our four destination cities, all expenses paid: Boulder, CO; Mexico City, Mexico; Miami, FL; and Palo Alto, CA.
• Miles to cover flight expenses between Cuba and our destination cities from American Airlines

In each city, the network of accelerator/university partners (including Boomtown, 500 Startups, NXTP Labs, Stanford University’s School of Engineering, and TechStars) will provide a customized experience to enhance the business and tech skills of the winning entrepreneurs. There will also be additional mentoring and networking through local tech busineses and entrepreneurs. Other supporting Foundations and Corporate Sponsors include: Knight Foundation, Tinker Foundation, and Americas Society/Council of the Americas, American Airlines, Dell/EMC, iTutorGroup, and Rackspace.

The contest is one of the most innovative and unprecedented collaborations between United States and Cuba’s young tech leaders on the forefront of a nascent underground. This year, the contest drew 88 applications from Cuban entrepreneurs, but we foresee next year hopefully drawing double/triple these numbers as we’ve seen internet proliferate deeper in the nation since Obama & Raul Castro’s normalization talks began December 17, 2014. More tourism and internal reforms have created new demands for these inventions as well.

Ric Herrero (of #CubaNow) and Co-organizer of this contest understands the big vision of these new thinkers, and aims to foster these voices to greater heights. “The winning entrepreneurs have the talent and resourcefulness to succeed in any tech company in the world” he says, “and we couldn’t be prouder of their commitment to growing the startup community in Cuba.”

Here’s to tomorrows tech leaders, and making life just a little more convenient and connected for residents and foreigners. I was told by my parents that Pre-Revolution Cuba was a very forward-thinking, innovative, and experimental place in the Caribbean to launch ahead-of-its-time technology (including the first color TV’s in the Americas).

Well, grab a seat. We’re about to witness the most exciting comeback in history. We realize this is an ambitious thought, but Cubans never reach for anything less than the stars. Somewhere in this pack of educated and cultured minds is the next Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs, hungry to capitalize on the gaps of the Cuban market which are very unique today. As the nation redefines itself in a new era of self-identity, it is also looking to reposition itself into the global economy. This will be a long road, and dependent on how fast the island gets wired up.

Content is king and information is power, so keep those inventions brewing, young Cubans. We’ll be rooting for you all the way from America through programs like this.

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The New York Times visited Cuba to follow an interesting angle on the blogger scene — that is, the “moderate” bloggers. Cuba is a country where independent journalism is mostly dangerous when criticizing the State (note: the blog 14yMedio is one of the most respected Independent platforms, guided by activist Yoany). The only other forms of information on the internet-challenged island are National newspapers, generally considered propaganda of the State.

So who are these moderate bloggers who exist in the middle? NY Times’ Ernesto Londoño finds some new names and faces on the island who are dancing on the lines of this new definition of what is “acceptable”. The conversation seems like an acrobatic walk through semantics.

Carlos Alberto Perez, a blogger for La Chiringa de Cuba, claims he is criticizing from inside the Revolution [not outside the Revolution]…a famous phrase Fidel Castro once said when announcing what opinion would be tolerated in Cuba.

“Im not going to tell you that fear doesn’t exist”, he adds, “that when you have that button there, when you’re on top of the publish button, you think about it. You think, what comes afterward could be dangerous, right?”

At the end of the day, its refreshing to meet new voices getting up online, regardless of whether they are hardcore dissidents or just local voices sharing insider narratives. As long as they are dissecting, exposing, and sharing inner thoughts on the “real cuba”, then it’s a step in the right direction. What’s important is that a new subculture of bloggers is arising, differentiating themselves as different than the activists, but eager to tell their stories.

Another blogger, Harold Cardenas Lema (for La Joven Cuba) says that “We are moving forward the line of what is politically correct here”, attempting to break down the journalistic moving target. Expect this line to move more every day, despite the State’s control.

Read the full story in The New York Times.

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The battle for minds of Cuban Millennials has begun. Well, technically the hunt is for digital folk in Cuba, but as we all know, it’s the youth culture that has this language on lock. There has been all this controversy this week from the left to the right, to the moderates on this issue of infiltrating the Cuban digital sphere. It’s posed some very hard pressing questions, but before I get ahead of myself, let me summarize the story.

The United States government, through an organization called USSAID (self-described as a “development agency”) whipped up a digital experiment to harness the attention of young Cubans on the island. Considered a micro-blogging site with some sort of text messaging network, the agency called the platform “Zunzuneo”, which is Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s call.

Because the Cuban government has draconian laws controlling the internet, the next smartest way to gather this demo is by utilizing cellphone text messaging to collect a subscriber base. Cell phones were legalized in 2006 in Cuba in one of Raul Castro’s reform efforts when first inheriting power from his brother, Fidel. Therefore, the last few years have seen a spike in Cubans owning cell phones.

A USAID document stated that the plan for Zunzuneo was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” In other words, to create “smart mobs” after hundreds of thousands cell phone numbers were collected. In essence, to eventually spark a “Cuban Spring”. The platform was marketed chiefly to young Cubans.

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Zunzuneo was launched in February 2010. Through a string of secret tactics (the US government calls this “discreet, not covert”), the front company was based in Spain with a shady bank account in Cayman islands. Upon the launch, Zunzuneo was marketed strongly with non-controversial content — sports, weather, entertainment — anything to just attract Cubans to sign up. The plan worked. Within 6 months, at least 25,000 subscribers signed up. Without realizing it, this government agency became a tech start-up, but didn’t’ have the bandwidth to run the business.

The Cubans didn’t care. They just ate up social networking. How can you blame them? One puzzled yet joyful Cuban told the AP Press, “The whole world wanted in, and in a question of months I had 2,000 followers… I have no idea who they are, nor where they came from.” Another savvy digital Cuban user called ZunZuneo “the fairy godmother of cellphones.” For the first time, young Cubans were developing followers — a virginal concept to this isolated youth.

By early 2011, the front company (Mobile Accord) was running into serious problems. According to AP, “USAID was paying tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies”. In an effort to take the burden off US government’s pocketbook, some tech companies were approached. It was rumored that Jack Dorsey (Twitters Founder) was approached as a buyer, but he has not commented nor obviously purchased Zunzuneo. Thank god too, considering none of the potential buyers were given the true facts of this projects origin.

And so began the conundrum — a social platform with 40,000 Cuban subscribers growing fiercely, and at the same time drowning in bills, and paying ungodly sums to the Cuban government. In mid 2012, the US pulled the plug, thereby confusing young Cubans all over again. After the tease of providing social networking, the website shut down leaving no explanation, leaving thousands of Cubans to scratch their heads in wonder. Was it a dream? Poor guys. I feel for them. All along, they had no idea it was a US government operation. They were just flirting with their honeys, exchanging sport scores, and texting joyously — probably the deepest part of this experiment, however, was the ability to make young Cubans FEEL CONNECTED for the first time.

On the other side of the coin, I found myself being hypocritical with myself. When I read about the uprisings of Iran through social media during their 2009 elections, I was rooting fists up in the air for any organization fostering the usage of internet for activists in repressed countries (USAID being one of the organizations promoting the flow of information in digitally prohibitive States). Yet somehow, this Zunzuneo blunder made my stomach turn. Why do I feel the same US tactics of fostering activism online used in North Korea, Burma, Syria, and Iran are OK, but why do I get creeped out when we meddle with Cuba?

And so I began to soul-search for linear belief, assuming a “one-size-fits-all” model would work for worldwide online diplomacy. The truth is, the story of Cuba is unlike any other in our history with the US. Most of these Cuban millennials were raised on a strict diet of storyline, which is that “the bad Americans are always usurping Cuba’s sovereignty” (not entirely false) and ready to attack. Even in 2004, when I was filming my documentary, East of Havana, I witnessed a State Official lecturing a crowd of young Cubans on how Bush might bomb Cuba that week, now that he is bombing Iraq. “Cuba could be next” implored the President of Hermano Saiz, “and we would have to organize marches all over the island against Bush” he continued. This is the everyday script handed to young Cubans, that the big bad wolf is lurking around the corner and ready to pounce.

The Cuban cocoon is airtight. My only fear is that we have thickened the walls of this cocoon by a perceived creepy digital invasion. The Cuban Twitter was not only about liberating information, but it was also a surveillance operation for the US Administration to categorize and diagnose the Cubans’ dissident level, from “low” to “medium” to “high”. Alas, now all Cubans can feel as vulnerable and naked online as us Americans do. Snowden woke us up. Zunzuneo woke them up. Finally, the Cubans have joined the 21st Century. We are all paranoid now.

Author Emily Parker, advisor to Hilary Clinton on digital diplomacy (and author of a book on Internet controls in Cuba, China and Russia) tells AP, “The U.S. needs to tread very carefully in countries like Cuba because to directly support [dissidents] makes it easy to call them mercenaries,” Parker said. “That sometimes does more harm than good.”

The more that the United States continues these secret operations to undermine Cuba’s everyday life, the more it allows the Cuban PR machine to spin out of control and stoke the nationalist fires of this David-and-Goliath narrative. I’m not saying I’m against freedom of internet. On the contrary, I find it is one of the most important basic human rights. All Cubans deserve freedom of information. I just feel the United States needs to play their cards smarter. The failed digital experiment just gave us more rope to hang ourselves, and ultimately, damaged any credibility or trust from the exact demo we aim to earn respect from — the Cuban Millennials.

It’s funny because, a good portion of people trying to uphold the US Embargo are the same people supporting this online cloak-and-dagger project. Senator Marco Rubio even stated his support for Zunzuneo: “Because this program, in my mind, is successful,” says the hardliner. “Not only am I glad that we did this program, what I’m upset about is that we stopped”.

Oh, the irony. The US Embargo (which Rubio supports) forbids any US citizen to spend money in Cuban civil society, and worse yet, putting money into the coffers of the Cuban government directly. Here is a US approved operation that is funneling major dough and writing checks to Cubacel (Cuba’s version of AT&T). Basically, it’s OK for the US government to pay a Cuban State business, but it’s evil if I spend my money in Cuba supporting whatever positive causes I believe help open the minds of my friends down there? Why the double-standard? Why does the US government get to spend money secretly infiltrating Cuba, but I cannot go openly and spend my money for what I believe are positive steps towards reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be easier to just drop the Embargo, be transparent, and foster change by letting ideas come in and out freely?

There’s a famous saying that goes: “a dictators best friend is a foreign enemy”. While Americans continue playing the big antagonist, the Cuban State pushes its propaganda. It buys more time for the repressive control of Cuba’s media, travel, voting rights, etc, because an attack on Cuba (digital or military) by America is always another distraction. Can we just stop this dance? We do not have this romantic tango with North Korea, and thus I believe the caribbean nation needs to be handled uniquely. It’s a different storyline, and requires a different strategy.

Another example of handling Cuba with honey, versus salt, was the simple gesture Obama made last year when shaking Raul Castro’s hand at Mandela’s funeral. I happened to be visiting Cuba that week and felt the ripples firsthand on the island. As a foreign policy tool with Cuban youth, it created a tidal wave of smiles that week in Havana. After 11 American Presidents had snubbed Cuba’s leader, here is one US President who shook a Castro hand — a small gesture but titanically symbolic. Did it solve any problems with political prisoners or human rights? Hell no. Is this too simplistic an example? Probably. All I can tell you, is that “the handshake” offered healing balm for a wound long infected. Despite young Cubans criticizing their own system (and sometimes their own leaders), it was a show of respect by America, and we earned some brownie points with Cuban youth. I believe that it IS possible to expose Cubans to good American values without implicating them in a dangerous covert US operation which can get innocent (and unsuspecting) young Cubans jailed.

Another friend once said, “If you drop the Embargo, let the real Fidel stand up”. That means, if we stop playing into the aggressive storyline, then maybe the Cuban administration would have to provide solid answers to their own people — of why they can’t vote? Why their travel is so regulated for citizens? Why their media is censored? Why the controls on the internet? Some of these official Cuban State answers hide behind the Embargo itself, so how about lifting the veil, and removing all excuses?

I mean, we’ve tried 55 years of Embargo already. Clearly, that plan ain’t working. What do we have to lose? The rebellious young Cubans have already discovered YouTube and Facebook and are using it wisely to their advantage (albeit their limited usage). Let’s remove our blockade and support the young Cubans without a forced hand. The kids will be alright.

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For more details on the Cuban Twitter story, visit the articles at
Associated Press and The Miami Herald and The Atlantic.

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Im posting this information from the Freedom House website because the topic of Internet in Cuba is one of the most debated in my conversations. This data covers last year’s freedom of the press report (the 2012 report is being edited now and not yet ready).

Here is the information:

Cuba has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas. The constitution prohibits private ownership of media outlets and allows free speech and journalism only if they “conform to the aims of a socialist society.” Article 91 of the penal code imposes lengthy prison sentences or death for those who act against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” and Law 88 for the Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy imposes up to 20 years in prison for committing acts “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.” Cuba’s legal and institutional structures are firmly under the control of the executive branch. Laws criminalizing “enemy propaganda” and the dissemination of “unauthorized news” are used to restrict freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. Insult laws carry penalties of three months to one year in prison, with sentences of up to three years if the president or members of the Council of State or National Assembly are the objects of criticism. The 1997 Law of National Dignity, which provides for prison sentences of 3 to 10 years for “anyone who, in a direct or indirect form, collaborates with the enemy’s media,” is aimed at independent news agencies that send their material abroad.

In July 2010, the Cuban government promised the Spanish government, the Cuban Catholic Church, and the international community that within four months it would free the 52 prisoners, including 20 journalists and editors, still held since the 2003 crackdown on political dissent and independent journalism known as the “Black Spring.” By the end of the year, 17 journalists and editors and most of the other of the Black Spring detainees had been released. The Cuban authorities forced the released prisoners to leave the country in exchange for their freedom. They were immediately flown to Spain in a Cuban effort to marginalize opposition groups. Three journalists and several other dissidents involved in this case remained in prison at the end of the year, having refused the government’s offer of exile. While the release was a relief for journalists and their families after years of suffering, the gesture did not signal fundamental changes in freedom of expression for all Cubans, and the laws under which they were jailed remain in place. The U.S. government and some European leaders publicly stated that Cuba was moving in the right direction by releasing the prisoners, but the European Union (EU) decided to maintain its 1996 Common Position toward Cuba. The 27-nation bloc turned down Spain’s request to withdraw the doctrine, and continued to link improved European-Cuban relations to Havana’s progress on human rights and democratization.

Journalists continue to be at risk of imprisonment or other severe sanctions if they engage in independent reporting or commentary. In a different case, Alberto Santiago Du Bouchet of the independent news agency Habana Press remained in prison at the end of 2010. He had been given a three-year sentence imposed in May 2009 for disrespect and distributing enemy propaganda.

The government owns all traditional media except for a number of underground newsletters. It operates three national newspapers, four national television stations, six national radio stations, and one international radio station, in addition to numerous local print and broadcast outlets. All content is determined by the government, and there is no editorial independence. Cubans do not have the right to possess or distribute foreign publications, although some international papers are sold in tourist hotels. Private ownership of electronic media is also prohibited.

Approximately 15 percent of Cuba’s population accessed the internet in 2010, but in most cases, they were connected to the government intranet and not the internet proper. Many citizens have access only to a closely monitored Cuban intranet, consisting of an encyclopedia, email addresses ending in “.cu” used by universities and government officials, and a few government news websites such as that of the newspaper Granma. Outside of hotels, only a few privileged individuals have a special permit to access the international network of the World Wide Web.

The regime threatens anyone connecting to the internet illegally with five years in prison, while the sentence for writing “counterrevolutionary” articles for foreign websites is 20 years. However, the authorities do not have the means to set up a systematic filtering system. This forces the government to count on several factors to restrict internet access: the exorbitant cost of connections—about US$1.50 per hour from the points of access to the state-controlled intranet, US$7 per hour from a hotel to access the international network (the average monthly salary is US$20)—and infrastructural problems, particularly slow connections.

Despite these restrictions, there is a small but vibrant blogging community. Bloggers in Cuba have yet to be jailed for their work, but they often face harassment and intimidation. Independent Cuban blogger Laritza Diversent claimed that the trials that characterized the crackdown in 2003 have been replaced by extralegal harassment, including official summonses and arbitrary detentions, and social and cultural marginalization. Some, such as Yoani Sanchez, have also been prevented from travelling abroad to receive awards for their work.

CUBA
Status: Not Free
Legal Environment: 30
Political Environment: 34
Economic Environment: 28
Total Score: 92

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(Image: Originally published in another article for the The New York Times entitled Cyber Rebels in Cuba Defy State Limits)

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