Posted on Sun, Jun. 25, 2006
THE OPPENHEIMER REPORT
Bans on books and travel to Cuba could backfire
Just when growing numbers of international organizations are stepping up
their criticism of Cuba’s decades-old ban on freedom of expression, a
series of thoughtless measures in Florida are giving the Cuban
dictatorship new ammunition to shift attention away from its medieval
Last week, the 34-country Organization of American States’ Special
Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression issued a statement demanding that
Cuba eliminate its restrictions on access to the Internet. The OAS press
monitor spoke out after learning about the worsening health condition of
Guillermo Fariñas, an independent Cuban journalist who is on a hunger
strike to demand free access to the Internet.
Indeed, Cuba is Latin America’s most backward country when it comes to
access to the Internet.
Compared with Cuba, other financially strapped countries like Haiti look
like Information Age superpowers.
According to the 2006 World Bank’s World Development Indicators, only 13
out of every 1,000 Cubans on the island have access to the Internet. By
comparison, the percentage in Argentina is 133 people per 1,000 people,
in Chile 267, in Costa Rica 235 and in Haiti 59.
What’s even more amazing, Cuba places greater restrictions on the
Internet than China.
According to the World Bank figures, in China — excluding Hong Kong —
73 out of every 1,000 people have access to the Internet.
The France-based group Reporters Without Borders said recently that,
unlike China, which promotes widespread use of the Internet while
controlling it with cyber-censors, Cuba has decided it is much simpler
to keep the Internet out of reach of virtually all Cubans.
Under Cuba’s decree No. 209/96, signed by Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Internet
policy is of a ”selective character.” It says that the Ministry of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Interior Ministry have special powers
to write ”specific regulations” to guarantee “the defense and
security of the country.”
Cuban officials claim they can’t expand Internet access because the U.S.
trade embargo doesn’t allow them to buy software, servers and marine
fiber-optic cables. U.S. officials say that’s hogwash: Just like Cuba
buys everything else from Spanish or other European telecommunications
firms, it could buy any Internet-related equipment from them if it wanted.
In addition to blaming Internet censorship on the U.S. trade embargo,
Cuban officials are having a field day with Gov. Jeb Bush’s recent ban
on the use of state funds for academic trips to Cuba and with the
Miami-Dade County School Board’s decision to ban a children’s book
entitled Vamos a Cuba from 33 schools.
Cuba’s official Prensa Latina news agency has covered these stories with
And Cuban television reported on its website Monday with characteristic
hyperbole that the Miami-Dade School Board’s measure was comparable “to
the most tragic moments of Hitler’s Nazism.”
When I asked OAS Freedom of Expression rapporteur Ignacio Alvarez about
the restrictions in Cuba and in Florida, he said that “it’s amazing
that at this time and age, the Cuban people face not only travel
restrictions but also restrictions to get news from the outside world.”
He added that U.S. measures such as academic travel bans or school bans
on reading materials on Cuba “only help worsen the Cuban people’s
My conclusion: Restricting U.S. academic freedoms vis-a-vis Cuba is not
only wrong but counterproductive.
It’s true that there are obvious differences in the two countries’
In Cuba, censorship is written into the country’s laws and covers all
nongovernment-sanctioned media, to the point that there are at least 75
people rotting in jail just for their writings.
In Florida, the latest measures are election-season political theater of
a much more limited scope: The academic travel ban covers only
state-paid travel (academics can still go to Cuba on privately funded
trips) and the school board’s decision affects only a few school
libraries. What’s more important, both measures have already been
contested and will most likely be soon overturned by the courts.
And, granted, supporters of the Florida measures have a point when they
say that Cuba will continue its gross violations of freedom of
expression no matter what happens in the United States. But the
international struggle for basic freedoms in Cuba would be much easier
without such distractions.
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