Klaas Glenewinkel on Mon, 26 Jul 1999 03:55:13 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Cuba faces the web revolution

Hi friends,

we had an article in The Guardian today written by Jules Marshall
(jules@xs4all.nl, who also wrote the Piazza virtuale article way back in


Cuba faces the web revolution

Is the internet a tool to promote the views of Havana or a CIA plot backed
by 'imperialist' North America? It's the question Castro and comrades are
now confronting, reports Jules Marshall

Thursday July 22, 1999

"Culture will be the weapon of the 21st century," Fidel Castro told the
first Unesco conference on Culture and Development held in Havana in June. 
It may be the only thing on which the president of the Cuban council of
state and council of ministers, and the rightwing US ideologues who
blockade his country agree. 

The Unesco conference had a level of debate rarely heard in
investor-friendly conferences back home. Among the delegates from 43
countries, discussion of the net was generally about how it was a tool of
Anglo-centric neo-liberal globalisation. As one delegate noted: 20% of the
world's cultures face extinction due to global audio-visual culture. The
state is weakening and national/regional identities are under threat. The
problem of critical selection from the flood of data is not just a problem
of the poor, but all net users. 

Nevertheless, there was also a prevailing feeling of "we can't prevent the
net, so we must learn to use it". Globalisation itself is not necessarily
a bad thing (ask any Marxist), but what kind of globalisation, and for

"Internet?" said Castro in a brief, unscheduled speech. "Yes, we can use
it - to tell the 80% of Americans online that they have to stop and
realise the Earth is on the edge of an abyss." 

But as only 2% of Latin America has the net, we must invent something
else, he added. "In the revolution we used our loudspeakers as much as our
weapons. If peasants can't read or write, how can we reach them?" 

I was in Cuba with members of the Ponton European Media Art Lab, a German
organisation, to give a workshop at the conference and meet culture
representatives to discuss using Ponton's Kulturserver
(http://www.kulturserver.de) software, a non-profit project, as a
front-end to a proposed national open-access network for artists and

For one hot, exhausting week, during which the five-month drought that had
reduced water supply to an hour a day in Havana finally broke, cultural
representatives from ministers to techies met by day at the surprisingly
sophisticated and entrepreneurial national multimedia centre (CEISIC). 

Evenings were split between organised displays of folkloristic and
democratised "high" culture, and extra- curricula seafront rum drinking. 
All proved useful and valid aids to understanding this opinion-polarising
society, and its desire to take part in the new, technological revolution. 

Another theme of the Unesco conference was the role greater unity and
stronger regional identity can play in countering the tide of
Anglo/neo-liberal culture, and Ponton believes Kulturserver is just the
product to support that role. It strengthens local, national and regional
identity by offering individuals and groups a simple, cheap means of
exchanging art, ideas and culture, at the same time creating a coherent
navigation system for accessing the chaotic mass of information on the

"A lot of people here are afraid the net will increase propaganda," Ponton
director Benjamin Heidersberger said at the workshop. "The net is open and
content becomes transparent, but that's a two-way thing. You can talk
back, show the world what your culture is. It's hard to control; there's
always a way round ideological barriers so if you put something on the
net, no one can control the flow. It's very fair." 

Despite the economic blockade and crisis, Cuba is perhaps the major
Caribbean networking nation, and has a sizeable user community. By Western
"one computer per desk" standards, Cuba is a hopeless failure, and only a
tiny percentage of the population have a PC at home. 

And yet more than a decade ago the Cuban Youth Computer Clubs established
TinoRed with Castro's explicit support. Tino (a Cuban cartoon character
and logo) Red (network) operates more than 150 walk-in computer centres
throughout the country for people to learn the basics of computing,
telecommunications, and desktop publishing. So far more than 200,000 have
taken the opportunity. 

And freedom of access? As with any transitional system, there are mixed
signals. A proclamation guaranteeing the internet for all Cubans (one day) 
in October 1996, shortly after Cuba had been granted its class B licence
to join the internet, was quietly withdrawn soon after. There's still no
national policy, despite an inter-ministerial policy group being
established in 1998 on the internet. 

Talk is now of "limited access to true universality", and alternative
models for wiring Cuba that serve the whole population, not just those
with cash. Distrust of dollar ownership (only legal since 1994) is still
such that if you've got the $150 a month for a private net connection,
you're automatically suspect (and denied). 

"You can find Zapatista news or hardcore pornography. But that's the
diversity of life, right?" says Abelardo Mena, curator of the National
Museum of Havana and co-ordinator of Rayuel@, a non profit project for the
promotion of the Cuban and Latin American arts and culture. "The net means
the complexities of the real world converted to bytes. And nobody, nobody,
can stop that move." 

Even so, "we are an underdeveloped country which fights every day just to
feed and cloth itself. Internet means nothing to the major ity of the
people," adds Mena. And the intellectuals, he says, still find accessing
the internet "more difficult than talking to Bill Clinton". 

"Cuba is so isolated, in every sense, that it is really important to
become an equal member of an international network," says Klaas
Glenewinkel, editor-in-chief of Kulturserver. "They can put up as many .cu
sites as they like, they will still be perceived as 'official'. It's
important to elevate them from this to a new level. That is what they need
and want: a common platform." 

Reflecting their belief that, contrary to much content on the internet,
it's local culture that has most resonance and importance to people,
Ponton at http://www.ponton.de is building an international, decentralised
network of regional cultures, side-by-side with each other and equal in
importance. Kulturserver Cuba would offer Cuban nationals at home and
abroad, foreign friends and critics a neutral space to meet, access and
discuss contemporary Cuban culture. 

"I think the Kulturserver proposal is great, because they are offering an
incredible technological support, and the opportunity to work with and
share a 'European' way of making things: seriously, every day, and that's
an incredibly necessary 'school' for Latin and Cuban 'souls," said
Abelardo Mena. He's keen to work with Ponton and believes it is the "right
way to open our culture to the European and international public," that it
will support the increasing wave of German tourism to Cuba - all with very
important economic consequences. 

Carlos Alberto Mas Zabala, deputy director of the Instituto del Libro
Cubana, is supporting Kulturserver and has offered space for a multimedia
studio/access point in his beautiful institute in Unesco-restored Old
Havana. He loves the idea of being able to broadcast Cuban ideas and
culture worldwide, as an antidote to anti-Cuban rhetoric. He'd also like
to use it as an interface to a national literature network designed to
side-step the country's chronic shortage of paper. 

Given the current siege mentality, artists are unlikely to be offered
unlimited access to the net via Kulturserver unless sanctioned by their
ministries. As the coordinator general of ICAIC (the Cuban film institute) 
told Ponton: "Internet will be granted to the masses, but slowly and in
step with a retreat from aggression by Cuba's enemies, otherwise, why give
them the ammunition?" 

"We have to be diplomatic," said Glenewinkel. "Kulturserver Cuba is great
even if the ministries act as filters. We could be idealistic and
immovable, or we can accept there will be give and take. We're not keen,
but we also understand the unique situation Cuba is in." 

Another sticking point is the cost of maintenance and technical support,
localisation and installation - "these are not huge costs", says
Glenewinkel, "but costs to us all the same, and we want Cuba to take
responsibility and show a sense of ownership by paying... something. We
appreciate hard currency is in short supply, and we'll take anything
reasonable - the use of an apartment, even a few cases of rum! But it's
important - for them as well as us - that something exchanges hands as a
show of commitment." 

How to go global but stay local It has expanded to nearly 1,050 homepages
- a doubling in the last six months - and includes servers for Hamburg and
Berlin. Lithuania, Iceland - and since the Havana conference, Egypt and
Kosovo - are considering joining. 

Kulturserver would be perfect for Cuba's low-cost networking philosophy,
and Ponton expects the official go-ahead any day now. The Kulturserver
dream is to establish communities world-wide, to transfer the technology
to developing countries to stimulate self-help, to help create markets and
to aggregate content. 

In Germany, disintermediation - cutting out the middleman - is a popular
selling point of artists' agents, distributors, publishers and galleries,
offering a new channel for the unrepresented, unsigned, and just plain

But can Cuba tolerate disintermediation of its government institutions? 

High-tech Cuba The Cuban government has already taken steps to increase
foreign trade with customers who pay in hard currency, particularly
targeting mining, tourism, biotechnology, and informatics. 

GDP that fell by 35% between 1989 and1994 - when rioting marked the low
point - has grown every year since. Cuba has introduced the dollar and
stabilised it against the peso, introduced private enterprise, limited
privatisation, and still maintained its enviable education and health

Today, Cuba's biotechnology industry competes in the world market, with
more than 160 products developed by 53 research centres, ranging from
genetically engineered disease-resistant crop seeds, to a vaccine for
hepatitis B. 

The level of Cuban tourism is now greater than it was at its height in
pre-revolutionary Cuba (with up to 2m visitors expected next year). 

The collapse of real socialism and the increased embargo since 1990 has
meant the loss of 85% of Cuba's supplies, especially specialised products
like film stock and music instruments, said Cuban Culture Minister Abel
Prieto. But the country continues to finance culture as a priority,
recognising that it essential to its spiritual/cultural needs, not simply
an ornament. The mechanism of funding involves using part of the profits
of the sale of art works for re-investment. The sale is based on
capitalism but the distribution of income on socialism - what has been
dubbed 'Market-Leninism'. 

Within the prioritised informatics sector, the national policy is to make
Cuba a centre for software engineering and development, which requires
only modest capital investment. 

The prizes: hard currency income, employment for an oversupply of
university graduates, technology transfer into Cuba, international
visibility, and applications to other sectors of the economy. Its most
notable achievement is perhaps its centre for virus research and data
protection that has identified and documented more than 10,000 viruses and
made it Unesco's reference centre for the region. 

Guardian Unlimited  Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999

Klaas Glenewinkel Redaktionsleiter
****************************************** http://www.kulturserver.de the
online community for art and culture
****************************************** Gethsemanestr. 8 10437 Berlin
Germany Tel:+49-30-4473 5425 Mobile:+49-0172-5458893 Fax:+49-30-4465 3872
------------------------------------------ PONTON EUROPEAN MEDIA ART LAB

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