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New policy puts onus on Cuba

Cuba stands at a critical juncture in its history—an inflection point that could lead to a thriving participatory democracy, or to a continuation of a half-century of stagnation.  One of the key practical implications of the major shift in U.S.-Cuba policy announced by President Obama in December is that it marked the beginning of a process to end an outdated 50-year approach that failed to empower Cubans seeking a more democratic government. That change included a significant new approach toward telecommunications and Internet connectivity, one that places the onus on the Cuban government to now make an important choice, which, if embraced, would transform a de facto dictatorship into a model for participatory democracy in the digital age. 

Today, Cuba has an Internet penetration rate of roughly 5 percent, one of the lowest on earth, in part due to U.S. restrictions, but it is also a result of the Cuban government’s insistence on controlling and limiting information flow.  It’s no surprise that the White House called for “new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely” — what would be remarkable would be Cuba taking advantage of this opening and embracing actions to springboard their economy into the 21st century. 

{mosads}The Cuban government promised, as part of this new stage of diplomatic engagement, to increase Internet connectivity. Cuba is in a unique position to leapfrog the rest of the world and pioneer new forms of digital enfranchisement — empowering communities and constituencies through the use of open communications and decision-making resources that are second-to-none on the planet. The Cuban people can thrive if they are connected to today’s information economy, the U.S. government should take advantage of the substantial investments it has already made in free, fully open source, Internet Freedom tools and help get them into use immediately in Cuba.   

In 2010, the US State Department invested in the development of the Commotion Wireless Project (a.k.a., the Internet-in-a-Suitcase) to help bring low-cost communications to underserved areas and to regions rife with surveillance and censorship.  Over the next three years, the Commotion technologies were diligently developed and these open source tools were then made freely available to anyone who wanted to set up their own networks, from Detroit to Brooklyn, and Somaliland to Tunisia. The driving force behind these early efforts was enabling communications but also, in a post Arab Spring world, post-conflict stabilization.  In essence, open communications has begun to be seen as a fundamental building block for contemporary civil society, as important as schools and roads and electricity.   

In 2012, USAID asked the Commotion team to develop a solution that could be used within Cuba as a part of our goal to bring free, safe, ubiquitous, communications to everyone on the planet. To be clear, this is a very different set of tools than those imposed by democracy promotion programs that got the Obama administration so much negative press. These tools don’t create fake twitter networks or collect information about their users; instead, they empower ordinary citizens to build and own their community connections, with zero interference from either government. 

The Commotion’s team’s vision for Cuba is not driven by geo-politics, it’s community empowerment — enabling freedom of speech, local organizing, and low-cost communications driven by the most pressing needs identified by local constituencies. Today in Cuba, posting a Tweet from your mobile phone can cost more than an average Cuban’s daily wage, yet our efforts to provide low-cost solutions have been substantially hampered over the past several years by the specter of Alan Gross’s incarceration.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if efforts to bring low-cost communications to local communities were embraced and not harassed?  As a first step, a strong commitment by the Cuban government to work with our teams and with interested constituencies to provision local communications networks would enable us to bring innovative broadband solutions to communities across the island — spurring everything from micro-enterprises to online education to stronger connections amongst families currently separated by geo-politics. 

Today, Cuba has the opportunity to jumpstart this work and create an even more powerful platform for participatory democracy.  In 2014, X-Lab developed collaboration amongst Commotion, Loomio (a shared decision-making platform), and DemocracyOS (a distributed voting system) to create Nobis — a fully open source, freely available system that enables local communications and sharing of internet connectivity, as well as the tools necessary to self-organize, deliberate, and vote.  In essence, Nobis contains the building blocks for 21st Century democratic organizing — a tool box as useful here in Washington, DC as it is in Havana, Cuba. 

Cuba can become a global innovator of 21st Century digital enfranchisement — creating the world’s leading participatory democracy and becoming a nation that we can all look up to. The only question is, will they meet the challenge of the moment, or let it pass? 

Meinrath is the founder of the Open Technology Institute and the Commotion Wireless Project and director of X-Lab.


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