Making “Cuba’s Hour” Count for Cubans
by Marianela Gonzalez, communications officer for Oxfam in Cuba.
Since December 17th, Cuba has been “trending“. Reporters, politicians, analysts and celebrities have all turned their eyes towards Havana where today – with the opening of the US embassy by John Kerry, the first Secretary of State to visit the island in over 70 years – a new episode begins for the country and its people.
The renewal of diplomatic ties between the two countries also coincides with the gradual implementation of economic reforms introduced in 2006 by Cuban President Raul Castro. “This is Cuba’s hour”, analysts say, brought about by a mix of internal economic liberalization, the desire for foreign investment, increased access to technology, better infrastructure, and improved relations with international financial organizations and banks.
“For the first time in half a century it’s not more of the same,” said an article in Cuba Possible, one of the new digital platforms born out of this historic process.
At their public meeting in June 2015, Cuba’s National Association of Economists and Accountants found that since Raul Castro and Barack Obama’s December 17th announcement, Cuba’s GDP has grown 0.6%. And a recent study by Euler Hermes Economic Research, published by Le Monde, shows that a “progressive easing of economic restrictions” on Cuba could bring about 5 to 6% growth by 2020.
Beyond the Headlines
The voices of the Cuban people in this process, however, have been less visible. According to official sources, only eight hundred thousand of the eleven million inhabitants of the island connect through Nauta – an internet service that recently expanded to include 35 public wi-fi spots in 16 major cities; which means that the opinions circulating on social networks represent but a small part of Cuban residents, and the “floating” population (tourists, Cubans with dual citizenship, etc.). Experts estimate that only five percent Cubans have access to the Internet. The digital divide is even worse in rural communities, where the government refers to the “last mile” challenge: getting telecommunications into the average Cuban home.
“I come to connect with my son who lives in Miami,” says Ana Maria, who gets up early on Sundays to go with her husband, Jesus, to the nearest wi-fi point in Central Havana. An hour of Internet access costs them about a fifth of their monthly salary: 2.00 CUC (a currency roughly equal to the US dollar that co-exists with the Cuban peso, worth 24 times less).
Ana Maria said they have “no time to read anything on Internet, and much less for social networking as younger people may have. All the time and money we can spend on the Internet we use to talk with my son.”
As researchers like Mayra Espina – a member of a group of economists and sociologists with whom Oxfam works in Cuba – the island has paid its resistance to connectivity and other reforms with a high “economic and social price” – even if access to basic services like health care and education is recognized worldwide.
Cuba’s “hour” is taking place in a context where we are beginning to see well-known forms of inequalities and poverty emerge.
“Cuba has demonstrated that even under very difficult economic conditions, it is possible to promote equality and justice, but it must also support members of society to have access to a level of material well-being that allows them a decent life and personal and professional development” she added.
To Espina, this “economic and social debt” is also reflected in Cubans’ limited access to information and analysis on the evolving political situation in their own country, and so their limited participation in these processes.
She added however, that if the gains made by the revolution in terms of equal access to health and education, and increased gender equality are preserved, the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States could improve economic security and reduce other inequalities, such as the digital divide.
Beyond the headlines, the real challenge – for Cuba, for Governments, for civil society, and for NGOs like Oxfam – is making sure that Cuban citizens, including women and girls, urban and rural popualtions, are at the heart of the historic transformations taking place in their country.