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Cuba fights latest U.S. "invasion" -- on the Internet
Esteban Israel, REUTERS
HAVANA.- It is 50 years since the last U.S.-backed invasion of Cuba but the island's communist leaders believe another one has begun -- not on the shores of the Bay of Pigs as in 1961, but in the virtual world of the Internet.
Cuba fears "cyberdissidents" could use Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks to undermine the government. Its concern has taken on added significance since the same communication tools were used by protesters in Egypt to help topple long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak last week.
A leaked video recently posted on the web (http://vimeo.com/19402730) shows a Cuban intelligence Internet expert telling interior ministry officials that the new cyber opposition is a more serious threat than the island's traditional dissidents.
The authorities are worried about people like Claudia Cadelo, a frail-looking 27-year teacher of French who created Octavo Cerco (www.octavocerco.blogspot.com), one of about 30 blogs critical of the government written inside Cuba.
"Social networks have become a new weapon for civil society," she told Reuters in an interview. "They don't want the social networks to spread because they are aware of the danger that poses to a totalitarian government which hides the truth from its people".
Given Cuba's low rate of Internet connectivity, the tweets Cadelo types into her mobile phone don't reach many Cubans. But that could change as Cuba gains access to broadband Internet and mulls the pros and cons of granting wider access.
After initially blocking public access to some critical websites, the Cuban government has switched strategy and unleashed an anti-dissident counter-attack by a legion of some 1,000 pro-government "revolutionary" bloggers.
From his office in the headquarters of Cuba's state telephone company ETECSA, journalist and blogger Manuel Henriquez is on the front lines of that official offensive.
"There is evidently an intention to attack Cuba through the Internet. And of course Cuba has the right to defend itself," said the 47-year-old author of the blog Cambios en Cuba (http://cambiosencuba.blogspot.com).
"It is an old war and this is its latest expression. What these (opposition) bloggers are looking for is to demonize the country, create an image of a repression that doesn't exist and later on allows justifying laws and blockades."
Bloggers like Henriquez take aim at Cuba's cyberdissidents, led by prominent critic Yoani Sanchez and her Generacion Y blog (http://www.desdecuba.com/generaciony/). They accuse the critics of being financed by the U.S. government, Cuba's ideological foe, and often post damaging rumors about their personal lives.
Experts say the Internet is offering Cuban dissidents unprecedented room for political debate, but that the transforming potential of Twitter and other social networks depends heavily on connectivity levels.
In Tunisia, the cradle of recent protests that have rocked the Arab world, 19 percent of the population was on Facebook, but Internet access in Cuba is restricted by the government.
"It's worth asking what percent of Cubans have regular Internet access. Access to mobile phones. If those numbers are low, it's unlikely these are the most effective organizing channels," said Ethan Zuckerman, senior researcher at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
Wilfredo Cancio, a Cuban exile journalist who publishes a Cuban affairs web site Cafe Fuerte (http://cafefuerte.com/) in Miami sees a "Cold War" mentality in the Cuban government's declared digital offensive against cyber opponents.
"I think the government is betting on winning this battle, above all from the control perspective," he said.
Cuba, the Caribbean's biggest island, has a population of 11 million, and last reported 1.6 million people online, but they mostly only have access to a government-sanctioned intranet that does not permit links to Twitter or Facebook.
Mobile telephony has grown dramatically since it was legalized three years ago, but costs are high for ordinary Cubans. Cadelo says she pays the equivalent of $1 every time she tweets by sending a text message to a number in Britain.
A fiber-optic submarine cable hooking Cuba to its socialist ally Venezuela could soon increase the island's data transfer speed by 3,000 times.
Cuba's government says the long-standing U.S. embargo has been the main obstacle to Internet penetration and that there are no "political obstacles" to opening up the Internet to the broader public. But they say for the time being they cannot afford to install the needed wider infrastructure.
Ted Henken, a Cuba analyst at City University of New York, thinks Cuban authorities may try to emulate the Chinese model of opening up the Internet while controlling information flow.
"Using these technologies to spark anti-government protests is impossible now given the low penetration, access and use ... But this is likely to change in the future as the government tries to benefit economically from broadband," he said.
On the leaked government video, the Cuban Internet expert said the United States was smuggling satellite phones into Cuba to provide dissidents with unrestricted access to the web.
Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor held in Havana and accused of introducing such devices into Cuba, is awaiting trial and faces up to 20 years in jail on charges of "crimes against the security of the state."
In the video, the Cuban official called Gross a "mercenary", comparing him to the CIA-backed Cuban exiles who invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961.
Henriquez, the pro-government blogger, says the United States is trying to export a cyber rebellion model promoted in places like Iran. "But it isn't going to work whether there is Internet or not. A Twitter message isn't itself a reason to mobilize," he said.
Cadelo, however, says it is just a matter of time. "The Internet is going to get to the people. They can't avoid that. A war against the Internet is a lost war," she said.