Bridging the Digital Divide in Cuba -- and Baltimore

Bridging the Digital Divide in Cuba -- and Baltimore

Today, at a 500-guest ceremony, the Cuban flag was raised above Washington, D.C., for the first time since the Cold War, as the U.S. and Cuba got the green light to resume diplomatic relations. Since Obama’s announcement last December to reopen embassies, a Cuban-style “perestroika,” has allowed for the arrival of many new technologies to the island nation, including the Internet. 

This month, after over a decade of near-isolation from the online world, President Raúl Castro opened 35 Wi-Fi hotspots around the island. This may sound insignificant, but it isn’t. Until recently, Cuba’s general public had access to only 419 computers with Internet. People would queue up for up to three hours at “navigation halls” to use dial-up modem Internet.

In Cuba, only 3.4 percent of households have Internet access, and as of now, there are no mobile data plans. The Internet has remained out of reach for most Cubans for so long mostly because of censorship, and not necessarily lack of resources. It is not clear whether increased access to the Internet will lead to Cubans using it as an organizing tool to demand more political freedoms. The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson predicts that Cuba is “bound on a course not unlike that of Vietnam and China: hybrid communist states in which citizens enjoy few political liberties but significant economic freedom.”

Though state-run and state-censored, the Internet is a huge win for Cubans, who have been barred access to research tools and social media networks that are so integral to education and communication in the developed world. As one Cuban woman told CNN, the Internet restriction in Cuba “disconnect[ed] us from the 21st century.”

According to a Reuters report, Cuba plans to extend Internet access to 50 percent of the population by 2020. In contrast, it took over a decade for the U.S. to reach the 50 percent benchmark, and for many Americans living in poverty, Internet access is still a privilege denied to them.

A number of studies in recent years, including one released by the White House last week, have linked broadband access with economic disparity. More than 90 percent of U.S. households headed by college graduates have access to the Internet, but less than one of every two lowest-income households can get online.

In today’s world, it’s clear that barriers to Internet access perpetuate poverty. As the White House study put it, “While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends. This ‘homework gap’ runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education.”

Last week, at a school in the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, Obama announced that hundreds of thousands of public-housing residents in 27 cities and one tribal nation will be receiving Internet access for less than $10 per month, or for free in Atlanta, Kansas City, and Nashville. Obama’s plan, called ConnectHome, is an important reminder that the digital divide exists not just between countries but also within wealthy countries like ours.