Influencing Political Change in Cuba

Posted: April 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

INTRODUCTION

Since the Cuban revolution in 1959, Cuba has remained under authoritarian rule. It is under this rule that conventional forms of mass media as well as information and communication technologies (ICTs) have been largely controlled by the government, thus making it extremely challenging for individuals to gain access to information outside of their country. Through state-controlled information dearth, the freedom to develop political liberties and civil rights has been impossible for the people of Cuba.  Could these communication limitations imposed by Castro’s communist party cause another revolution?  And if that ever came to fruition, how would ICTs influence the political beliefs of the Cuban people? In addition, how would the influx of new information be perceived by a nation that has been kept in technology isolation?

The goal of this study is to help answer these questions in order to better understand the importance of how the internet may or may not affect the process of political choice. Several democratization scholars have noted the influence of ICTs on authoritarian rule. However, this research was mostly in reference to the role that television has played. Further research may prove highly beneficial in exploring the possible impact of new technology and its potential role in undermining authoritarian rule.

LIERATURE REVIEWS

There is a widely held belief that the internet has the potential to minimize and ultimately challenge authoritarian rule. However, there is very little evidence to support this belief and it is for this reason that further research is needed. The presence of the internet in an authoritarian regime such as Cuba is not necessarily an indicator of its efficiency to the general public as a tool for information dissemination.  Individuals of these regimes who wish to seek differing social and political viewpoints very rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to utilize information communication technologies. According to Katathil and Boes (2001), authoritarian regimes have been very successful in responding to these challenges by filtering access and content to the internet. Additionally, these regimes are monitoring online behaviour and, in some instances, prohibiting the use of the internet altogether (p. 1).

The end of the revolution introduced the nationalization of mass media. Since that time, the Cuban government has exercised its control over the media. The Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) was formed to supervise and manage radio and television stations on the island in the early 1960s (Miyares, 1999,  p. 77). Regulating television technologies permitted the Cuban government to control the dissemination of anti-Cuban sentiment from outside countries, in particular the United States. In addition, The Cuban government’s control and manipulation of television broadcasts has been crucial in propagating and preserving political agendas of the state. By way of comparison, gaining control over ICTs would prove to be a more difficult challenge (Corrales & Westhoff, 2006, p.917.). Ultimately, control over the media has successfully evolved into the arena of ICTs in Cuba. Out of 11 million inhabitants of Cuba, only 60,000 have access to e-mail accounts according to government figures released in March 2001. The number of Cuban citizens who have full internet access is merely a few thousand. Through the restriction of the internet, the objective of the government is to ensure that the internet is used by trusted parties to serve political agendas of the state (Katathil & Boas, 2001,  p. 10).

The question that arises is that if a nation such as Cuba had more access to information technologies such as the internet, would there be a shift towards democracy? According to Zheng and Wu (2005), it is argued that ICTs, in particular the internet is a viable tool in the promotion of democracy within political institutions. ICTs afford individuals with opportunities to broaden their political participation (p. 510). Boas (2000) in support of this opinion further states that in countries where access to the internet is possible, the internet has proven successful in putting pressure on authoritarian regimes to change (p. 57). However, there are differing opinions and viewpoints in relation to the influences that ICTs will have on political transferences. Various Scholars argue that ICTs will play a pivotal role in the shift from authoritarian rule to democracy, due in part to the effective role that television had in Eastern Europe and more recently, the crucial role the internet had on the demise of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. However, this optimistic viewpoint on the internet as a resource for change is in direct contrast with the opinions of other researchers. These scholars go on to argue that over time, excessive use of ICTs may in fact weaken social interaction. As a result, individuals may view ICTs as in ineffective venue for political deliberation (Zheng & Wu, 2005, P. 510).  An example of this is what Best and Wade (2007) refer to as “The Theory of Political Disengagement”. This theory states that if even citizens have unrestricted access to the internet, their desire to pursue political information may be somewhat minimal. And in some instances, the internet may be responsible for dissuading individuals from keeping current on political information all together (p. 409).  The reason for this is in part based on how news stories are formatted on the internet. Customarily, in newspapers, major political news stories receive front page coverage whereas this style of formatting is not utilized on the World Wide Web. The arrangement of news stories on the internet has a tendency to equalize the importance of information. Subsequently, individuals may become disinterested in politics (Best & Wade, 2007, p. 410).

Dictators are faced with the dilemma of advantages and disadvantages of the internet. On one hand the government could greatly benefit in economic development through the use of ICTs. However, an authoritarian regime could jeopardize its central political control with open access information. Cuba, by in large, has seemed to be impervious to this dilemma. The role of the internet as an effective device for dismantling authoritarian regime has yet to prove itself to be a viable device in Cuba. The United States’ continued attempts to engage Cubans in democracy through the use of ICTs and information flow has yielded very little results. To the dismay of U.S. policy makers and Cuban exiles and despite the slow and steady increase in internet connections, Cuba is as authoritarian as it was since the revolution.  The bottom line is that the internet has not had any impact on authoritarian regime nor does it seem to have any major influence on this government in the foreseeable future (Boas, 2000, p. 59).

What needs to happen in order to examine the usefulness of the internet and its role in political reform in an authoritarian regime? And could these criteria translate into all authoritarian states. Corrales and Westhoff (2006) contended that the promise of economic growth may at some point outweigh the risks associated with a more lax control over internet usage (p. 918). However, in the case of Cuba, the incentives would have to be quite high. The level of international trade is fairly low as is the desire for an open economy (Corrales & Westhoff, 2006, p. 927).  Another possible factor to consider is an increase in wealth in an economy. As the wealth of citizens rise, individuals may learn ways to evade state control and the barriers that have been placed on the internet. Furthermore, another possible deterrent for an authoritarian regime is the overall cost and human resources needed to continually suppress the internet. As individuals discover new and innovative ways to gain illegal access to restricted information, government have to continually update current systems to keep up with prohibited internet activity. Over time, the cost of repressing information communication technologies may prove to be too much of a financial burden for the state. As it seems, the factors that have been addressed and researched are in no way indicative that greater internet use will lead to the demise of an authoritarian regime (Corrales & Westhoff, 2006, p. 927).

Based on the literature researched, it is in the opinion of this researcher that there is insufficient research done with the political impact that ICTs could potentially have with the Cuban people. In relation to other authoritarian regimes, Cuba has been largely overlooked. This may be due in part to the strained relationship between The U.S. and Cuba. Furthermore, this researcher believes this research may help to validate or dispute ICTs such as the internet as a viable resource for change.

METHODS

In this study, the researcher will use an interpretive paradigm in order to best understand the complex connotations that the Cuban people have constructed around this topic. In addition, the researcher will be conducting ethnographic interviews in order to help elicit meanings from the interviewees.

As it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to conduct an interview of a political nature in Cuba, the interviews would have to be done with Cubans outside of the country. In addition, interviewing Cuban exiles would not be prudent as there would be biases and the interviewer may not collect impartial data. Therefore, researchers may consider visiting various learning institutes in order to seek out Cubans with study visas. The researcher would first need to obtain administrative approval to gain access to the institutions. Once obtained, the interviewer should carefully plan how to approach the potential respondents. Building rapport with individuals will be an extremely important part of the interview process. Cuban people come from an authoritarian environment.  Open political discussions and debates can and, in some cases, do lead to punishments imposed by the government, so the interviewer must take great care in establishing trust.

The next step the researcher will do is to select interview participants. This can be achieved through ethnographic observation. In order to meet the aims of the study, the interviewer will need to find individuals who would be willing to engage in political discussions freely and earnestly. Possible participants should have been exposed to or be willing to be exposed to the internet. Furthermore, researchers may increase involvement by asking possible participants if there are individuals that they would refer.

Once the participants have been selected, the researcher will conduct the interview. Interviewers will have prepared a series of open-ended and follow-up questions for the respondent. To ensure the well-being and safety of the participants during the interview process, the researcher will provide a setting conducive to building rapport. With the permission of the educational institution, classrooms will be considered as respondents will most likely be comfortable in their learning environments. The use of the classroom may help to facilitate the interview process by minimizing discomfort while maximizing participation. In the interview, the researcher will fully engage with the respondents by actively listening. The researcher will use audio recordings for future analysis. However, the researcher must get permission from the participants prior to the interview. In addition to the use of audio recordings, interviewers will use field notes for additional analysis and interpretation in the post-interview process.

The respondents will be guaranteed complete confidentiality and under no circumstances will any harm come to them. Personal information such as names and addresses will be changed or omitted from all written and audio recorded information obtained. In addition, respondents will be assured that all information collected from this process will be stored in a safe location and will only be opened for research purposes. Furthermore, interviewees will be made aware that this interview is on a voluntary basis and respondents can leave the interview process at any time.

CONCLUSION

This study represents a comprehensive effort to determine if ICTs could influence the political beliefs of the Cuban people. Through the use of ethnographic interviews of impartial participants, researchers main gain a better understanding of beliefs and opinions surrounding   foreign policies and political agendas. However, there are strict laws in place to limit political discussions and debates. Furthermore due to the restrictions imposed by the Cuban government on the availability and use of ICTs, researchers will not be able to conduct the interviews in Cuba.  The challenges of conducting this research in Cuba could be remedied by piloting this study in countries were visas have been granted. The results of this research could provide important further insights into the role ICTs could play in the deflation of authoritarian regimes.

REFERENCES

Katathil, S. & Boas, T. C. (2001).  The internet and state control in authoritarian regimes: china, cuba, and the counter revolution. First Monday, 21, 1-18. Retrieved fromhttp://www.mendeley.com/research/internet-state-control-authoritarian-regimes-china-cuba-counterreubavolution-1/

Miyares, J. M. (1999). A look at media in cuba. Peace review, 11: 1, 77-82. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10402659908426233

Corrales, J. & Westhoff, F. (2006). Information technology adoption and political regimes. International Studies Quarterly, 50, 911-953. Retrieved fromhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2478.2006.00431.x/full

Zheng, Y., & Wu, G. (2005). Information technology, public space, and collective action in china. Comparative Political Studies, 38, 507-536. Retrieved from http://cps.sagepub.com/content/38/5/507

Baos, T. C. (2000). The dictator’s dilemma? the internet and u.s. policy toward cuba. The Washington Quarterly, 23, 57-67. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/doi/abs/10.1162/016366000561178

Best, M. L., & Keegan, W. W. (2007). Democratic and anti-democratic regulators

of the internet: A Framework. The Information Society, 23, 405-411. Retrieved fromhttp://www.tandfonline.com.ezproxy.royalroads.ca/doi/abs/10.1080/01972240701575684

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