Raul Castro has made some social reforms since taking over as Cuba’s president. Most notably, over 7,400 mobile phone contracts were signed in just 10 days since restrictions were eased by the regime in April. (“The number of new mobile phone contracts is impressive given that it costs about £60 just to set up a new contract while the average monthly salary in Cuba is less than £10.”) However, according to Fernanda Mello Veiga, it doesn’t look likely that ordinary Cubans will gain access to the internet until 2010. Latin America’s telecommunications infrastructure is currently controlled by the duopoly of Carlos Slim’s Telmex/America Movil and Cesar Alierta’s Telefonica. (Both companies are frequent targets of jokes, attacks, and campaigns by Latin American bloggers.) Raul Castro does not want to negotiate with either and is therefore working with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to lay a 1,552-kilometer submarine fibre-optic cable connecting Venezuela to Cuba. The connection is estimated to be ready by sometime in 2010.

The question for hackers around the world is: Is there anything we can do to help get our Cuban friends online before then?

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Desde Cuba, in its own words, is a citizen journalism portal which aims to “give visibility to the opinions that don’t find a space in the official Cuban media nor in other publications which are limited by political demands.” The about page goes on:

Nuestros colaboradores no son, necesariamente, analistas, periodistas o politólogos; pero viven la realidad sobre la que escriben y habitan en el epicentro de los problemas y las situaciones que debaten. Ellos y nosotros formamos parte de una incipiente sociedad civil que necesita de una visión ciudadana de la que emergerá un mejor país. No privilegiamos ninguna tendencia y damos preferencia a la propuesta antes que a la queja, al análisis por encima de la arenga, al argumento y no a la consigna. Invitamos a quienes quieran participar en esta experiencia a que renuncien a la violencia verbal y a la descalificación del que piensa diferente. Los instamos a que aprendamos a debatir civilizadamente.

Our collaborators are not necessarily analysts, journalists, or political pundits; but they live the reality of that which they write, and they inhabit the epicenter of the problems and situations that they discuss. We form part of an emerging civil society that needs a citizen’s vision of what will help bring about a better country. We don’t give privilege to any specific tendency and we prefer proposals before complaints, analysis above polemics, the argument and not the slogan. We invite all who want to participate in this experience to renounce the verbal violence and the disregard for those who think different. We urge all learn how to debate in a civilized manner.

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Desde Cuba’s editorial team: Marta Cortízas, Yoani Sánchez, Eugenio Leal, Dimas Castellanos, Miriam Celaya, Reinaldo Escobar.

The citizen journalism portal is most well known internationally for its most famous blog, Generación Y, which is authored by Yoani Sánchez, this year’s winner of the prestigious Ortega y Gasset award for digital journalism and one of the 100 most influential people in the world, according to Time Magazine. Her posts regularly attract up to 5,000 comments. But that doesn’t mean that she is able to read all of them.

The difficulty is that Desde Cuba is blocked in the internet cafes (which are specifically reserved for tourists) where Yoani and her fellow Cuban bloggers used to pen their posts.

As she has explained on her blog, Yoani now emails her posts to colleagues outside of Cuba who then publish them on the blog for her, moderate comments, and email her back selections of thousands of comments that pour in.

Sanchez’s fame has, perhaps, drawn attention away from some of the other valuable content and blogs found on Desde Cuba. While all of Yoani’s posts are translated by volunteers into English, Polish, French, German, and Italian, other blogs on the site are only available in Spanish.

One of the many valuable blogs hosted on Desde Cuba is Potro Salvaje (“Wild Stallion”), which describes itself as:

Un Blog sobre el espinoso tema de la Internet en Cuba. Hablaremos de censura, filtros, páginas bloqueadas, proxys, en fin, de las limitaciones que tenemos los cubanos para montarnos en la “balsa virtual”. Bloggers, foreros, informáticos, hackers -y hasta censores- podrán leer, descargar software, debatir y abrir la cerca a este “potro” que, por suerte, es más rápido que las riendas que intentan ponerle.

A blog about the prickly topic of the Internet in Cuba. We will speak about censorship, filtering, blocked pages, proxies, in total, the limitations that we Cubans have in order to get aboard the “virtual raft.” Bloggers, forumists, programmers, hackers – and even the censors – can read, download software, debate, and get closer to this “stallion” which, luckily, is faster than reins that try to catch it.

Earlier this year Venezuelan super-blogger and super-buddy Luis Carlos Díaz wrote a mass mailing to those of us interested in citizen journalism in Latin America recommending that we read this post, “A problem for hackers“, published in Portro Salvaje. The post describes the realities facing Cubans who desire access to the internet and asks the hacker community to propose, well, “hacks” to help get more Cubans participating online. The translation below is by Renata Avila with some editing by yours truly. Translator notes are within brackets.

For the moment, this is the status of our “wild stallion” [Referring to the fact that Desde Cuba is not accessible at public internet cafes in Cuba]. However, even when you cannot see its skin, its eyes or ears, it seems to me that it’s still smiling … laughing out loud. So we invite you, agile hackers of the world, to find solutions and help dress up this young stallion.

The Difficulties:

Let´s imagine a country where you cannot access the Internet at all from home, and only with many limitations in public places. Only some government employees, foreigner residents and pirates, who pay for a password, are able to surf the waters of the net. Telephone lines belong to a state monopoly, ETECSA, and they can cancel the service whenever they want if they find out that data rather than voice is flowing through their wires. Furthermore, establishing a new contract with them is nearly impossible, so dial-up access isn’t a solution.

Nor is it possible, in this island country of ours called Cuba, to put up a satellite dish, at least not visibly. So we are not able to point it to satellites and secure an internet connection that way. Wi-fi is only available in the lobbies of luxurious hotels, where Cuban nationals are not allowed.

Computers and computer accessories, like modems and bluetooth devices, aren’t for sale. But there is an active black market and some tourists carry equipment inside their luggage to sell it inside Cuba.

Submarine cables that could provide us with the necessary broadband capacity pass close to but do not touch the island. So, solutions of this type – risky adventures of diving 700 mts underwater to connect to the cable – are out of question.

The Advantages:

The Island in question is located in a region with some of the best satellite coverage and is reasonably close to regions with internet service via mobile phone. The closest countries are the United States, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Those who inhabit Cuba, this zone of silence, are able to easily adapt, construct, and invent all types of devices. Coffee makers become toasters and sophisticated software is programmed on a 386 PC from the late 80’s. It is also important to take into account the anxiety and urgency that Cubans feel about connecting to the “network of networks.”

Any solution to connect to the Internet requiring more than two people working together is out of question, because one of them can be a government agent. The same is true for collective protests on the streets – that sounds much easier if you are far away from Cuba’s problems.

Call for Solutions:

We would be very happy if we could connect to the internet with a can of condensed milk and a tube of toothpaste, but this is impossible. So the solutions we seek are somewhere between coming up with an alternative device and diving deep beneath the sea to connect to the broadband cable.

We are seeking realistic advice, from experts, from people living in similar situations. If you are too discreet to blog about it, you can send us an email (Please consider that we cannot receive any email up to 1 MB).

We have left you with a tremendous problem. The person who solves it won’t receive an all expenses paid trip to Varadero, but will receive the eternal gratitude of the emerging Cuban blogosphere.

The “alternative device” mentioned on Potro Salvaje might just be as simple as a USB hard drive. As James McKinley writes in the New York Times, the power of Cuba’s “sneakernet” made itself felt when a leaked video of computer science students grilling President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon began spreading around the island as friends and family members distributed the video not via email, as we’re accustomed to doing, but rather by USB keychain.

Of course, compared to true internet access, sneakernets leave much to be desired. Unlike web servers which can measure the amount of visits to a website, or the amount of times a video is watched, sneakernets leave us with no information about how many people are or are not coming into contact with the content. Furthermore, sneakernets limit interactivity between the length of, well, how far a sneaker can walk. What we need are other solutions to help Cuban bloggers and bloggers-to-be get online before 2010.

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