Cuban government declares digital war on 'cyberdissidents' amid fears social networks such as Facebook and Twitter could cause destabilization and spark revolt similar to those in the Middle East.
Cuba fears 'cyberdissidents' could use Twitter, Facebook and other online social networks to undermine the government.
HAVANA, CUBA (FEBRUARY 15, 2011) REUTERS - 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.
This 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 Havana video recently posted on the web showed a Cuban intelligence Internet expert telling Ministry of Interior 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 27-year teacher of French who created Octavo Cerco, one of about 30 blogs critical of the government written inside Cuba.
"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," she told Reuters in an interview.
"Social networks have become a new weapon for civil society," she added.
Given Cuba's low rate of Internet connectivity, the tweets Cadelo types into her Samsung 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 counterattack 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 frontlines of that official offensive.
"There is evidently an intention to attack Cuba through the Internet," said the 47-year-old author of the blog Cambios en Cuba.
"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."
Blogs like Henriquez' take aim at Cuba's cyberdissidents led by prominent critic Yoani Sanchez and her Generacion Y blog, accusing them of being financed by the U.S. government, Cuba's ideological foe, and often posting damaging rumors about their personal lives.
Experts say the Internet is offering Cuban dissidents unprecedented room for political debate. But they also say the transforming potential of Twitter and other social networks depends heavily on connectivity levels.
And unlike in the original cradle of the recent protests that rocked the Arab world, Tunisia, where 19 percent of the population was on Facebook, Internet access in Cuba remains restricted by the government.
Cuba, the Caribbean's biggest island which has a population of 11 million, 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.
Henriquez, the official blogger, says the U.S. 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.
But for Cadelo 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.