2-day conference focuses on internet connectivity in Cuba

U.S. Department of State partners with Social Media Week Miami

People reflected in the window line up at a post office as they wait to use the Internet service in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 28, 2013.
People reflected in the window line up at a post office as they wait to use the Internet service in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, May 28, 2013. (Associated Press)

MIAMI – President Barack Obama said he wants to help Cubans learn, innovate and do business online. But only a miniscule fraction of the population on the island has access to high-speed internet. 

Cuban officials have long maintained strict control of internet access. Access to the web could serve as a tool for the U.S. to exert influence over the island's culture and politics is a perception that prevails among most Cuban officials. 

"We’re moving ahead with our efforts to help connect more Cubans to the Internet and the global economy ... because in the 21st century, countries cannot be successful unless their citizens have access to the internet," Obama said during a meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro in March. 

This year's Social Media Week Miami -- also known as #SMWMiami -- partnered with the U.S. Department of State to devote two days to the communication challenge in Cuba. The conference will go on in Miami's Wynwood despite The Cuban Foreign Ministry's complaints.

"It's not enough for them to illegally use radio and TV against Cuba. They insist on using the Internet as a weapon of subversion," Cuba's Foreign Ministry director general for the United States, Josefina Vidal, wrote on Twitter about the conference. 

The U.S. government's media agency, overseeing the Miami-based Radio and Television Martí multimedia operation, helped Social Media Week Miami to  organize the Sept 12-13 Cuba Internet Freedom conference, also known as #CubaIF

Cuba has been making some slow progress. Mobile phone access to e-mail started in 2014, when about 75,000 Cubans had access to the internet. Hundreds of internet cafés and about 60 public-access Wi-Fi hotspots were available by 2015. And this year, an estimated 150,000 people have daily access.

Despite the efforts, the island remains among the least connected nations in the Western Hemisphere.

"We are not taking full advantage of all that connectivity affords," Secretary of State John Kerry said in April, when he discussed an ambitious initiative to get 1.5 billion users online worldwide by 2020.

The Cuban government has been resistant to change for years. In 2009, Cubans arrested Alan Gross, a U.S. government program's contractor, for importing banned technology with the intent of establishing access to the internet. Cubans released him Dec. 17, 2014.

This year, the Cuban government announced that it was opening $2-an-hour WiFi spots across the country in a move that has dramatically increased Cubans' access -- allowing many to video-chat with families abroad and see relatives for the first time. But censorship continues.

Independent media remains illegal. Among the Cuba Internet Freedom conference sessions is a 2 p.m., Sept. 13, talk with representatives of Cuban independent media -- Cubanet, CiberCuba, 14yMedio, Connect Cuba and Diario de Cuba.

The #CubaIF is part of the Social Media Week's "The Invisible Hand: Hidden Forces of Technology" running through Sept 16 at the Miami Ad School, 571 NW 28 St., in Miami's Wynwood. 

The Cuba Internet Freedom conference's nine 45-minute sessions are free, but require registration. Other Social Media Week events require a pass, which can be purchased online before Sept 11 for $315, or after for $350. 

There will be similar Social Media Week events held simultaneously in London, Mumbai, Sao Paulo, Nairobi and Rome.

Local 10 News is a media partner of Social Media Week Miami. 

CIF: 9 sessions in 2 days


DAY 1: 4 sessions

Sept. 12

2 p.m., Internet in Cuba: A Reality Check

3 p.m., The Offline Net: Cuban Distribution Network

4 p.m., Groundbreaking Innovators and Underground Trendsetters

5 p.m., Risking It All for the Right of a Free Press


DAY 2: 5 sessions

Sept. 13

10 a.m., Internet Freedom: A Fundamental Universal Right

11 a.m.:  International Solidarity with Cuba's Internet

2 p.m.: Creating and Delivering Digital Content for a Disconnected Cuba

3 p.m.: Dissidence and Activism in the Digital Era

4 p.m.: Circumvention: Cracking the Code of Censorship



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