CNN is reporting “ordinary Cubans” are going to be allowed to have cell phones, something not permitted when Fidel Castro was the leader of Cuba. Fidel’s brother, Raul, made this decision. I think it is likely to have major effects on the Cuban economy, political culture, and society in general.

forest of stop signs

Limiting access to information and ideas has been a hallmark of closed societies in historical and contemporary times. I’ve heard (but haven’t confirmed) that the only person on the Internet in North Korea is their leader, Kim Jong-il. Chinese authorities continue to wage a digital war against the free flow of information and ideas using the “great firewall of China.” Iran restricts and filters content accessible from computers within its borders, which led Hamed Saber in Iran to create the Access Flickr plug-in for FireFox to circumvent those restrictions. The Tor project continues to expand with the goal of protecting people (including human rights and democracy advocates) from network surveillance and resulting state police/military action in states and communities which actively enforce web access restrictions.

What is the import of permitting cell phones in Cuba? Writing for GlobalVoicesOnline.org, Janine Mendes-Franco reports that Cuban authorities have recently been blocking access to certain blogs which are critical of the Cuban government. Does Raul realize that many cell phones permit web access? Is Cuba going to filter Internet access via cell phones in the same way they filter desktop and laptop computer access to the web?

Reactions to Fidel Castro’s announcement that he was stepping down as the leader of Cuba have been mixed, but it is clear that some changes are afoot. The disruptive potential of cell phones to be used as tools for constructive change is not limited to economics, as Iqbal Quadir highlighted in his TEDTalk “The power of the mobile phone to end poverty.”

Cell phones will play an increasingly important role in pro-democracy and self-determination movements around the world in the years to come, as their power and connectivity potentials continue to grow. I think Raul Castro has made a good decision for his nation by permitting “ordinary” folks to obtain cell phones. The economic benefits of this decision will be HUGE for Cuba and Cubans. Whether the full political implications of this decision have been anticipated by the current Cuban government remain to be seen.

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