Cuba Libre!

More fun with Communists and free software

Published October 27, 2006 5:58PM (EDT)

The average yearly salary of a Cuban information technology professional is $180. Microsoft Windows XP Professional retails on for $269. That fact alone would be reason enough for free and open-source software programs to be a sensible solution to Cuba's IT needs. Then there's the additional niggling little problem that the U.S. trade embargo makes it illegal to export Microsoft products to Cuba. It's a slam dunk no brainer! Microsoft's Jim Allchin once trashed open-source software as un-American. So how do you say "bring it on!" in Spanish?

Alas, for free software really to be a good solution to all your software needs, the society that uses it might just possibly need to be free too. And in the realm of information technology, such is not the case in Cuba. "Imperatives of Free and Open Source Software in Cuban Developement," a new paper in the Fall 2006 issue of M.I.T.'s Information Technologies and International Development journal lays out the sad facts. Private ownership of personal computers is forbidden by law. (Thanks to Pienso for the tip.)

From article 19, chapter II, section 3 of the Ministry of Internal Commerce's Resolution number 383/2001:

The sale of computers, offset printer equipment, mimeographs, photocopiers, and any other mass printing medium, as well as their parts, pieces and acessories, is prohibited to associations, foundations, civic and nonprofit societies, natural born citizens. In cases where the acqusition of this equipment or parts, pieces, and acessories is indispensable, the authorization of the Ministry of Internal Commerce must be solicited.

And as if that wasn't enough, Internet use is also heavily regulated. "Private citizens are prohibited from accessing the Internet without special authorization." Web sites that contain "irrelevant or counter-revolutionary information" are blocked.

The authors of the M.I.T. study, one of whom is a computer scientist at the University of Havana, lay out in theory why free and open-source software is a good fit for a developing nation like Cuba. Cuba is well supplied with highly-educated people and Spanish-language open-source software resources are abundant. They also point out that "more and more Cubans are managing to acces information from sources outside the country." Where there's any kind of Internet access at all,there are always ways around the censors. But their overall assement is bleak. To get full advantage of a system of software development that is built upon the work of freely collaborating people all over the world, you have to let your own citizens freely collaborate, too.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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