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What are the tasks of Revolutionary Communication? (by Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez)

February 21, 2011

Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez

Fernando Buen Abad Domínguez (b. 1956) is the Vice-Rector of the Open University of Mexico [Universidad Abierta de México], where he is also Director of the Image Research Institute. He holds a PhD, has worked as a filmmaker and artist, and has authored at least 17 books, including Philosophy of Communication (Filosofía de la Comunicación, 2001), Philosophy of the Image (Filosofía de la Imagen, 2003), and Image, Philosophy, and Creation (Imagen Filosofía y Creación, 2004) [all published in Spanish].

Abad Domínquez has conducted research in Venezuela and taught in the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela / UBV). He has written on TeleSur and been interviewed regarding the Venezuelan model of communications. His book, Philosophy of Communication, was republished by the Venezuelan Ministry of Communication and Information (Ministerio del Poder popular para la Comunicación y la Información / MINCI) in 2006.

The following essay, authored by Abad Domínguez, was published on January 4, 2011, in Spanish, on It is a strong though nonspecific statement backing a notion of revolutionary communication that I’ve found to be generally consistent with that expressed by Venezuelan communications practitioners as well as United Socialist Party of Venezuela (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela / PSUV) politicians and party-members. I therefore expect that it will serve as a useful touchstone for some of my upcoming writings on Venezuelan communications, especially the development of the community media sector. With this expectation, I’ve translated the entire piece into English, so that I may link to the text when necessary:

What are the tasks of Revolutionary Communication?

“(…) I’ve had occasion to observe many times how powerful organizations with a powerful press broke apart under the impact of events, and how, on the other hand, small organizations with a technically weak press transformed themselves in a short time into historic forces.” – Leon Trotsky

Assuming the challenge of democratically planning content

Without understanding, in depth, what a Revolution is, it will be difficult to understand the dialectic of its communicational tasks. There is no correct practice without correct theory. A revolutionary situation has its own contents, rhythms, and priorities determined by force, and advances, that the working class wins to expropriate power from the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary communicational tasks can’t come from pure subjectivity, punditry, from a few “enlightened ones”, priorities are derived from the objective necessities of each front in combat against capitalism. Content, ours, emerges from class struggle. It doesn’t hide it.

These necessities are democratically detected and the concrete, as well as the subjective, is taken into account, with the revolutionary idea that the truth serves to elevate the level of conscience, to perfect the struggle and guarantee the triumph of permanent revolution. In a situation of clear class confrontation, in which the dispute does not admit of euphemisms, and the evidence of a war is overwhelming, revolutionary communication media have a supreme role as organizing tools to help multiply the revolutionary forces beginning with establishing a common program of emancipatory action. Not one resource can be wasted. Not one minute can be lost. The best ideas are emancipatory ideas.

Many people are quick to set themselves up as messianic intermediaries, ready to rewrite the commandments of reformism, taking advantage of the media. One has to stay alert, reformists are a chameleon-like poison that drain stealthily in more than a few places. Some disguise themselves as “erudites” and travel the world pontificating a “revolutionary” knowledge pulled from their saliva (or from some elite bourgeois manuals). There are also the jealous, the mediocre, the petulant and the traitors that infiltrate revolutionary fronts to sow confusion while they milk some privilege or appointment obtained through trickery. One must be very careful. Everything that doesn’t help to guarantee, accelerate, and entrench the Revolution, in the short, medium, and long term… must be submitted to open discussion. By all media. This is an inescapable repertoire of content.

It’s indispensable to try to use all the languages necessary to make visible and palpable the triumphs of the revolution that are the fundamental source of moral fortitude. With revolutionary happiness, humor, [and] imagination in order to not repeat the bourgeois pattern of stultified discourse. It’s indispensable to communicate problems, armed with the most proactive self-criticism and the most consensual programs of advance. Elevating revolutionary morals and ethics is vital. To enrich responsibilities and assure creativity to win the territory of content, invigorate formal experimentation, and amplify reception with dialectic feedback. [sic] There’s no time to lose. Emancipatory content demands its place in the battle of ideas.

Some object to certain revolutionary communications for being “officialist”. They believe that some revolutionary media get carried away with “propaganda” tasks and forget self-critical tasks. It is a valuable debate that can’t remain two sides talking past one another but, on the contrary, must become a tool, of debate and work, constant[ly] open. But don’t confuse the bourgeois concept of “propaganda” with the revolutionary urgency of making visible our achievements in order to fortify battle morale. No bourgeois advertising evangelical is going to silence us no matter how scientific or holy they proclaim to be. The contents of revolutionary communication are conceptual achievements whose mission, beyond elevating the level of conscience, lies in multiplying itself dialectically. And that requires networks and planned systems.

The battle of Revolutionary communication is waged, in one of its phases, principally against the ideology of the dominant class that has metastasized in the entire fabric of social relations. It’s a very difficult struggle that allows no rest. We find it everywhere. We see it in our pleasures and our beliefs, it’s in our education and culture, it’s in our traditions and imaginations. Capitalism’s ideologic plasma has even inoculated its gravedigger’s thinking so that he laments the moment of the hangman’s death. That’s called alienation and it’s now become big business. A terrible problem. But the most arduous part is a creative revolution that must contribute to the foundation of a new universe of ideas, emotions, enthusiasms and morale… emancipated and emancipating. And in this framework one of the most arduous and neglected tasks has been the Revolution of Content.

Our communicative battles are asymmetric. We lack training, we lack organization, and we lack unity. We’re clear on who the class enemy is, we know the damage that it has caused, we know that it must be expropriated and defeated, and we know that we can’t lose the communication battle. We know that this struggle must be waged internationally. We know that only the workers will save the workers. We know much and we’ve done little. For now. Why haven’t we been able to defeat them yet, if we are the majority? Because, in terms of communication, we’ve also got to emancipate the emancipators. This is a top priority task. All hands on deck. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if every day, orderly, each revolutionary carried out their socialist responsibility to disseminate 10 news items with the achievements of the Revolution. Achievements of the working class. We must become communication combatants on a daily basis. Pay attention to the content. Let’s not let the class enemy set the agenda.



why did Alcatel-Lucent win the ALBA-1 fiber-optic cable contract with Cuba and Venezuela?

January 14, 2011

As I mentioned in a recent post, Venezuela, Cuba, and Jamaica are jointly installing an undersea fiber-optic cable, dubbed ALBA-1, that will, according to Cuba’s Prensa Latina, “break the communications blockade imposed by the United States” and improve internet connection speeds in Cuba by a factor of 3,000. Earlier this week, the first 994 miles (1,600 kms) of cable (of a total 3,125 miles / 5,000 kms) began a trans-Atlantic voyage from Calais, France to Venezuela aboard the Ile de Gatz. The connection between Cuba and Venezuela is projected to become operational in July at the earliest. Prensa Latina lists a cost estimate of $70 million, though it’s unclear to me if that is the total cost or just the Cuban investment. (UPDATE: The initial cost estimate, from October 2006, was $55 million: $35 million for the undersea portion and $20 million to extend the cable to the Cuban and Venezuelan networks in Havana and Caracas. I assume, therefore, that $70 million is the current estimate for total cost.)

map showing La Guaira, VenezuelaVenezuela’s CVG Telecomunicaciones C.A. (CVG Telecom) and Cuba’s Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) signed a preliminary accord for the project in October 2006, at which point Jamaica was not involved. The Venezuelan connection will be made at Camurí, near the country’s main port of La Guaira, just north of Caracas. The cable will connect to Cuba’s national network at Siboney, roughly 9 miles (14 kms) from Santiago de Cuba on the southeastern coast.

Currently, Cuba depends on costly and relatively slow satellite service. According to the Cuban government, this is largely the result of the US State Department’s refusal to permit Cuba to connect to a fiber optic cable linking Cancún, Mexico and Miami, Florida, despite its passing only 20 miles [32 km] from Havana. In addition to increasing data and voice connection speeds, ALBA-1 is expected to reduce Cuba’s satellite costs by 25 percent.

The cable is being shipped from France as a result of the project contract having been awarded to Alcatel-Lucent. According to (my interpretation of) a document made available on WikiLeaks, Alcatel-Lucent bid on the project via their Chinese subsidiary, Alcatel Shanghai Bell (ASB; now Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell / ALSB), and in conjunction with a French subsidiary, Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN). The document indicates that ALSB’s main competitor was China’s Huawei, which created a Venezuelan subsidiary (Huawei Technologies de Venezuela) in 2001. Huawei cell phones are common in Venezuela and the company was selected by Venezuela’s dominant telecommunications corporation, Compañía Anónima Nacional de Telefonos de Venezuela (CANTV), to upgrade its national fiber-optic backbone in 2004. (CANTV was re-nationalized in 2007.)

Given the close relationship between Venezuela and China, generally, and Huawei’s significant Venezuelan footprint, why would the Venezuelan and Cuban governments select Alcatel-Lucent, a French/US transnational? (Alcatel and Lucent merged on December 1, 2006. Nonetheless, the bid document made available on WikiLeaks, copyrighted 2007, uses “Alcatel-Lucent” only once; all other instances, including the copyright, use “Alcatel”.) The answer may be that Alcatel-Lucent offered better technology without subcontracting any major elements of the project. As Alcatel Shanghai Bell  put it, “ASB is the only Chinese partner able to provide turnkey submarine solution with inhouse field proven products and total independancy” [sic]. For example, Alcatel-Lucent billed its cable as resistant to 7,000 meters versus only 1,500 meters of resistance for Huawei’s line. Alcatel-Lucent also committed to in-house “dry and wet” maintenance, as well as using its own “vessel fleet” for installation. According to Alcatel-Lucent, Huawei would have had to outsource these and other operations. It might also be the case that Alcatel-Lucent simply bribed the requisite officials, as Alcatel is alleged to have done in Costa Rica, Honduras, Malaysia, and Taiwan between December 2001 and June 2006. Whether Alcatel’s claims of superiority or the SEC’s claims of bribery are true, I can’t say, but I suspect that another set of factors was more influential.

ASB claimed to be “fully compliant with Venezuela Cuba technical specifications” and listed “[f]ull repesct of Embargo regulation” [sic] among them. The document goes on to state that:

Alcatel, Alcatel Shanghai Bell, Alcatel Submarine Networks are committing to deliver the project while respecting Embargo policy

  • Alcatel group and ASN are french registered companies
  • Alcatel Shanghai Bell is a chinese registered company
  • Specific embargo clauses will be part of the T&C’s [terms and conditions] to ensure our commitment for the whole life of the project [sic]

Of course, Huawei, being a Chinese company with an established Venezuelan subsidiary, should not have had any problems in avoiding the US embargo. Their supposed subcontractors,  however, did pose some potential problems. Global Marine Systems Ltd. (GSML), for instance, was to handle the cable installation and maintenance. Based in the UK with representation in Singapore, Florida, and Boston, GSML itself may have avoided the embargo, but – according to the Alcatel-Lucent document – it was offering power-feed equipment from Spellman High Voltage Electronics Corporation, “an American company headquartered in NY state, USA [that] may cause Embargo enforcement issues in Cuba”. Alcatel-Lucent also pointed out that it would be using ASN repeaters, which have no US components or patents. Huawei, on the other hand, was said to be offering repeaters from UK-based Red Sky Telecom, which rely on a US component and make use of 41 patents registered in the US.

So, were Venezuela and Cuba “forced” to select Alcatel-Lucent due to the US embargo? To be clear, that conclusion is merely speculation based on a single leaked document. If  any reader has additional information, one way or the other, please post a comment. If my speculation is correct, however, then we have an odd case in which the socialist states of Cuba and Venezuela chose a French-US transnational over a “communist” Chinese corporation precisely in order to avoid the US embargo! Such, perhaps, are the intricate paradoxes of intellectual property in a neoliberally globalized world.

UPDATE: An Executive Technical Summary, dated October 8, 2006, contains a section entitled “Analysis of the Political Environment”  (“Análisis del entorno político“), that provides considerable support to my suppositions. The full text of that section follows:

The regulations imposed by the blockade against Cuba and the regulations imposed on the rest of the world through extraterritorial laws, hinder enormously negotiations with companies interested in constructing an undersea cable that connects to Cuba. If the possibility of direct aggression against the cable itself is added to that situation, it will be essential to seek all possible protection in international law.

As such the proposal is for a submarine cable constructed and operated by legally established international telecommunications operators, that should count on maximum protection from international organizations. See Appendix 1.

Furthermore for the Venezuelan State, the materialization of an international undersea cable system represents the fortification of the Nation’s communication infrastructure.

Political premises will be present when defining the geographic configuration of the undersea cable.

Appendix one lists the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC). Here’s the original text in Spanish:

Las regulaciones impuestas por el bloqueo contra Cuba y las regulaciones impuestas al resto del mundo a traves de leyes extraterritoriales, dificultan enormemente las negociaciones con las empresas interesadas en construir un cable submarino que amarre en Cuba. Si a esa situación se le suma la posibilidad de agresiones directas contra el cable mismo, sera imprescindible buscar en la legislación international toda la protección posible.

Por tanto la propuesta es un cable submarino construido y operado por empresas operadoras de telecomunicaciones internacionales legalmente establecidas, que debera contar con el maximo de protección de las organizaciones internacionales. Ver Anexo 1.

Por otra parte para el Estado Venezolano, la materializaci6n de un sistema de cable submarino internacional representa el fortalecimiento de la infraestructura comunicacional de
la Nación.

Las premisas políticas estarán presentes al definir la configuración geográfica del cable submarino.

UPDATE (1/18): Cuba’s state-owned Juventud Rebelde newspaper reports that the cable installation is being handled by “the french-chinese company Alcatel Shanghai Bell” (“la empresa franco-china Alcatel Shanghai Bell“) without making any mention of ASB’s French-US parent company, Alcatel-Lucent.

UPDATE (8/22): Reuters is reporting that the ALBA-1 project has been delayed due to technical difficulties and is under investigation as part of a larger attempt to deal with corruption within Cuba’s state-owned telecom monopoly, ETECSA. (Thanks to for pointing me to this info.)

UPDATE (5/21/12): The AP has run a story with speculation regarding the reasons why the cable does not seem to be operating and is not mentioned by the Cuban government. Suspicions revolve around corruption and the threat that internet access would pose to the state.

Venezuela’s Infocentro wins UNESCO prize for facilitating adult computer literacy

January 12, 2011

Given the recent spate of coverage in the mainstream North American press, the average reader would think that Venezuela is a totalitarian state hell bent on depriving its citizens of access to the internet. (The NY Times, WSJ, and CNN are all in on the action.) While I do have some concern regarding recent changes to the Law of Social Responsibility in Television and Radio, I’m more concerned that the presentation of the case has been biased and thoroughly misconstrued by a corporate “free press” that so often fails its audience. So file this one under “news you’re not likely to see in the mainstream media”:

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has awarded a 2010 Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize to Venezuela’s Infocentro Foundation (Fundación Infocentro) for its project “Technological Literacy for Older Adults.” The prize has been awarded annually, since 2005, to two “individuals, institutions, other entities or non-governmental organizations for excellent models, best practice, and creative use of information and communication technologies to enhance learning, teaching and overall educational performance.” The theme of the 201o prize was “Digital Literacy: Preparing Adult Learners for Lifelong Learning and Flexible Employment”. The United Kingdom’s National Institute of Continuing Adult Education was the other recipient. The winners were selected from among 49 candidates, nominated by 34 countries and one inter-governmental organization, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO).

The Infocenter Foundation was created in 2007, under the auspices of the Ministry of Popular Power for Science and Technology, in order to assume control over and reinvigorate Venezuela’s Infocentro initiative, which itself had begun in 2000 with the establishment of a community technology center (known as an infocenter [infocentro]) in the Parque del Este neighborhood of Caracas. An infocenter is a site that makes information and communication technologies (ICTs), primarily internet-connected computer terminals, available to the general population at little or no cost. Infocenters also provide instruction in how to utilize such technologies. 239 infocenters were created in 2001 and over 700 exist across Venezuela today.

The Infocenter Foundation is tasked with “providing physical infrastructure (infocenters, mobile infocenters [infomóviles], and infokiosks [infopuntos]), technological infrastructure (computers and other devices, connectivity, and software applications), human capital (foundation staff, coordinators, supervisors and facilitators of the social network), [and] networks that coordinate the operation [que articulan el engranaje] of the foundation and the community for socio-technological education.” The goal is to facilitate:

… the appropriation of information and communication technologies by the popular sectors, via the consolidation of community technological spaces that facilitate collective construction and transfer of knowledge, collaboration and coordination, [and] creation of networks and popular communication, in order to convert this technological platform into a tool for the solution of problems and the transformation of reality.

… el proceso de apropiación de las tecnologías de información y comunicación por parte de los sectores populares, mediante la consolidación de espacios tecnológicos comunitarios que faciliten la construcción colectiva y transferencia de saberes y conocimiento, las relaciones de colaboración y de coordinación, la generación de redes y la  comunicación popular, para hacer de esta plataforma tecnológica una herramienta para la solución de problemas y de transformación de la realidad.

According to the Venezuelan government, citizens paid 10,971,345 visits to Infocenters in 2010. Also, in February, the project entered a new stage, the goal of which has been to transfer the management of the Infocenters to organized communities, presumably via the mechanism of communal councils. Of course, given that the vast majority of US citizens have no idea that such a radical experiment in participatory democracy is even underway, it would be sheer folly to expect any analysis of its progress from a market-oriented press establishment. UNESCO’s Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize might spur the requisite curiosity, perhaps even a broader sharing of ideas directed at overcoming the ever-persistent digital divide, but that would require making the knowledge available in English. Although the Venezuelan News Agency (Agencia Venezolana de Noticias / AVN) has published at least two articles in English (as did the Venezuelan Embassy in the US, after the winners were made public in early December), as of this writing a Google News search for articles containing the words Venezuela, UNESCO, and Infocenter returned precisely zero results.

the young Marx on press freedom – part 3

January 5, 2011

[Note: This is the third in a series. You may want to read part 1 and/or part 2 before continuing. Links to subsequent entries follow this post.]

The third of Marx’s articles concerning freedom of the press in Prussia, entitled “On the Assembly of the Estates” , was published in the Rheinische Zeitung (Rhenish Newspaper / RZ) on May 10, 1842. As the title indicates, Marx uses this entry to tie his discussion of the free press to a broader interrogation of the legitimacy of the Prussian Provincial Assemblies. His entry point for this interrogation is a speech made by a member of the knightly estate who viewed the royal edict pronounced in April of 1841, which authorized the publication of the Assemblies’ proceedings, as non-binding: “Let it be in the hands of the Provincial Assembly to make a wise use of the permission granted…. The extension of this permission could only result from inner conviction, but not from external influences.” (Marx’s emphasis). The knightly speaker goes on to suggest that the assembly should restrict the publication of its proceedings when that publication is deemed “purposeless or even harmful”.

Marx, of course, offers a different interpretation of the edict:

The province believes that the Provincial Assembly will be under its control only when the publication of the debates is no longer left to the arbitrary decision of the Assembly in its wisdom, but has become a legal necessity. We should have to call the new concession a new step backwards if it had to be interpreted in such a way that publication depends on an arbitrary decision by the Assembly of the Estates.

Marx is driving at the nature of political representation in general. He labels the knightly speaker’s position “medieval”, in that it “upholds the privilege of the estate against the rights of the province”. Once again, Marx is engaging the still coalescing ideological positions that arose, according to Wallerstein, in the 19th century. His attack on the “medieval” conservative position is launched via the medium of a liberal newspaper, though already there are hints of the more radical socialist position that he would, for better or worse, come to define. The liberal position, manifested in the US and French revolutions, viewed political representation as a right of (some of) the people. Marx points out that this conception is entirely absent from the knightly speaker’s framework:

Privileges of the estates are in no way rights of the province. On the contrary, the rights of the province cease when they become privileges of the estates. Thus the estates of the Middle Ages appropriated for themselves all the country’s constitutional rights and turned them into privileges against the country…. the rights of the Provincial Assembly are no longer rights of the province, but rights against the province… The influence of the province on its Assembly is characterised as something external to which the conviction of the Assembly of the Estates is contrasted as a delicate inner feeling…

Further below, Marx adds:

One must acknowledge the tact with which the speaker has perceived that by unabridged publication of its debates the Assembly would become a right of the province instead of a privilege of the Assembly of the Estates, that the Assembly, having become an immediate object of the public spirit, would have to decide to be a personification of the latter, and that, having been put in the light of the general consciousness, it would have to renounce its particular nature in favour of the general one.

Marx is pointing out, in other words, that the knightly speaker ignores entirely the assembly’s duty to represent the people of the province. He makes himself quite explicit on this point:

The Assembly of the Estates has a province to which the privilege of its activity extends, but the province has no estates through which it could itself be active. Of course, the province has the right, under prescribed conditions, to create these gods for itself, but as soon as they are created, it must, like a fetish worshipper, forget that these gods are its own handiwork…. We are confronted here with the peculiar spectacle, due perhaps to the nature of the Provincial Assembly, of the province having to fight not so much through its representatives as against them…. A representation which is divorced from the consciousness of those whom it represents is no representation.

While Marx seems correct in his indictment of the knightly speaker, we should note that he speaks only in broad terms of representation. As a result, he raises more questions than he answers. Nowhere does he suggest how an assembly, once selected (by whatever “prescribed conditions”), might go about personifying the “public spirit”. Why, in fact, does Marx assume that there exists anything like a singular “public spirit” or “general consciousness”? Is not the point of a representative system to adjudicate between the multiple spirits and consciousnesses that exist amongst a heterogeneous public?

To be clear, I am not saying that the Provincial Assembly of Estates as established in Prussia’s Rhine Province in 1842 was adequately enough composed to even begin carrying out this task. As Marx would argue convincingly later that year, the multiple restrictions on membership in any of the three estates, beginning with ownership of land, prohibited anything other than a partial representation of elite interests. Nonetheless, Marx seems to be appealing to a very idealistic model of representation in which the “spirit” of a people – or at least a class of people – can be intuited, articulated, and defended. This foreshadows, of course, his later socio-economic theorization of inter-class struggle, not to mention the (still ongoing) debates over the “proper” form of organization for political-economic decision-making that have hampered the socialist project.

That said, we should remember that Marx was all of 24 years old when he wrote these articles and that his primary focus was on the press, not the organizational structure of a representative democracy. We can hardly fault him for not being more precise regarding the latter issue. In fact, we should rather recognize that the close pairing of these two subjects suggests that Marx accepted, on a fundamental level, that the press plays a vital role in the determination and articulation of the “public spirit”. For example, whereas his series of articles on press freedom (especially the article under consideration here) touches on questions of political representation, his contemporaneous series of brief articles on representation (published in December 1842 under the title “On the Commission of the Estates in Prussia“) touches on issues of press freedom:

The conservative press, which continually reminds us that the view held by the critical press should be rejected as being merely an individual opinion and a distortion of reality, continually forgets that it itself is not the object in question, but only an opinion on that object, and that therefore to combat it is not always to combat that object. Every object that is made a matter for praise or blame in the press becomes a literary object, hence an object for literary discussion. What makes the press the most powerful lever for promoting culture and the intellectual education of the people is precisely the fact that it transforms the material struggle into an ideological struggle, the struggle of flesh and blood into a struggle of minds, the struggle of need, desire, empiricism into a struggle of theory, of reason, of form.

For Marx, the press ensures representation only when it is free, ie. when no outlet is deemed to have an a priori claim to validity. Only when all outlets are treated as participants in an open “struggle” for validity can a society begin to make any claims to having achieved political representation. As Marx says in the article under review here: “A truly political assembly flourishes only under the great protection of the public spirit, just as living things flourish only in the open air.” Here, at least, Marx’s equation of the “public spirit” with “open air” implies that he does not, in fact, view it as monolithic, but always a swirling mass of competing views that, at best, must play themselves out within the untidy space of a free press: “… why should precisely the free press be perfect?” Marx’s answer is that it should not. The imperfect, contested nature of the press is precisely what makes it free.

There are some other interesting points to draw out of this article. The first of these hinges on the knightly speaker’s rationalization for the desire to refrain from publishing the assembly’s proceedings. Marx quotes him at some length:

Just as it seems to him desirable that here in the Assembly there should be freedom of discussion and that an over-anxious weighing of words should be avoided, it seems to him equally necessary, in order to maintain this freedom of expression and this frankness of speech, that our words at the time should be judged only by those for whom they are intended…. From many years’ acquaintance, a good personal understanding has developed among most of us in spite of the most diverse views on various matters, a relationship which is inherited by newcomers. Precisely for that reason we are most of all able to appreciate the value of our words, and do so the more frankly as we allow ourselves to be less subject to external influences, which could only be useful if they came to us in the form of well-meaning counsel, but not in the form of a dogmatic judgment, of praise or blame, seeking to influence our personality through public opinion.

Here, the conservative appeal to tradition is laid bare: Though they affect the province as a whole, the proceedings of the assembly are intended only for those with “a good personal understanding” and only those with such an understanding should judge them. Moreover, the requisite personal understanding can only be acquired upon admittance to the assembly, which, as pointed out above, is restricted to elites. Though patently absurd in the Prussian Assembly’s case (at least to the degree that the assembly was meant to represent the people of the province), such arguments are still advanced today in relation to issues of secrecy. Witness, for example, the ongoing conroversy over the Wikileaks cables, in which the US State Department and its defenders have maintained that disclosure of the secret cables will diminish the effectiveness of its diplomatic corp by limiting its ability to communicate frankly. This line of argument, exemplified in the following extract from an article published by Foreign Policy magazine, echoes that of the knightly speaker quoted above:

[The cables] release will negatively affect the business of diplomacy conducted by America’s foreign-affairs professionals, inhibiting the candor, frank assessments, and policy recommendations that its decision-makers need. An ambassador in the field who is involved in providing the secretary of state and the president with sensitive insights in the course of delicate peace negotiations must have the confidence and trust in the system that what he is reporting in a cable will not be disclosed publicly. And embassies must be able to report candidly on the internal political situation in a given country without fear of unauthorized disclosure harming official state-to-state relations. Self-censorship by U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel will diminish the country’s capacity to engage in foreign affairs immeasurably.

Similar arguments are advanced in favor of lawyer/client or doctor/patient privilege. Context is key, therefore, when balancing what one commentator has called, in reference to Wikileaks, “the irreconcilable values of secrecy and accountability”. In relation to a supposedly democratic representative assembly, arguing over that balance may strike us as quaint, but in the Rhine Province in 1842 the debate took place on the cutting edge of political thought. Perhaps one day we will find the Wikileaks debate just as quaint?

Finally, it’s worth noting a comment that Marx makes, seemingly in passing, regarding the medium vis-à-vis the message:

Indeed, can even daily, unabridged publication by printing be rightly called unabridged and public? Is there no abridgement in substituting the written for the spoken word, graphic systems for persons, action on paper for real action?

I’m not sure exactly what Marx intended here. Certainly there was no other medium available for feasibly conveying the proceedings of the assembling to a mass public, à la CSPAN. I suspect, therefore, that he meant to suggest that the Assembly should be open to reporters who could observe the various speakers and add context to verbatim transcripts. Such issues were hot topics at the time. For instance, the question of journalistic access to and verbatim reporting of congressional proceedings had long been the subject of considerable debate in the US and remained so in Marx’s time.  Nonetheless, we should recognize that the phrasing of Marx’s questions invite philosophical considerations that would not be foreign to 20th century luminaries like Marshall McLuhan or Jacques Derrida.

Cuba’s EcuRed: a socialist Wikipedia?

December 30, 2010

According to Reuters, the goal of Cuba’s new “wikipedia-like online encyclopedia”, called EcuRed, is to present the socialist country’s “version of the world and history”. That may be true, but it’s not exactly how the site explains itself:

EcuRed is a collaborative and solidaristic encyclopedia. It is a Cuban project that seeks universal reach and participation; it offers its participants an interactive space to publish open content. Its philosophy is the accumulation and development of knowledge with a democratizing and non-profit objective, from a de-colonizing point of view.

EcuRed es una enciclopedia colaborativa y solidaria. Es un proyecto cubano que busca alcance y participación universales; ofrece a sus participantes un espacio interactivo para publicar contenidos abiertos. Su filosofía es la acumulación y desarrollo del conocimiento con un objetivo democratizador y no lucrativo, desde un punto de vista descolonizador.

As of this writing, I’ve got more questions than answers, but my speculation is that the site is one part of the Cuban government’s ongoing preparations for a steady expansion of its citizens’ access to online services.

Recall that back in March of 2008, Raul Castro’s administration authorized the unrestricted sale of computers (and DVD players) to Cuban citizens. Despite this, the relatively high cost (due, in large part, to the US embargo) continues to ensure that private ownership of a personal computer remains a luxury reserved for the elite, foreigners, or perhaps those with especially successful relatives overseas. Earlier this year the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reported a total of 700,000 computers on the island of over 11 million inhabitants, which works out to 62 per 1,000 residents or just over one-third of the average penetration rate for the region. Of course, most of those computers are located in government institutions, which means they are highly monitored but also, according to the Cuban government, prioritized for social uses, “from health and education to government-operated computer clubs in every municipality” (Reuter’s paraphrasing). In other words, a computer in Cuba is meant to serve more citizens than a computer in capitalist countries.

Cell phones, meanwhile, were legalized one month later, in April of 2008. Here too, cost remains a massive barrier for most Cubans. As of 2008 a cell phone contract with the state-run monopoly, Cubacel, cost $120, or about six months salary for a state employee. A basic (voice and text) Nokia phone was going for $75, and local calls cost $0.30 per minute. (Here too, the US embargo is a major factor in keeping costs high.) Even today Cubans rely almost entirely on text messages and missed calls in order to avoid the cost of mobile voice communication (although the same can be said for the majority of the population in many other Latin American countries).

Even when Cuban citizens do have access to networked personal computers and/or mobile devices, it’s far from certain that they will be able to surf the open internet. The degree of access permitted by the Cuban government is the subject of much debate.  Some visitors to the island report that Cubans are unrestricted and may peruse foreign news sites, such as the New York Times and BBC, at will. Others claim that Cuban citizens are restricted to a tightly regulated intranet that blocks any content not specifically permitted by the State. I am not sure of the truth, but an October 2006 report, written by freelance reporter Claire Voeux and published by Reporters Without Borders, contains a concise and convincing account which suggests that Cubans may indeed access the “open” internet, though they remain severely limited by the lack of computers and bandwidth, the high cost of online minutes (unless they use a networked computer at work), and government monitoring and interference that can vary from place to place and time to time. Meanwhile, according to and as of this writing, Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, Blogger, WordPress, and Facebook are all among the top ten Cuban web destinations, with El Nuevo Herald and the BBC occupying the 11th and 18th spots, respectively. Cubans are also apparently able to utilize mobile technologies to connect to the world wide web. Posting a Twitter message, for example, is possible if you can afford to spend one convertible peso (roughly $1.10).

The bandwidth issue is expected to be resolved, or at least drastically improved,  sometime in the second half of 2011, when an undersea fiber optic cable connecting Cuba, Venezuela, and Jamaica is finally installed. Currently, Cuba depends on costly and relatively slow satellite service. According to the Cuban government, this is largely the result of the US State Department’s refusal to permit Cuba to connect to a fiber optic cable linking Cancún, Mexico and Miami, Florida, despite its passing only 20 miles [32 km] from Havana. The new cable from Venezuela is projected to increase data and voice connection speeds by a factor of 3,000 and reduce Cuba’s satellite costs by 25 percent.

Most Cubans are not likely to be your Facebook friend anytime soon, but the promise of radically increased bandwidth and marginally increased access to digital networking technologies, in conjunction with new opportunities for income and other signals of expanding liberty, indicates that the Cuban government has begun to envision an online future for its citizens. How the Cuban internet will develop is an open question. China offers one model, but the EcuRed project indicates that Cuba is striking out on a path of its own design.

According to TeleSur and Cuba’s Prensa Latina news service, EcuRed began in 2009 as a project involving experts from the Cuban Ministries of Informatics and Communications; Science, Technology, Environment; Education; Higher Education; and Public Health, as well as the National Institute of Health. TeleSur also highlights the “collaboration of scientists, workers, rural residents, and students”. The site itself is housed on servers managed by Cuba’s Computing and Electronics Youth Club (Joven Club de Computación y Electrónica / JCCE), which manages over 600 sites across the island for instruction in new technologies.

During the official launch ceremony on Dec. 14, the JCCE’s national director, Raúl Van Troi, stated that EcuRed “is a tool for ensuring that the world knows about Cuba” (“es una herramienta para que en el mundo se sepa sobre Cuba“). Indeed, most of the 20,489 articles available as of this writing seem to focus on various aspects of Cuban geography, society, and culture. For example, the categories with the greatest number of articles (as of this writing) are: Cuban Places (3,211); [Cuban] Place Histories (2,132); Cuban Revolutionary Martyrs (1,605); and Figures from Cuban History (966).

In contrast to WikiPedia, all of EcuRed’s “collaborators” must register with the site, and to do so they must have an email account ending with the .cu domain. In other words, despite EcuRed’s aspiration for “universal reach and participation”, only Cubans (or perhaps foreigners working within the Cuban economy) are able to contribute to the site. Further, those contributions will be closely tracked, with the user name and IP address displayed publicly and “all  information that a user has entered … stored in a database.” Of course, Wikipedia archives previous editions of articles and, I imagine, would be able to collect all of the changes made by a particular user or IP address. Wikipedia also makes public the IP address used by non-registered contributors. That said, Wikipedia is not a government with a history of suppressing speech deemed politically unacceptable, nor does Wikipedia have the ability or authority to do much beyond remove content or block users, even if it wanted to. The Cuban government, on the other hand, has the ability and (at least dubiously) the legal authority to respond in any number of ways, including monitoring the non-online activities of a contributor, denying them access to jobs or benefits, or throwing them in jail.

EcuRed’s policies do state that the stored information “will not be shared with third parties without [the contributor’s] consent, except in cases that violate these policies” (“no será compartida con terceras partes sin su consentimiento, excepto los casos en que se violen estas políticas“). It’s not clear, however, who the “second party” (ie. the owner and/or manager of the site) is in this case. The JCCE? Or the entire Cuban government, including the State intelligence services? Moreover, the policies in question are worded so as to leave much room for interpretation. For example:

Articles will not accept content considered as: discriminatory, obscene, disrespectful, aggressive, propagandistic or promotional, tendentious, defamatory, or pornographic. Articles with these contents will not be published; EcuRed reserves the right to block access to offenders, and if pertinent, to notify the Internet service provider.

Los artículos no admitirán contenidos considerados como: discriminatorios, obscenos, irrespetuosos, agresivos, propagandísticos o publicitarios, tendenciosos, difamatorios, o pornográficos. Los artículos con estos contenidos no serán publicados; EcuRed se reserva el derecho de bloquear el acceso del infractor, y de ser pertinente, notificarlo al proveedor de servicios de Internet.

Propaganda, disrespect, and tendentiousness, of course, are largely in the eye of the beholder. The oppositional Diario de Cuba, for example, refers to the entire site as an “internet propaganda offensive” (“ofensiva de propaganda en internet“). A similar judgment is implicit in the article published by Spain’s generally conservative El País, which quoted the title of a subsection of the entry on Fidel Castro – “sickness and glorious return” (“enfermedad y retorno gloriosos“) – without referencing, for instance, the generally objective and subdued account of Fidel’s political and military opposition to the Batista dictatorial regime. El País also selectively quoted the article on former US President, George W. Bush, which mentions “a long family tradition of dirty business, traps and governmental intrigue” (“una larga tradición familiar de negocios sucios, trampas e intrigas gubernamentales“) and claims that Bush “applied all possible methods of dirty war: clandestine prisons, kidnappings, extrajudicial processes, telephonic espionage, and kidnapping of mere suspects (“aplicó todos los métodos posibles de la guerra sucia: cárceles clandestinas, secuestros de personas, procesos extrajudiciales, espionaje telefónico y plagio de meros sospechosos“). While it’s true that Bush didn’t apply all possible methods, and terms like “dirty business” and “dirty war” are perhaps overly subjective, references to secret prisons, kidnappings (aka extraordinary rendition), warrantless wiretapping, and extrajudicial detentions are nonetheless objectively true.

Of course, there’s much that EcuRed omits, and this is more worrisome than the particular phrasing of the information that it does contain. There is no entry, for example, on Oswaldo Payá, or any of the other Cuban dissidents that are relatively well known outside of the island. The historical account contained in the entry on the Manuel Márquez Sterling Professional School of Journalism (Escuela Profesional de Periodismo Manuel Márquez Sterling) tellingly and abruptly ends in 1962. The article recounting the history of journalism in Jagüey Grande, meanwhile, cuts off in 1955. As far as I can tell, there seems to be no article dedicated to the concept of press freedom, investigative journalism, or anything similar. Though I have no way of testing the hypothesis, I imagine that any attempt to create an article on these subjects would end in failure.

Additionally, not all of EcuRed’s articles are open to modification. Pages can be “protected” for multiple reasons, including “to protect modifications of articles considered very valuable, with a high [degree of] consensus, or with an elevated repercussion” (“para proteger modificaciones de artículos que se consideren muy valiosos, con un alto consenso, o con una elevada repercusión“). Of course, the policies do not specify how value, consensus, and repercussion are determined, nor by who. It’s probably safe to say that Fidel’s biography, for example, is not open to modification. As of this writing, there are 547 pages specifically flagged as in need of improvement, but I see no indication as to the number of pages that have been “protected”.

So how should we evaluate EcuRed at this early stage? To begin, it seems highly likely that, despite the site’s stated ambitions, EcuRed’s failure to allow universal participation will prevent it from acquiring anything like universal reach. Spanish-speakers planning a visit to Cuba may find the wealth of localized information quite helpful, as will some researchers, but beyond that it’s hard to see why one would choose EcuRed as a primary source for information about general topics or, for that matter, issues related to Cuban history and politics that are treated extensively elsewhere.

That’s not, however, to say that EcuRed doesn’t offer solid information. To take just one example, the biographical entry on US President John F. Kennedy is roughly 3,800 words long and includes discussion of his family background, education, military service, and political life. As far as I can tell (though I’m certainly no expert on JFK or the events of that period), everything in the article is factual. At the same time, however, there is a clear focus on issues directly and indirectly related to Cuba and Cuban socialism. The 306 words under the subheading “foreign policy” (“política exterior“) are entirely dedicated to US / Cuban relations. This is followed by 431 words in a separate section on the October 1962 “Missile Crisis” (“Crisis de Octubre“) that paints Cuba’s role in a positive light. For example:

Between the 26th and 31st [of October] there was an exchange of messages between Nikita S. Khrushchev and Fidel [Castro]. Those signed by the Soviet leader evidence the unilateral nature of his actions and the underestimation with which he treated the small country; meanwhile those of the Cuban leader warned of the dangers and stuck firmly to the revolutionary principles.

Entre el 26 y el 31 hubo un intercambio de mensajes entre Nikita S. Jruschov y Fidel. En los firmados por el dirigente soviético se evidencia la unilateralidad de su actuación y la subestimación con que trataba al pequeño país; mientras que los del líder cubano alertaban sobre los peligros y se apegaban con firmeza a los principios revolucionarios.

Further below is a 267 word subsection on “Cuban relations” (“relaciones con Cuba“) that recounts in a general manner Kennedy’s efforts to clandestinely destabilize Cuba. All other discussion of Kennedy’s foreign policy is treated in a mere 229 words under the subheading of “other actions” (“otras acciones“). Two of the four paragraphs in that section refer to Kennedy’s attempts to “restrain the deployment of multiform popular struggles in Latin America and the Caribbean” (“frenar el despliegue de las multiformes luchas populares latinoamericanas y caribeñas“). The remaining two paragraphs describe Kennedy’s interventions in Vietnam, including the deployment of 16,000 military advisors, the authorization of “free-fire zones”, the use of napalm and agent orange, and the 1963 military coup. Kennedy’s role in relation to Berlin, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the Peace Corps, to cite a few prominent examples, are conspicuously absent. The majority of the 450 words dedicated to Kennedy’s domestic policy, meanwhile, refer to civil rights issues, thus reinforcing Cuba’s longstanding (and deserved) critique of the United States on that count while sidestepping all but the most superficial consideration of economic policy.

More important than what EcuRed will mean for those outside the island, however, is the question of what it will mean for Cuban citizens. As I hope to have shown, EcuRed shows little promise of expanding the range of information to which Cuban citizens have access. Neither a historical nor philosophical discussion of press freedom is in the offing. There will be no biographies of Cuban dissidents. Thorough treatments of liberal or anarcho-syndicalist economic models will probably not appear. Descriptions of NFL football, Disney World, iPads, and 3D Imax movies are unlikely.

Nonetheless, EcuRed – in conjunction with the Cuban state’s efforts to make internet access available in Post Offices (Correos de Cuba), cyber cafés, and community centers – should drastically increase the amount of information to which most Cubans have access, even if they are restricted to the island’s intranet or fearful of accessing outside sources. On an island where books and magazines, especially new ones, must surely be a luxury for most citizens, providing access to a massive trove of digital information is no small success. Nor can the information available through EcuRed be dismissed as merely socialist propaganda. There are entries on Buddhism (~1,000 words), rock’n’roll (~3,750 words), drugs (~12,000 words), internet connection technologies (~1,700 words), kung fu (~2,400 words), and many other subjects that hardly serve to foment a monolithic social understanding.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government has committed to digitizing all of the texts used in the country’s general and university education system and making them available via EcuRed’s “virtual library” (“biblioteca virtual“). At the moment, this appears to have been only very partially accomplished, but if and when it happens, Cubans across the island will be able, for example, to indulge their interest in chemistry or physics, learn new agricultural skills, study foreign languages, or learn musical theory. These may not be direct paths to the attainment of those political and economic freedoms that US citizens can find so glaringly absent in Cuban society, but one would be hard pressed to argue that they do not offer routes toward the type of individual self-realization that can truly and significantly improve one’s quality of life and fortify the social fabric of a nation.




what did the US want to know about telecommunication infrastructure in Paraguay? and why?

November 29, 2010

What did US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice want to know about Paraguay’s telecommunication systems?

Just about everything you’d need to data mine and otherwise monitor their entire national security apparatus.

“Information Infrastructure and Telecommunications” is one of five “priority issues” within the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF). A March 24, 2008 cable from Washington DC to the US embassy in Asunción, recently made available on WikiLeaks, included the following items among its broad request for information:

¶E.  Information Infrastructure and Telecommunications (INFR-4)

  • Details of telecommunications and information systems, networks, and technologies supporting Paraguayan national leadership, military, foreign intelligence and security services (FISS), and civil sector communications.
  • Define Paraguayan wireless infrastructure, cellular provider information, and makes/models of cellular phones and their operating systems.
  • Define Paraguayan satellite communications infrastructure, to include VSAT networks and use of point to point systems.
  • Information on communications practices of Paraguayan government and military leaders, key foreign officials in country (e.g., Cuban, Venezuelan, Bolivian, Iranian, or Chinese diplomats), and criminal entities or their surrogates, to include telephone and fax numbers and e-mail addresses, call activity (date, time, caller numbers, recipient numbers), phone books, cell phone numbers, telephone and fax user listings, internet protocol (IP) addresses, user accounts, and passwords.
  • Identify national and supranational telecommunications regulatory, administrative, and maintenance organizations.
  • Identify scope of Paraguayan telecommunications encryption efforts, details on the use of and efforts to acquire modern telecom technologies, regional and national telecommunications policies, programs and regulations.
  • Details on information repositories associated with RFID enabled systems increasingly used for passports, government badges, and transportation system.


lunch with the General: Brazil’s Minister for Institutional Security tight lipped on Venezuela

November 29, 2010

Among the cables made available by WikiLeaks is one sent on May 6, 2005 by the US Ambassador to Brazil, John J. Danilovich.

The ambassador offered a report of his lunch meeting with Brazil’s Minister for Institutional Security, General Jorge Armando Felix, whose status as “the country’s most senior intelligence official and the rough equivalent of national security advisor to the president” remained despite his having “much less influence than his predecessor from the previous government”. After all, how much influence can you expect from “an amiable, low- key individual [who] does not appear overly ambitious”?

The three subjects under discussion during the lunch, in order, were:

  1. the tri-border region of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay
  2. Venezuela
  3. US assistance for Brazilian security

Here is the full recap of the Venezuela conversation:

4.(S) Venezuela: Following the CT discussion, the Ambassador raised Venezuela and its president Hugo Chavez and noted that Chavez was disrupting Brazil’s efforts to play a leading role politically and economically in South America. General Felix nodded his head and appeared to be very carefully measuring his response. He then said that he had his own personal opinions about Chavez (which he did not share) that were different from the Brazilian Government’s position. That being said, General Felix said that he preferred keeping in line with the official position (though he did not elaborate on it either). Felix noted that whether one was pro- or anti-Chavez, he had become very much a part of the “Latin American” reality.

A diplomatic response, in the fullest sense of the term.

Here’s the Ambassador’s final assessment:

General Felix has always been a straightforward interlocutor, and his term at GSI has been highlighted by very cooperative, joint CT operations between RMAS and ABIN. All in all, his continued presence at GSI bodes well for U.S. interests.


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