The society that Pope Benedict XVI will find when he lands in Cuba next week will be a destitute one, prostrate in every way. The once proud and comparatively wealthy Cubans are now among the poorest in the hemisphere, definitely the least informed and, consequently, the least free. For outsiders, Cuba is a cautionary tale about what happens when a minority with guns takes over and tries to create a socialist paradise. For Cubans, who can't escape, Cuba oscillates between inferno and merely tedious existence.
Cuba is disconnected from the rest of the world, via phone or internet, because the communists in charge want it that way. Information is power, and the last thing the generals in charge want is an empowered population. And the Internet, of course, is the most liberating media of all.
The Heritage Foundation and Google Ideas will team up today for a conference on how to bring connectivity to Cuba. The featured speaker at this conference will be Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose parents hailed from Cuba and who has used his position as ranking member of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee to become a powerful voice for human rights.
Cuba's numbers tell a sad tale. According to the World Bank, Cuba's mobile phone penetration is tiny: 8.91%. And, no, it's not poverty that can be blamed for this state of affairs. Nearby Haiti, with a GDP per capita of $739, has a mobile phone penetration of 40.03%. As for the Internet, according to the International Telecommunications Union, only about 1.7 Cubans out of a 100 are online. Haiti's penetration hovers between 10 and 11.
The Internet is the embodiment of Adam Smith's invisible hand, moved along by the wisdom of crowds. Communists, indeed even socialists, with their fervor for central planning, command-control decision by elites, cannot abide the liberating force that is the Internet.
And it is through the Internet that people can get out images and accounts of what the government does to them. Think of Neda Agha-Soltan the young Iranian woman whose assassination in the streets of Tehran, captured by a citizen journalist, brought to the world the obscenity of the Iranian regime.
This is why Cuba's Communist guardians cannot trust their people to be online. Indeed, this is why they set out to destroy the vibrant media environment they found, just as they had to destroy the culture and even the architecture. Cuba in 1958 had its problems, to be sure, starting with a corrupt dictator in Fulgencio Batista. But in terms of GDP per capita and other markers it led Latin America. This was definitely the case with media.
Again, the numbers tell the story. Pre-Castro Cuba had 58 daily newspapers and was eighth in the world in number of radio stations, according to the U.N. statistical year book. This placed the tiny island only behind Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, countries with many times Cuba's population. Today Cubans must contend with the dreary Granma, Cuba's Pravda, which no one reads.
In 1959, when Castro took over, television was the new medium and, again according to the U.N., Cuba's 45 sets per one thousand inhabitants was by far the most in Latin America and fifth in the world, behind only Monaco, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. And Cuba's 23 television stations led Latin America. Today there's the Castro hour, followed by the Castro hour.
Back to the Pope's visit. Upon his arrival, he will see a society preserved in aspic; the 1940s and 1950s vintage cars are emblematic of a society that ceased to evolve when it became communist.
The Pope can make some headway in bringing change to the island by agreeing to meet with dissidents, something the hierarchy of the Cuban Catholic Church has said he won’t have time to do--though he is making time to meet with the ailing dictator Fidel Castro if he bids him from this death bed.
The head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega has rightly received criticism for this decision. Cardinal Ortega, The Washington Post said yesterday in a tough editorial, "has become a de facto partner of Raul Castro, meeting with him regularly and encouraging his limited reforms."
Much like Pope John Paul II helped bring the light of freedom to Eastern European citizens enslaved by communism, so too can Pope Benedict XVI help spread the message of liberty to the people still held captive by archaic oppression in Cuba
Heritage and Google will together scratch the surface of finding our own solution. By spreading awareness of what Cuba’s situation is, we will have begun to help.
Follow Mike Gonzalez on Twitter @gundisalvus.