A Cuban configuration of Linux, named Nova - Spanish for "doesn't work" - was announced at Informatica 2009, an international computer science convention that began on Monday in Havana, under the slogan of Development and Sovereignty. The conference’s focus emphasizes Cuba’s desire to be self-sufficient.
Switching the country to Linux would mean not sending money abroad for software to run Cuban computers. A Linux operating system is built around a kernel which was developed and released under the GNU General Public License. The source code is available free to everyone, even those in self-proclaimed communist countries apparently.
This move has been a while in coming. In 2005, Cuba's director of information technology, Roberto del Puerto, said that Cuba had approximately 1500 computers running on Linux, and they were building a Linux developer community. Back then, the island's University of Computer Science had 6000 students who were being encouraged to take part in local development of Linux programs, while Cuba worked towards replacing Windows on all state-owned computers.
Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, attended a 2007 technology conference in Havana encouraging their interest in a Linux-based solution. The Foundation is a charity that supports the idea that free software is part of the underpinings of a learning society where tools should be free to share, study, and modify.
In May 2008, the University of Havana finally decided to switch to free software on its network of computers which were mostly using Windows operating systems.
Motivations behind the move to Linux are many. The Cuban government, at odds with the US for years, does not want to be beholden to their northern neighbour, nor to any of its commercial henchmen. Comments made this week by the island government and an IT official displayed a tad of paranoia. The government sees use of Windows as a potential threat because US security agencies – does that mean the CIA – have access to Microsoft codes.
Hector Rodriguez, dean of the School of Free Software at Cuba's University of Information Sciences said: "Private software can have black holes and malicious codes that one doesn't know about. That doesn't happen with free software." I wonder if they view Google Earth’s invasion of their island nation as having malicious portent.
Twenty per cent of computers in Cuba are supposed to be using Linux now. Impetuous for the switch could be the long imposed embargo against Cuba by the US that affects legal software importation. Also, one might ask: if the government owns the only game in town, that being Linux / Nova, who pockets the profits?
Looking ahead to the future, Rodriquez said "I would like to think that in five years our country will have more than 50 per cent migrated (to Linux)." Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes, who heads a commission pushing Cuba's migration to free software stated, “Getting greater control over the informatic process is an important issue." Is the control he refers to similar to that in China where restrictions on Internet access are in place? Consumers in Cuba have only last year been allowed to purchase personal computers. That is, if they can afford one – income is quoted at about $20 USD per month. That’s a lot of months to save up for even the cheapest notebook.
The CIA reported in 2007 that there were 1.31 million Internet users in Cuba, but private citizens were prohibited from buying computers at that time, nor could they access the Internet without special authorization. Foreigners could get to the Internet in large hotels, but were subject to firewalls. The agency noted that some Cubans buy illegal passwords on the black market or take advantage of public outlets to access limited email and the government-controlled "intranet".
In a statement illustrating the struggle between freedom and control that is at the heart of Cuba, Rodriquez said: “Apart from security concerns, free software better suits Cuba's world view. The free software movement is closer to the ideology of the Cuban people, above all for the independence and sovereignty."
The Cuban people don’t seem to be terribly independent, nor sovereign – at least not the ones in dinghies floating toward Florida and the US. At least there, they will have unfettered access to their choice of operating systems and the Internet. X
Cyber Cuba Web Site