Latin Trade, June, 2000 by Jack Epstein
BY NOW, WE HAVE ALL HEARD OF the digital divide–the widening gap between the haves and have-flats of the Internet world.
In the United States, the Clinton administration is narrowing the gap by installing computers in schools, libraries and other public places nationwide. While Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez recently signed a contract to connect his country’s 310 high schools to the Internet at a cost of US$25 million, most Latin American governments lack funds for textbooks and pencils, never mind computer networks.
Enter Silicon Valley firms. The hightech companies are spending millions of dollars to connect schools and Latin Americans to the World Wide Web.
Cisco Systems, for one, has a project called Networking Academy Program that provides free computer equipment for businesses, governments and communities in 60 nations. At least half a dozen of them are in Latin America.
Sun Microsystems, another Valley firm, has helped bring the Internet to the biggest market of all-Brazil. Sun provided local universities with equipment at a very low cost. Among other initiatives, Sun recently announced an agreement with Internet provider Net Gratuita to provide Sao Paulo schools with free web access.
These operations of the heart are helping Latin America to develop. But some question whether breaking down barriers between rich and poor is merely a guise for a savvy marketing campaign aimed at making the region dependent on U.S. technology and e-commerce websites.
While that may sound farfetched, Silicon Valley firms would do well to take heed. Their “purely philanthropic” efforts are beginning to run into traditional Latin American nationalism under a new rallying cry: cyber-colonialism.
“We will denounce all colonialism, including what’s happening on the Internet,” says Eurico Schwinden, a spokesman for the center-left Brazilian Workers Party (PDT).
Net solution? “Backed by an intense media campaign, they [U.S. companies] are trying to convince everyone that life is impossible without high technology,” adds Carlos Alberto Teixeira, a journalist who covers the Internet industry for the Rio-based daily O Globo. “And they have convinced our politicians and economic elite that the solution to Brazil’s problems is hooking up our schools to the Net.”
Steve Langdon, Cisco’s corporate public relations manager, believes no apology is in order. “Cisco is an Internet company and we believe in promoting the Internet,” he says. “If someone wants to denounce the Internet, they’re welcome to it–but at the peril of their country.”
Instead of donating software and hardware, Teixeira suggests that the civic-minded companies would do more good if they simply gave good, old-fashioned cash for basic conventional education, health and nutrition.
The high-tech freebies certainly won’t narrow the digital divide anytime soon. A recent study by the Silicon Valley-based SRI International underscores how difficult it is to bridge the gap. The study monitored a World Bank program to bring the Internet to public schools in Peru and Chile.
At the Avelino Caceres School in Chincha, Peru, Internet lines were cut off for nearly a year because the school couldn’t afford the telephone company’s high rates. The school currently finances its phone bills from parental donations, summer course fees and by selling duplicate copies of diplomas.
Not surprisingly, what is known as a divide in the United States is an abyss in Latin America. Only 2% of the region’s 486 million inhabitants are online, while only 3.8% of homes have computers, compared with 52% in the United States
Whether the new cyber-barons ultimately decide to give software, hardware or “cashware,” they may not be able to escape the same kind of anti-Yankee resistance encountered in the past by Texaco, United Fruit and American Steel. After all, the story of U.S. multinationals dominating yet another industry will certainly not win any popularity contests in the region.
Yet the question remains: Should today’s cyber-billionaires look farther than immediate Internet hookups to aid the region when they cast their net over Latin America?
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