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TECHNOLOGY-CUBA: University Opens Doors to Free Software

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, May 17 2008 (IPS) - After years of deliberation, the University of Havana has finally decided to switch over to free software on its network of computers, virtually all of which are running the Windows operating system, produced by United States software giant Microsoft.

The plan, approved by the University Council, envisages intensive training of professors and computer personnel this year, followed in 2009 by the broad installation of the GNU/Linux operating system, which uses the Linux kernel created by Linus Torvalds of Finland in 1991.

“It’s a plan for the long term,” Yudivián Almeida, a professor in the mathematics and computer science department of the University of Havana, told IPS. “It’s an attempt to minimise conflict and avoid abrupt changes, such as removing Windows and installing Linux.”

In fact, the changeover strategy is made up of several stages, from installing specific programmes like the browser Mozilla Firefox to replace the widely used Internet Explorer, which began Jan. 5, to training operators to use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office, until patented software is finally dropped.

According to U.S. software developer and activist Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement and the creator of the General Public License (GPL), a free programme must comply with four freedoms: the freedom to run the programme for any purpose; the freedom to study how the programme works and adapt it to your needs; the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others; and the freedom to improve the programme and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Almeida said it was logical to start with those who teach computer science, and computer laboratory staff, “because they are the most resistant to change.” Students, in contrast, have to accept the contents of each subject as laid down in the course plan.


“Computer course curriculums need to be revised, as at present they are mostly taught using Windows,” said Almeida, who coordinates the Free Software and Linux User Group at the University of Havana, where several departments are changing their course plans after the changeover to free software was approved on Jan. 5.

“When free software has been installed on all of the university’s computers, it will make no sense to teach using anything else,” he concluded.

Cuba announced its intention to switch over to free software in May 2005, beginning with the government’s central administration offices. However, so far only the customs service has adopted GNU/Linux on all of its computers.

A national working group was formed to promote the shift, including representatives of the ministries of education, justice, the interior, higher education and the armed forces, as well as the customs service, the Office for Computerising Cuban Society, the Computer Sciences University (UCI), the University of Havana and the José A. Echeverría Institute.

“The national group makes suggestions, but there is no legislation to enforce the changeover,” said Almeida.

On Apr. 10, he posted on his personal web site a decree by Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on shifting to free software in that country’s central public administration offices.

The purpose of the move is to “attain sovereignty and technological autonomy,” as recommended by the Ibero-American Charter on Electronic Government, approved by the Ninth Ibero-American Conference of Ministers for Public Administration and State Reform, held in Chile in June 2007.

Winning acceptance of free software has not been easy at the University of Havana, where courses of study in social sciences and other subjects take precedence over the new information and communication technologies, said the 27-year-old Almeida.

“University professors have been the most reluctant to change, because they have become proficient in the use of certain patented software instruments,” said Almeida, who has a degree in computer sciences.

According to Almeida, those who oppose the change claim that free software is of lower quality than commercial programmes like Windows, an argument that is often hard to settle, while they overlook other aspects such as technological sovereignty.

The overwhelming majority of the approximately 380,000 computers in Cuba run on illegal copies of the Windows operating system and use pirated versions of programmes, for which no license fees are paid, because of the four-decade U.S. embargo against the island.

According to a survey on access to selected information and communication services carried out by the state National Statistics Office (ONE), 33 percent of Cubans over six used a computer at least once during 2007.

The study found that computers were most frequently used in post offices and centres called Youth Computer and Electronics Clubs, organised by the Young Communist League to spread knowledge of new technology. Computer access in the home only accounted for 5.2 percent of the total.

In Almeida’s view, free software would end the University of Havana’s dependence on programmes for which unaffordable sums in license fees would become payable if relations with Washington are normalised in future. In addition, it would promote the socialisation of knowledge, one of the basic goals of higher education in Cuba.

“This issue had been discussed for a long time without any decision being reached,” said Almeida. “The start of the plan is quite a significant step forward.”

 
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