Latin America On-Line: The Internet, Development, and Democratization

Article excerpt

Increasingly, aid agencies are turning to information technology as a key to promoting development and political reform. Internet proponents view information as critical to solving such problems of environmental destruction, disease, and authoritarianism. While the Internet poses intriguing possibilities for enhancing economic competitiveness and political pluralism, it is also creating new forms of exclusion and may lead to the neglect of other basic development issues. Moreover, the proponents of the Internet expansion in the Americas risk exacerbating rather than diminishing the dependency and uneven growth of previous development schemes. This article explores the current state of the Internet in Latin America and identifies some of the contradictions which are apparent in the discussion and use of this new technology in the region.

Key words: Internet, development, democracy; Latin America

The idea that information is the key to renewed economic growth, as well as new forms of political participation and community has become ubiquitous in American popular culture. Recent advertising campaigns, for example, stress the anonymity and freedom of expression provided by the Internet.' In contrast to previous Orwellian visions of the homogenizing and controlling tendencies of technology, some now argue that technology can contribute to the creation of "hybrid cultures" and to "autonomous social expression" (Escobar 1995:410). Such claims exemplify what William Birdsall (1996) calls the "ideology of information technology" - the assumption that information and communication are the key not only to development and economic growth, but to new forms of democracy and freedom. A wide array of disparate groups are promoting the expansion of the Internet in Latin America. Businesses argue that the Internet is crucial to achieving competitiveness in global markets, governments tout the new technology as the road to modernization and national development, and activists argue that the Internet allows social movements to transcend borders and resist global political and economic forces.

Latin America is one of the fastest areas of growth for the Internet in the world. The number of "servers," or host computers, in Latin America now tops 45,000 (Cura 1996:46). Another sign of growth: the computer market in Latin America grew by twenty-one percent in 1995 (Cura 1996:48). Brazil has one of the most extensive Internet infrastructures in the region, and boasts satellite access from the Amazon. In Brazil, the Internet market grew a staggering 2,333 percent between January 1995 and January 1996 (Belejack 1996:14). Commercial sites in Brazil grew 1,073% between January 1996 and October 1996 (Marinho 1997). All Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil now have Internet connections, and 19961997 figures indicate that the number of hosts computers doubles every 12-15 months in the region (Molloy 1998).

Internet enthusiasm is infectious, and even skeptics of the euphoria are dazzled by the capabilities of the "information super-highway." An April 1998 search of the Web using the keyword "Colombia," for example, yielded over 85,000 sites with information on travel, business, politics, and current events. Bogota's major newspapers, El Espectador and El Tempo, now have Web sites where people around the world can get the day's top stories and access the papers' on-line archives. Anyone who can connect to the World Wide Web can check the current world price of coffee, and even access the entire Bogota phone book. Through the homepage of the Red Cientifica Peruana (RCP), Web surfers can access a wide variety of information related to Peru, much of it available in English, Spanish, and Quechua. We can also read Subcomandante Marcos's e-mail communiques from Chiapas, following the romantic life of a rebel in the jungle through his manifestos, prose, and poetry. A growing number of Web sites, posted in both Latin America and the United States, provide an overwhelming amount of information about cultural, political, and economic life in the region. …