In 1987, informatics did not touch every aspect of daily life as it does today, and Cuba was not an exception. Nevertheless, an ambitious social project that aimed to teach computation to the greatest number of children and youth possible was launched. Thus, On September 8 that year, the Computation & Electronics Youth Club was established, an idea that has reached its 30th birthday, and is being renovated in tune with the times.
"The first 32 Youth Clubs were located in each of the provincial capitals. In the case of the province of Matanzas, one was also constructed in the municipality of Colón, another in Cárdenas, and another in Varadero, and this way the first installations were set up," said Raúl Vantroi Navarro Martínez, director general of the Joven Club.
Over time, services associated with information and communication technologies expanded. Computers began to appear in schools and institutions, and generations that didn't know how to work with the equipment also began to take classes at the Youth Clubs, to acquire these skills.
"The number of Youth Clubs in the country was expanded, reaching 174 facilities in those years. Then in 1981, a former market was converted to become the Palacio Central de Computación, (in Havana) and later in 2000, the number of clubs reached 300. Later, between 2004 and 2005, 300 more were created, raising the figure to 600 across the entire country. Today there are more than two per municipality," Navarro explained.
"Over the years, Joven Club has experienced rapid development. Today all the facilities have specialized staff, some 5,000 workers. Forty-seven percent of them are university graduates, more than 1,500 have proficiency in another language, and more than 800 have a Masters degree."
"With this skilled personnel, services and courses have been broadened. In addition to basic training, specialized, and post-graduate options, there are courses for children, those with disabilities, and older adults.
"During these 30 years, we have developed applications, provided assistance and consultation, and more than 4.55 million persons have earned degrees. Currently, we have 21 more services under development, and aim to improve those which already exist," Navarro added.
SERVICES & PRODUCTS
Cuban families are the focus of the clubs' work. Throughout this period, their products have been of outstanding quality. Such is the case with Ecured, the Cuban digital encyclopedia that supplies universal knowledge. With a variety of articles about our country, Ecured has more than 532 active collaborators and more than 39,000 registered contributors.
"The encyclopedia receives visits from different Latin American countries such as Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Colombia, Chile, Venezuela, and others. Plus it is consulted by 250,000 personas daily, and recently received the Espacio prize awarded by the Cuban Association of Social Communicators," explained Anamaris Solórzano Chacón, deputy director general of Joven Club.
Another well-received product is the Mochila (Backpack), a digital cultural entertainment package for all ages. It functions very much like a non-traditional TV station, offering a variety of sections that allow viewers to create their own programming.
"Our domain platform .cu that hosts Cuban blogs isReflejos (Reflections). We have designed it as an accessible space where bloggers can share their opinions, interests, and needs in text format, images, or video. Thus, Reflejos is a mirror in which Cubans can recognize their common interests and desires," Solórzano said.
Reflejos hosts a total of 3,163 active blogs, some 22,199 users, and receives more than 300,000 visits a month.
El Estanquillo (The Stand) is another platform that functions in real time, offering downloads or viewing in digital format of press media, both international and national. The application facilitates access to current information, fashion trends, arts and crafts, culture, sports, and healthcare, among others.
SUSTAINABLE & POPULAR
Even though the social success of a project like the Joven Club is evident in the interest in its efforts shown by Cubans, maintaining these services is costly for the country. Raúl Vantroi Navarro Martínez explains that every year the entity spends some 56 million pesos to support the effort.
"Entities around the world that offer computer services are very costly. Updating software, hardware, and maintaining all the equipment in working condition is fundamental to these facilities. That's why, in 2014, the decision was made to begin charging for some services," he added.
For the clubs, this decision was important and moreover strategic, because the operation is looking to become self-financing. The challenge is to become financially sustainable and continue to be popular.
"A child pays two CUP to play on a computer for two hours, and to play online, with one player in Guantánamo and the other in Pinar del Río, it's just three CUP an hour. Now this costs the country much more than that, but we cannot forego being accessible to everyone, and things must continue this way," Navarro insisted.
"The Joven Club we are imagining now must be 100% self-financing, with rates that the population can afford, and must also maintain the essence of its founding principles, that is to be a people's organization, having novel, attractive products that are constantly evolving into something better, and a highly qualified staff.
NOVELTIES & CHALLENGES
This past August, the Computation Youth Club launched a pilot project in the city of Santiago de Cuba, specifically in the Caney neighborhood, an area with little access to modern technology. The goal is for people to learn to use technological equipment like cell phones, tablets, and computers.
With the name of Infoalfabetización (Info-literacy), the program looks to promote digital literacy among the Cuban population that has not acquired these skills, to be able to use new information and communications technology.
According to María de los Ángeles Pérez Ramírez, deputy director general of Joven Club, families in the area shared their computers and houses for the courses to be offered, thus greatly enriching the experience.
"Joven Club's greatest contribution to the computerization of society is teaching people to use new technologies. Sixty-eight instructors are being trained in this province, linked to the Ministry of Education, Public Health, INDER (Sports Institute) and the Ministry of Culture. In one week, we were able to train 48,651 people, including 1,120 children, 419 older adults, 88 individuals with disabilities, and 19 incarcerated youth," Pérez added.
The project is to be extended across the entire country this fall and conclude next year, after activities planned to celebrate the club's 30th anniversary.
"In addition to this big effort, work for 2018 will involve modernization of the network and training for the range of new services more in tune with the times. Plus, we intend to complete work on products in development, for their use in the Joven Club network, and guarantee the sustainability of the portfolio of products and services we offer," director Raúl Vantroi Navarro Martínez stated.
Thus the Computation and Electronics Youth Club intends to strengthen its ties with Cuban families, as a place for education and entertainment, but above all popular and accessible to all.