As you can probably already tell, I have a soft spot in my heart for Cuba. So soft in fact that I am going to mostly focus on a Female Cuban Blogger. I hope you dudes can handle this…
Cubans are gradually getting more access to consumer technology after decades of living in the distant technological past. In 2008 Raúl Castro relaxed some importation laws on consumer electronics. Cubans are now allowed to own cellphones, DVD players, and personal computers. It’s still very difficult for the common Cuban citizen to connect to the internet though. A special permit is required to subscribe and Wi-Fi is still illegal. There are ETECSA offices in most Cuban cities that allow citizens to get access to the World Wide Web via a slow dial-up modem for about $7 CUC an hour, which is about a quarter of the an average citizens total monthly salary. It’s also rumoured to be protected by Chinese developed firewalls to block any content which could be perceived as subversive by the Socialist Cuban government. Email & access to the national Cuban intranet network is available for a much lower fee, but is heavily screened, and all personal emails are on a national domain routinely monitored for content by government staff. Any content on the national intranet is produced or sanctioned by the government, its sort of like a really strict and non-editable Cuban Wikipedia. Internet access available to tourists at resorts and hotels is much cheaper, and doesn’t have the strict firewalls Cubans must contend with. It’s a sharp disparity of internet content availability between citizens and tourists.
Cubans have traditionally gone to great lengths to get access to the internet though. Cubans are famously resourceful and crafty. They are always having to work around the economic constraints of living in a Socialist society. Almost every Cuban you meet knows someone who can help you with what you need. This underground pseudo-economic system is referred to as Sociolismo. It’s an informal reciprocal exchange system between individuals. For instance, A Cuban working for the government could provide governmental fax or email services for individual citizens in exchange for some toiletries or a car ride. It’s an endless cycle of mutual exchanges which has formed a huge black market economy in Cuba. The system is primarily used to facilitate trade of services and goods rather than monetary exchanges. Some common commodities in developed nations are virtually priceless to Cubans as they are so difficult to attain. Items such as soap, tooth brushes, guitar strings, baseball gloves, etc are all nearly impossible for Cubans to buy. Cubans routinely use this system to gain access to the internet that they would otherwise not be able to use without special approval or a government job position.
The internet situation is slowly improving though. The US government under Barack Obama has offered Cuba internet services but his offer was declined by the Cuban government. This would constitute American imperialism coming into Cuba, as these lines were built and funded by private US corporations, Cuba’s worst enemies. Instead, the relatively new alliance between Huge Chavez and Fidel Castro has served as the catalyst for high-speed internet connectivity in Cuba. Venezuela has recently completed construction on a fibre-optic cable connecting it to Cuba and Jamaica. This cable will exponentially increase the internet bandwidth available to Cuba. Whether or not this precious high-speed internet access reaches Cuban citizens is still yet to be determined. It will apparently greatly cut costs of internet service in the country, whether these savings will be passed onto Cuban citizens is still unknown at this time. I like to remain as optimistic as possible on this matter.
We do know that the Cuban government is very cautious of who has access to the Internet. American Social Worker Alan Gross was detained and charged in Cuba in 2009 for helping some small Jewish Cuban communities set up satellite internet access. This clearly shows that the Cuban government is not ready to allow its citizens free access to the world wide web. Also, Wikileaks released some Cuban diplomatic cables in late 2010 that indicated that the government was more worried about online bloggers than it is of traditional dissidents. Local dissidents are easy to intimidate and disperse while bloggers are difficult to trace and have the ability to publish far beyond the confines of the small island nation. The Cuban government has a history of being very critical of the internet and has strictly controlled its availability and content. It’s pretty obvious to me that they are just afraid of the freedom of information that the internet provides people. Whether free access to the internet would start a grassroots counter-revolution is really unknown, the Cuban government clearly does not want to take that risk. Look at what social networking and blogging did for the Arab Spring uprisings, If I were Fidel/Raúl, I would be afraid of the internet too.
Over the past few years blogging has become an underground sensation in Cuba. Bloggers have popped up all over Cuba since around 2007 when it first took off in the country. There are now many famous bloggers that are currently blogging from within Cuba. They use various methods to get their posts published on the web, as most of the traditional avenues are blocked by the government or simply not available to most Cubans. At the beginning of the blogger revolution Cubans were not allowed to even enter hotels or resorts for tourists (this changed in 2011). Famous Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has outlined her methods of blogging. She would type up her blog postings on a private computer not connected to the internet and would then save it to a USB memory drive. She would then pose as a German tourist and use an internet connected computer in a hotel. She posted strictly anonymously this way until 2008. Once Cuban authorities became aware of the site it was reportedly blocked by national internet filters. After a year or so of Generation Y and other blogs being inaccessible in Cuba, it was clearly not a glitch, it was obvious that the government was intentionally blocking traffic to internal bloggers on its national network. This attracted a huge wave of new-found international media attention on the situation. Yoani quickly went from being a blogger to becoming the voice of an oppressed Cuban populous and potentially a martyr. She was awarded with many international awards but was banned from travelling to accept any of them. She also claims she was abducted and beaten by government employees, but these claims have been refuted. She eventually had to start relaying texts & photos to friends and supporters internationally which contained her posts and images for others to post online. She gained an international network of supporters and was also able to maintain her personal safety now that she was blogging under her real name.
Other bloggers that were connected to her site DesdeCuba also had their blogs unavailable in the country and had to rely on similar workarounds. Some were able to find holes in the Cuban internet network that would allow them to access the site. Some would relay blog posts through text messages via foreign SIM cards to friends internationally. Some also collected blog posts over time and copied them to a writable cd and made sure they got into the hands of someone who could publish them online. Others even had access to private government internet connected terminals and would use them to post blog entries. They were all taking huge risks since the information they were posting could be classified as subversive by the government. An underground digital information network eventually formed to spread the word of oppressed Cuban bloggers. They couldn’t even target the audience that would most benefit from the blogs though (the Cuban people), they were mostly read by international audiences and translated into several languages.
Over the past couple of years the amount of Cubans with internet access has increased exponentially, even though it’s still one of the lowest in the world. Only about 12% of Cubans have access to the internet while its more like 15%+ in desperately poor neighbouring Haiti. It’s clearly not economic reasons or lack of infrastructure for access this limited anymore. Whether the new Venezuelan fibre-optic connectivity will be passed down through government, military, and higher education to ordinary Cuban citizens is still unknown. With the recent progressive changes in economic policy in Cuba, I would hope that human rights and censorship laws will be relaxed, as Cubans are getting an insatiable taste of some modern freedoms.
The Cuban blogosphere however is still thriving and probably more popular than ever. More and more Cubans are venting their frustrations and sharing their personal stories of daily life in modern-day Cuba. Most of the blogs are not overly critical of the Cuban government as you may assume, most consist of personal stories, photography, and the diaries of ordinary Cubans. Its far from an angry mod of anti-Castro dissidents. Most blogs that I have read are very eye-opening while being entertaining reads. They really do give a perspective on the modern Cuban lifestyle that has never been expressed before. It’s a glimpse of freedom and of free-speech for Cubans. It’s a really great thing. Lets hope Raúl Castro continues down the slow road of political progress in Cuba and bloggers continue to share their ideas, art, stories, and photography with the world without being persecuted as enemies of the state. No one can really stop the internet, it is here to stay, it is going to change the world for the better.
A great resource for checking out blogs by Cubans is Translating Cuba. It features the blogs of over 30 of the most prominent bloggers in Cuba, all translated into English by either a third-party or the bloggers themselves. Yoani’s blog is available on here in English as well. The translations are not always perfect but they always serve the purpose of relaying the messages and media from the bloggers. There is also a great page set up which lets anyone support these brave Cuban bloggers by adding funds to their personal cellphone accounts. This will allow them to relay posts via text messages and post updates on Twitter. You can also donate money to individual bloggers. A list of their contact information is available on the page as well. These bloggers rely on the generous support of others to keep them safe and give them the resources to be able to transmit data. All of the bloggers on this site are blogging from inside Cuba, are independent and not paid, write under their own names, and are all frequently updated. It’s a great resource for English speakers to get access to these great blogs. Check out the video below for an interview with Yoani Sánchez with English subtitles from 2010. Enjoy