Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The New Challenge to Repressive Cuba

The New Challenge to Repressive Cuba
by Daniel Wilkinson
Published in:
The New York Review of Books
August 19, 2010

For decades, the Castro government has been very effective in repressing
dissent in Cuba by, among other things, preventing its critics from
publishing or broadcasting their views on the island. Yet in recent
years the blogosphere has created an outlet for a new kind of political
criticism that is harder to control. Can it make a difference?

There are more than one hundred unauthorized bloggers in Cuba, including
at least two dozen who are openly critical of the government. The best
known of their blogs, Generation Y, gets more than a million visitors a
month and is translated into fifteen languages. Its author,
thirty-four-year-old Yoani Sánchez, has won major journalism awards in
the US and Europe and in 2008 Time magazine named her one of the world's
one hundred most influential people. Sánchez has set up a "blogger
academy" in her apartment, and she helped found the website, Voces
Cubanas, which hosts the work of thirty independent bloggers.

Like other government critics, these bloggers face reprisals. Last
November, for example, Sánchez reported being detained and beaten by
Cuban security agents. Weeks later, her husband and fellow blogger,
Reinaldo Escobar, was subject to an "act of repudiation" by an angry mob
of government supporters on a Havana street. Such public harassment, as
Nik Steinberg and I reported in our recent New York Review piece, is
commonly used against "dissidents" on the island, along with police
surveillance, loss of employment, and restrictions on travel.1
(The Cuban government requires its citizens to obtain permission to
leave the island, and those marked as "counterrevolutionaries" are
generally denied it.)

And then there is the perennial fear of the "knock on the door"—as
Sánchez puts it—announcing the beginning of an ordeal that has been
endured by countless critics: arrest, a sham trial, and years of
"reeducation" in prison. Cuba has more journalists locked up than any
other country in the world except China and Iran. (In early July, after
the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded
directly with Raúl Castro, the Cuban government announced that it would
release fifty-two political prisoners who have been held since 2003.
However, that group does not include any of the many other Cuban
dissidents arrested since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother
in 2006.)

Policing the Internet, however, is not so easy. The Cuban government
controls the island's Internet servers, just as it controls the printing
presses and broadcasting transmitters. But the inherent porousness of
the Web means that anyone with an Internet connection can disseminate
new material without prior approval. The government can block the sites
it does not like (it blocks Generation Y in Cuba, for instance), but it
cannot stop other sites from springing up to replace them.

The biggest challenge for Cuban bloggers isn't outright censorship. It's
simply finding a way to get online. To set up a private connection
requires permission from the government, which is rarely granted. Public
access is available only in a few government-run cybercafés and tourist
hotels, where it costs approximately five US dollars an hour, or one
third of the monthly wage of an average Cuban. As a result, bloggers
often write their posts on home computers, save them on memory sticks,
and pass them to friends who have Internet access and can upload
them—for example workers in hotels and government offices. Others
dictate their posts by phone to friends abroad, who then upload them
through servers off the island.

No amount of resourcefulness, however, can change the fact that most
people in Cuba are unable to access even the unblocked blogs. Indeed,
the bloggers themselves are not always able to read their posts online.
Some have never even seen their own sites.

Still, by reaching large audiences abroad, the critical blogs pose a
threat to the Cuban government's international image—which explains why
the government and its supporters have reacted so virulently, attempting
to discredit the bloggers as pawns or even paid mercenaries in the
service of US imperialism. Granma, the official state news organ,
published an article in its international edition dismissing Generation
Y as "an example of media manipulation and interference in the internal
affairs of a sovereign nation." The editor of the pro-government blog
Cubadebate put it this way: "The United States has been waging economic
and political warfare against [Cuba] for the past 50 years. And this is
just the latest form of that warfare."

Yoani Sánchez herself, when asked by another blogger about the "external
factors" that had contributed to Generation Y's popularity, acknowledged
that attention by The Wall Street Journal and other foreign publications
had helped bring new visitors to her site. "But," she went on, "what
happened was the readers came and they stayed. Users could have come
once and not come back. Press coverage doesn't make a website."

So why do the readers come back?

I asked the Cuban novelist José Manuel Prieto what the bloggers' appeal
was for Cuban exiles like himself. "First, it's their moderation," he
said. "They criticize the Cuban government without calling for its
overthrow." Indeed, Sánchez, Escobar, and others are unequivocal in
their condemnation of the US embargo against Cuba, a position that until
recently was taboo within much of the exile community. In late May, for
example, a group of Cubans, including Sánchez, Escobar, and several
other bloggers from Voces Cubanas, signed a public letter to the US
Congress, urging support for a bill to lift travel restrictions to Cuba.

But more than their politics, Prieto said, what's appealing is their
measured tone. Sánchez herself puts it this way: "I have never used
verbal violence in my writings. I have not insulted or attacked anyone,
never used an incendiary adjective, and that restraint may have garnered
the attention and sympathy of many people." Ironically, the bloggers'
moderation may be their most subversive quality. It makes it harder for
the Castro government and its supporters to dismiss them as right-wing

If these blogs are to serve as a catalyst for change, however, it will
not be by influencing Castro sympathizers, who are less likely to read
them anyway. Instead it will be their growing audience within the exile
community, whose leaders have largely shaped US policy toward
Cuba—policy that, as Steinberg and I have observed, is widely seen as a
failure and in urgent need of a new direction. Like the Cuban leaders,
the anti-Castro hard-liners have sought to discredit opposing views by
questioning the motives and allegiances of those who hold them. They
accuse critics of the US embargo of ignoring the Castros' repressive
policies. But this charge does not work with the independent bloggers in
Cuba who question US policy. For not only are these writers themselves
victims of the repression, they are today among its most credible witnesses.

Whether the bloggers can ultimately influence US policy is an open
question. In any case, their objectives appear to be more modest—and
more profound. They are not polemicists or pundits so much as poets and
storytellers. They are less concerned with proposing new policies than
chronicling the costs to ordinary people of the repressive policies
already in place. The bloggers' ability to evoke the realities of daily
life in Cuba, Prieto says, is another principal source of their appeal.

Here is Sánchez describing one of Havana's many sex workers:

With a tight sweater and gel-smeared hair, he offers his body for
only twenty convertible pesos a night. His face, with its high
cheekbones and slanted eyes, is common among those from the East of the
country. He constantly moves his arms, a mixture of lasciviousness and
innocence that at times provokes pity, at others desire. He is a part of
the vast group of Cubans who earn a living from the sweat of their
pelvis, who market their sex to foreigners and locals. An industry of
quick love and brief caresses, that has grown considerably on this
Island in the last twenty years.

Here she recounts the daily chore of getting water:

On the corner there is a hydrant which, at night, turns into the
water supply for hundreds of families in the area. Even the water
carriers come to it, with their 55 gallon tanks on rickety old carts
that clatter as they roll by. People wait for the thin stream to fill
their containers and then return home, with help from their children to
push the wagon with the precious liquid….

I still remember how annoyed my grandmother was when I told her I
couldn't take it anymore, having to use the bathroom when there was
nothing to flush with. Then we had to pull up the bucket on a rope from
the floor below, helped by a pulley installed years before on the
balcony. This up-and-down ritual has continued to multiply until it has
become standard practice for thousands of families. In their busy daily
routine they set aside time to look for water, load it and carry it,
knowing that they cannot trust what comes out of the taps.

Another blogger, the forty-year-old novelist Ángel Santiesteban, records
the struggle over scarce bread outside a bakery:

When the bread comes out of the oven, the mobilization starts,
disorganized shoving…. Everyone shouts, offended if someone tries to
join an acquaintance in the line or tries to sneak into a possible gap
with the objective of cutting in; but the violators don't listen, the
insults don't matter, hunger is worse than shame, and they keep on pushing.

Claudia Cadelo, the twenty-seven-year-old author of the blog Octavo
Cerco, begins a post with this account:

I met him when I was eighteen: intelligent, tall, good-looking,
mulatto, bilingual, and a liar. He said he was an Arab and that was a
lie, he told me he had traveled and that was a lie, he told me he had a
"yuma" girlfriend who was going to get him out of the country, and that
too was a lie. But I liked him anyway, I like dreamers. We became friends.

Then life took us on two different paths: I got tired of waiting
for a way to leave the country; while he chose the infinite wait. Once
or twice a year we see each other, every time we are further apart: I
deeply enmeshed in the thick of things, he waiting and waiting.

The post then takes us up to the present. The friend, now fifty, is
still waiting, his old lies exposed, his charm long gone:

He is not alone, the "infinite waiting" has claimed almost all of
my friends—the petition, visa, permit to leave, permit to live abroad,
permit to travel or scholarship—everyone is waiting for that paper that
will take them far away, very far from The Land of No-Time…. I have come
to define it as a physical and spiritual state: you haven't gone, but
you are not here.

Sánchez tells the story of a man who made his living repairing damaged
books. One day the man opened a large volume that had been sent for
restoration and discovered inside a "detailed inventory of all the
reports that the employees of a company had made against their
colleagues." It was, Sánchez writes, a "testimony, on paper, of betrayals."

As in the plot of Dangerous Liaisons, in one part it could be read
that Alberto, the chief of personnel, had been accused of taking raw
material for his house. A few pages later it was the denounced himself
who was relaying the "counterrevolutionary" expressions used by the
cleaning assistant in the dining room. The murmurs overlapped, producing
a real and abominable spectacle in which everyone spied on everyone.
Maricusa, the accountant—as witnessed by her office mate—was selling
cigars at retail from her desk, but when she wasn't involved in this
illegal work she turned her attention to reporting that the
administrator left some hours before closing. The mechanic appeared
several times, mentioned for having extramarital relations with a woman
in the union, while several reports against the cook were signed in his
own hand.

On concluding the reading, one could only sense an enormous pain
for these "characters" forced to act out a sinister and disloyal plot.
So the restorer returned the book after having done the poorest
[technical] job his hands had ever performed.

Some of the most telling posts probe the bloggers' own reactions to the
limits the government has placed on their freedoms. In one, Sánchez
describes how she was unable to obtain copies of her own book, a
compilation of her blog postings published in Chile, which she had hoped
to distribute among her friends on the island. Instead, she received a
note from the customs office explaining that the shipment of books had
been confiscated on the grounds that the "content goes against the
general interests of the nation." In the post, she imagines what might
have gone through the minds of the agents who confiscated the books and

If three years of publishing in cyberspace would serve to bring my
voice only to these grim censors, I would have sufficient reason to be
satisfied. Something of me would remain inside them, just as their
repressive presence has marked my blog, pushing it to leap toward freedom.

Here Cadelo reflects on her failed effort to obtain a visa to travel abroad:

Today I look at my refusal of permission to travel and it gives me
peace: I was not hurt, not surprised. It is the long line that I have
been drawing of my path, it's the certainty that I wasn't wrong, it's
the proof that the Cuban government has taken the trouble to tell me so
I will know—despite the Party and its State, the security forces and
their impunity—that I have managed to live as a free woman.

The paradoxical satisfaction both bloggers describe reflects a sense of
vindication: the government's confiscation of Sánchez's book and denial
of a visa for Cadelo confirm their work—not only the truth of what they
write but the fact that, in the government's own estimation, their blogs

Yet there appears to be something even more basic here: the satisfaction
of discerning the value of things as perhaps only someone who is
deprived of them can. To a large extent this is what these blogs are:
chronicles of deprivation. What appears to affect these bloggers most
acutely is being deprived of ways to discuss and disagree about their
country's problems. When they manage to initiate such debate—even if it
takes place in a forum that is inaccessible to most Cubans—their
enthusiasm is palpable.

Here is Sánchez's answer to the question of why readers of her blog keep
coming back:

They feel that Generation Y is a public place or a neighborhood
where they can sit and talk or argue with a friend. And they have stayed
there, right up to today. In this very moment my blog is alive, while I
am sitting here, talking to you. People are recounting, narrating,
publishing, and that is the most important kind of wealth there is.

Indeed, the posts on Generation Y routinely elicit thousands of comments
from readers, most of them abroad. Some are angry diatribes. Some
display the familiar intolerance of ideologues insisting on adherence to
their beliefs. Most, however, are from people eager to contribute their
own observations and commentary—and their own stories and vignettes—to
this new "public place." This open dialogue is a historic achievement
for Cuba, and it is only possible thanks to the Internet. Yet the
bloggers themselves have only limited access to this conversation, and
most other Cubans on the island still have none.

One of the more moving passages I've come across in Generation Y follows
an interview with a Spanish journalist who visited Sánchez's apartment
in Havana earlier this year. Here is Sánchez, one of the world's more
influential bloggers, describing what appears to be her first encounter
with the iPhone. The passage conveys the playfulness and yearning that
make her voice of moderation so appealing:

Between the walls of this house, which had heard dozens of Cubans
talk of the Internet as if it were a mythical and difficult to reach
place, this little technological gadget gave us a piece of cyberspace.
We, who throughout the Blogger Academy work on a local server that
simulates the web, were suddenly able to feel the kilobytes run across
the palms of our hands. I had the desperate desire to grab [the Spanish
journalist's] iPhone and run off with it to hide in my room and surf all
the sites blocked on the national networks. For a second, I wanted to
keep it so I could enter my own blog, which is still censored in the
hotels and cybercafés. But I returned it, a bit disconsolate I confess.

For a while on that Monday, the little flag on the door of my
apartment asking for "Internet for Everyone" did not seem so unrealistic.


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