Monday, June 13, 2011

Cuba: Activists, Bloggers on the Cuba Money Project Vimeo Channel

Cuba: Activists, Bloggers on the Cuba Money Project Vimeo Channel
Posted 13 June 2011 12:30 GMT
Written by Ellery Roberts Biddle

For anyone interested in US policy, human rights activism, or the
problem of free expression in Cuba, there is a new must-see channel on
Vimeo. It belongs to the Cuba Money Project.

Last December, journalist, blogger, and Flagler College professor Tracey
Eaton began the Cuba Money Project (CMP), a non-profit research and
reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater
transparency and accountability to US federal spending on
"pro-democracy" programs in Cuba. With the help of a grant from the
Washington-based Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Eaton has
employed a blend of traditional and new media techniques in his work. In
addition to an active newsfeed and blog, the CMP website includes data
visualizations of spending details, a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act)
tracker, and spaces where readers can contribute their own knowledge.

US Funding in Cuba: 'Pro-democracy' or anti-government?

Despite sanctions against spending US dollars in Cuba, the US government
has spent millions of dollars over the last five decades on an
interventionist policy towards Cuba. Since 2007, Congress has allocated
between 13 and 45 USD per year to be spent on "pro-democracy" programs
in the country.

These programs have grown out of a US-Cuba policy framework that once
sought to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. US ire for Cuban
leadership began decades ago with Fidel Castro's declaration of the
socialist character of the revolution, and his refusal of economic aid
from the US, and Cuba's subsequent alliance with the Soviet Union.
Today, the rhetoric has shifted: the stated goal of US policy in Cuba is
no longer to bring the downfall of the government, but rather to support
Cuban citizens' efforts to improve their lives through the restoration
of human, civic, and economic rights. Yet regardless of how the US
chooses to represent its efforts, the "pro-democracy" programs that it
supports are, by nature, anti-government, or at least fall in opposition
to some part of the Cuban system as it currently stands.

The opposition is diverse

The twenty-four interviews on CMP's Vimeo channel feature Cuban human
rights activists, traditional dissidents, bloggers, and government
workers and supporters, along with policymakers from Cuba, England, and
the US. I recently had the chance to interview Eaton about this
impressive archive.

Eaton's goal is to get representative views from across the spectrum of
opinion and influence on these issues.

People have passionate views. I want to help them tell their story
without taking sides. Letting them talk into the camera is a great way
to do that. […] Video [allows] people to speak directly to the [viewers]
without any intervention from me. I ask questions, but I don't filter
what people say. I try to let them tell their story. I edit the videos
very lightly, if at all.

He says that the archive is far from complete, and that he is determined
to get more Cuban government supporters and workers to participate.

The videos do not form a cohesive narrative about activism and US
involvement in Cuba; rather, they show the truly diverse range of ideas
and goals espoused by Cuban political activists and by those in the US
who influence US-Cuba policy. As dissident leader Martha Beatríz Roque says,

[l]a ideología dentro de la opposición es diversa. […] No somos
partido único—partido único es el partido comunista.

Ideology within the opposition is diverse. […] We are not one sole
party—the communist party is a sole party.

One-peso note. Photo by Tracey Eaton.

One important difference between activist groups that is all but
indecipherable in mainstream coverage of Cuba is that which separates
"old guard" dissidents, whose primary aim is to bring about the downfall
of the Castro regime and the Cuban socialist project at large, and those
who advocate for human rights in Cuba. While leaders like Roque, who is
connected with anti-Castrist leaders in Miami, believe that more US
government money could make a meaningful change in dissident work on the
island, Oswaldo Payá, leader of the famed 1990s Varela Project, is not
so sure of this.

El dinero de los Estados Unidos no va a decidir el cambio en Cuba.
[…] La esencia del problema es que el gobierno cubano no reconoce los
derechos de los ciudadanos cubanos en Cuba. […] El problema está en
Cuba, y la solución está en Cuba, y entre cubanos.

Money from the United States is not going to drive change in Cuba. […]
The essence of the problem is that the Cuban government does not
recognize the rights of Cuban citizens in Cuba. […] The problem is in
Cuba, and the solution is in Cuba, between Cubans.

Unemployment among opposition activists

Eaton has interviewed several members of the women's opposition group,
Las Damas de Apoyo, who advocate for the end of politically-motivated
incarceration in Cuba. They work in support of the Damas de Blanco, a
coalition of women whose husbands and sons have been imprisoned for
political reasons. Each of the women interviewed described how she had
lost her job, and was unable to find work, because of her political beliefs.

Unemployment and underemployment among members of Cuba's political
opposition is widespread…[They] are in a difficult spot…They have to do
something to get by. I can understand why a dissident might accept help
from a non-governmental organization.

But, he says, "It's a risky proposition. Accepting support from a
US-financed NGO can set them up for possible arrest or jail time." And
doing political work costs money.

If dissidents from Havana need to travel to another town to meet
with other dissidents, it costs money…Internet access and phone calls
are extraordinarily expensive…Simple things can be tough to accomplish
in Cuba, especially if you are strapped for cash. You can't just walk to
a Kinko's on the corner to make copies.

Opposition leaders in various camps described the problems that money
can create for their cause, particularly when coming from the US. Aleida
Godinez, a state security agent, believes that when US money stops
coming in, the dissident movement will end. When asked about US support
for pro-democracy initiatives in Cuba, Godinez notes an important
problem that many Cubans perceive within this paradigm.

Los promotores de los valores de la democracia, de la libertad, son
norteamericanos. No entiendo por que razón no permiten que un país como
Cuba no puede elegir su propio sistema social. […] [Demuestra] una falta
de respeto para el pueblo cubano.

The people who promote the virtues of democracy and freedom are North
Americans. I don't understand why they cannot allow a country like Cuba
to elect its own social system. […] It [shows] a lack of respect for the
Cuban people.

"Dissident bloggers" or just bloggers?

Eaton has interviewed three of Cuba's most prominent anti-government
bloggers, Claudia Cadelo [es], Laritza Diversent [es], and Yoani Sánchez
[es]. I asked him what he thought of their involvement with opposition
initiatives, and how he saw them fitting into the larger landscape of
pro-democracy activism that CMP seeks to better understand.

Blogger Laritza Diversent. Photo by Tracey Eaton.

Eaton calls Cuba's bloggers a "diverse bunch." "[T]hey shouldn't be
lumped together with political dissidents," he told me. "Some Cuban
bloggers support the socialist system. Others rebel against it, but
don't consider themselves to be dissidents."

"Many bloggers want change, but steer clear of politics," he told me.

When I talked to blogger Claudia Cadelo last year, she…didn't seem
too interested in politics. She wants change. She wants an expansion of
basic freedoms. But I wouldn't consider her to be a political dissident.


Some bloggers purposely avoid the U.S. Interests Section in Havana
because they don't want to be linked to American efforts to undermine
the Cuban government.

Indeed, many of the island's most widely read bloggers advocate for
change, but do not engage directly with politics. Even Yoani Sánchez did
not begin blogging with a particular political agenda, though unlike
many, she has since become a vociferous advocate for particular
political changes in Cuba.

If there were a political platform for bloggers, Eaton says it would be
advocacy for free expression and open Internet access for all Cubans.

My impression is that a key issue for many Cuban bloggers is
freedom of expression. They want Internet access for all. They want it
to be affordable. They want to network with other people and they want
the freedom to use technology without someone looking over their
shoulder. […] Outside Cuba, there are many bloggers and democracy
activists who are eager to see change on the island. Many are Cuban
exiles who have no plans to return to Cuba while the Castro brothers are
in power. They are quick to support many of the bloggers, and sometimes
pull them into the swirling currents of the U.S.-Cuba grudge match
whether the bloggers want that or not.

Projects like Eaton's might well serve as a counterbalance to the common
assumption by many activists groups that all Cubans who criticize their
government are alike. No matter what side they're on, anyone interested
in the complex political world of Cuba today should check out the Cuba
Money Project Vimeo channel.

Creative Commons License
Written by Ellery Roberts Biddle

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