Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Cuba’s Promising New Online Voices

Cuba's Promising New Online Voices
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At times, hitting the publish button feels like playing Russian
roulette. Carlos Alberto Pérez, a blogger in Havana, is far from being a
dissident. He works for the Ministry of Communication and has
government-provided access to the Internet at work and at home. Mr.
Pérez's bedroom walls are covered with black-and-white photos of Che
Guevara, the legendary Argentine guerrilla leader who helped catapult
Fidel Castro to power in 1959. Yet to read his blog, La Chiringa de
Cuba, is to get a gritty view of how much has gone awry in Cuba, a
nation of 11 million, still governed, after five decades, under the
mantra "socialism or death."

"Here, everything works poorly," said Mr. Pérez, who often wonders
whether his next critical post could be his last. "The only thing that
works well are the armed forces."

In December 2010, nearly three years after he took power from his ailing
brother Fidel, Raúl Castro called on Cubans to be critical of the
system, acknowledging that the Communist Party had failed its citizens
in myriad ways. Cuba's diverse and growing community of bloggers and
independent journalists have done just that, becoming a powerful
alternative to the official press, which for decades has delivered
hyperbolic and dull content, but little substantive journalism.

Few segments of Cuban society will stand to benefit more from improved
relations between Washington and Havana than this group. As Internet
access on the island expands and the Cuban government can no longer
credibly argue that the United States represents an existential threat,
independent writers could become even more important agents of change.

For decades, Cuba's state-run print and broadcast news media outlets
have been mouthpieces for the Castros in assailing the United States as
the "imperialist" scourge responsible for the country's problems. The
American government responded by spending hundreds of millions of
dollars on Miami-based radio and television propaganda outlets to
undermine Cuba's leaders and destabilize the government.

An interesting middle ground emerged in 2007, when Yoani Sánchez, a
piercing, evocative writer, began publishing blog posts online,
describing the grim realities of everyday life in Havana. Her blog,
Generación Y, became an international sensation and an irritant for the
government, which has relentlessly and unfairly attacked her as an agent
of the West. Some of her dispatches, which were uploaded from Internet
cafes for tourists, have been unflinching in their criticism of the
country's leaders.

As Internet access became more common in state-run workplaces like
universities, blogging began to flourish, with no clear ground rules.
For those who had Internet access, two subjects were widely understood
to be off limits: questioning the legitimacy of the top leaders or the
viability of a Cuba's Communist system. It didn't take long for some
bloggers to start pushing boundaries.

By 2012, La Joven Cuba, or The Young Cuba, a blog run by young
professors at the University of Matanzas, had developed a healthy
audience, getting nearly 3,000 visitors a day. Writers took veiled shots
at the state and allowed uncensored reader comments. They dissected the
downfall of authoritarian socialist systems in the 20th century and
criticized the official press for being subservient to the Communist
Party. A few months after the school held a blogger conference in April
2012, administrators blocked access to La Joven Cuba.

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As other bloggers began taking on the cause of the Matanzas bloggers,
the controversy reached the top echelons of the Cuban government. In
March 2013, the first vice president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, who
has been widely considered Raúl Castro's successor, visited the
university to meet with the blog's administrators. His opening question
startled them: What do you need to get La Joven Cuba back online? The
question signaled that they had his blessing, a point he underscored by
posing for a photo with the bloggers. Access to the blog was promptly

"After that, there haven't been many similar cases, and the tolerance
for criticism has widened because it starts being seen as legitimate and
healthy for society," said Harold Cárdenas Lema, one of the blog's founders.

Mr. Pérez caused an unusual stir this year by publishing a post about
widespread cheating on university exams. When he alerted the Education
Ministry that answer sheets for a coming exam were being sold, officials
dismissed his allegation. After he published proof, officials arrested
several people.

While authorities have tolerated criticism from bloggers like Mr.
Cárdenas Lema and Mr. Pérez, they have censored other voices who have
pressed for meaningful democratic reforms. Ms. Sánchez and a group of
journalists started a digital news site,, in May, but the
government blocked it for users on the island. "In Cuba, printing
presses are more guarded than military bases," Ms. Sánchez said in an
interview in her Havana apartment. Besides being censored, she is
vilified daily by anonymous blogs and on social media, which Western
diplomats suspect are run by Cuba's security agency.

The Cuban government earlier this month pledged to take steps to broaden
Internet access in an editorial published in Granma, the main state-run
newspaper. Not surprisingly, the editorial blamed the country's backward
infrastructure, and limited access, on American sanctions and
Washington's punitive policy toward Havana. President Obama's dramatic
policy shift last week will soon render those excuses obsolete. Steps
being taken by Washington to make it easier for American technology
companies to do business in Cuba could greatly increase Internet speed
and access in the near future. Mr. Pérez, however, is skeptical.

"I don't think the government is ready for widespread Internet," he
said. "If 200 bloggers give them headaches every day, what's going to
happen when a shoemaker has WhatsApp?"

It would be wonderful if Cuban leaders were courageous enough to prove
him wrong by expanding Internet access and ceasing to censor voices that
provide much-needed constructive criticism. If they aren't, Cuba's
bloggers will be ever more equipped to take them on.

Source: Cuba's Promising New Online Voices - -

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