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 ideologues.

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 concludes:

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 matter.

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.