Blogging Under Fear — The Risks of Virtual Protests
Translated by Alicia Sewald
Like those who have placed their hopes for a democratic future in boats, Cuban bloggers place their hope in missives sent into cyberspace not knowing if they will reach their intended target.
In this country of 11.5 million, the independent blogosphere remains very small because of obstacles to Internet access and fear of repression and reprisal. According to a recent report of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) there are 300 blogs on Cuba; 200 of which are operated by journalists who work for the government; Of the remaining 100, only 25 are journalistic in nature and are regularly updated.
Acquiring a computer in Cuba is not an easy task. People who own computers can be divided into three groups: those who work for the government; those who manage to buy them in government stores at prices far out of reach for most Cubans; and those who obtain them illegally. The final group uses their computers in hiding and in fear that the police will search their homes and confiscate their machines.
However obtaining a computer outfitted for Internet access doesn’t guarantee you can surf the web. On paper, the government approved a law allowing free use of the Internet, but in practice, bloggers claim, getting on-line is expensive and near impossible. In an email interview, blogger Orlando Luis Pardo wrote that access to the Internet is the privilege of those who have Peso Convertibles, money created exclusively for tourists. One hour on the Internet in a hotel or cybercafé costs the equivalent of one-week’s salary. VIEW PARDO’S BLOG HERE.
According to the CPJ report, Cubans need a password issued by the government Internet provider to have private access to the web. Like many things in Cuba, you can find these passwords on the black market, but their cost is equal to two week’s salary.
If everything is so expensive, how the bloggers afford their endeavors? Most of them don’t have unlimited access, so they read their posting over the phone to friends overseas who post on their behalf. Others are less candid about their methods because they finance their blogs by working illegally as tourist guides or Spanish teachers, among other things.
Pardo explains that even though there are Internet connections in hotels or government offices, they are very slow and the public computers are not trustworthy. “The Government steals your passwords and can monitor all your email,” he said. He added that downloading large documents is almost impossible and seeing a video or listening to audio on-line is like glimpsing utopia.
The government claims that 12.5% of the population has access to the Internet, but bloggers assert the number is inflated because it is includes government administrative networks.
Raúl Castro blames Cuba’s limited Internet access on restrictions established by the United States. However in his interview with the blogger Yoani Sánchez, President Obama said: “We have opened telecommunications in order for the people of Cuba to expand their view of the world around them.” He added that this work is still in process and requires the Cuban government to seriously commit to moving toward democracy and proving their respect of human rights.
Battle against the international block
Most of the independent bloggers identified by the CPJ are in their 20s and 30s. They are journalists, students, professors, lawyers, artists, photographers or musicians. Their blogs are dedicated to the critical examination of everyday issues concerning Cuban life: lack of food, healthcare, education, housing, and Internet access.
In his interview with Sánchez, President Obama praised the courage of the Cuban bloggers. He acknowledged the restrictions on Internet use in Cuba and the fact that bloggers work under the fear of reprisals. Though the Cuban government’s limits on the Internet as not as severe as they are in China, they are nonetheless quite repressive. Reprisals to bloggers range from verbal threats to beatings and imprisonment.
“This is like hell,” said Pardo, “but the blogger’s spirit overcomes all difficulties with enthusiasm as long as they can make their blogs visible each and everyday.” These authors do everything they can to disseminate their texts. They allow websites around the world to publish their comments, send e-mail chain messages, and they exchange information through Bluetooth, a wireless protocol that connects devices such as mobile phones, laptops and digital cameras.
The blogger’s spirit that Pardo talks is evident in “virtual protests” when the bloggers all together criticize a specific government action or raise awareness about a particular issue. Yet, Pardo recognizes that their efforts cannot go far if the people who speak up remain so few in number. What’s most important, he said, is that the number of blogs increases. In order to encourage
blogging, Sánchez created the Cuban Bloggers Academy and launched a contest in 2009 called “Una Isla Virtual” (One Virtual Island) to motivate people to continue to develop their websites, as well as start new ones. A jury awards prizes in a variety of categories and readers can also vote for their favorite blog via online ballots.
Claudia Cadelo’s Octavo Cerco (Eighth Circle) was chosen out of 187 nominations for the Best Blog prize. Cadelo wrote on her website that the story of her winning is one she will tell her grandchildren in a distant future. And in that story, she will also tell how she helped her friend Pablo Pacheco, a journalist who was sentenced 20 years in prison in 2003.
Pacheco calls Cadelo from prison and reads her his commentaries to be transcribed and posted on a blog called Tras las Rejas (Behind Bars). In providing technical assistance and acting in extreme solidarity, others bloggers often cooperate to make their blogosphere bigger.
In the context of Cuban journalism, these blogs are innovative in many ways: They allow for immediate news to be disseminated to the rest of the world, provide space for diverse ideologies and opinions, and are an alternative to the official government press. Above all they are an attempt to open democratic avenues. All of this has generated a new sense of Yo (I) in a country were the discourse always has been marked by the use of the plural nosotros (we). The bloggers speak in the first person and purposefully exclude the “we comrades,” a phrase which has been a pillar of the Castro regime, said Ernesto Hernadez Busto, editor of the blog Penúltimos Días (Second to Last Days) in a phone interview from his home in Spain.
In making space for this individualism – in political view points, for personal catharsis, or as an artistic outlet – the world of blogging has come a long way. Pardo recently used his blog to circumvent censorship and publish his literary work. He is the author of four books that have been published in Cuba. His work was never banned until 2008, when his novel Boring Home was denied print by Letras Cubanas Publishing House. “It was not because of the content of the book, but because the comments I have written on my blog” clarified the author. He decided to publish Boring Home in his blog in February 2009.
Pardo and his friends were also blocked from participating in the government sponsored Cuban International Book Fair. He said, “I encountered the constant opinions of the whole Cuban literary field, although nobody dared to write their opinions anywhere. Bloggers were waiting anxiously to see what was to come after a book was published outside of the Cuban International Book Fair. I dealt with phone and e-mail threats and constant attack from certain Cuban journalists.” When Pardo and his friends gathered outside of the Book Fair, they “were surrounded by men with walkie-talkies and “civilian” experts in martial arts ready for action at any given moment. It was like a show. I also got thousands of complaints and a few good criticisms from some renowned literary critics.”
Pardo’s pioneering actions are proof that, thanks to the Internet and the blogs, authors are no longer tied to the approval of their texts by the Committee of Reading or to the budgetary limitations of a publishing institution provided they can access the web. “I believe” Pardo said, “that soon censorship will be an obscene and vintage concept of 20th-century Cuba, not one for the 21st century. As authors, we have the ethical responsibility to be the protagonists of this process.”
That process is far from over. In 2003 several writers including Pacheco, tried to challenge the government in similar way that the bloggers are doing it today. They sent their articles to overseas blogs by phone or fax. In what is now known as the Black Spring, 75 of these journalists were imprisoned. Twenty still remain behind bars. Orlando finds many differences between the two movements, however it remains to be seen if another such crackdown will occur or if the bloggers really do have the power to challenge government censorship.
Read Silvia’s bio.