Cuban dissent finds voice on Internet
So far, the island's bloggers avoid repression.
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
Published February 7, 2008
The blog created by Yoani Sanchez, who goes to great trouble to get it on the Internet, offers a rare glimpse of life in Cuba.
[Lara Cerri | Times]
HAVANA -Shortly after Cuba's recent parliamentary elections, Yoani Sanchez, 32, felt the urge to speak up. It wasn't complimentary.
She sat down at her laptop in a cubby-hole office in her tiny apartment, tapped out a brief but incisive 300-word essay and copied it to a memory device the size of a cigarette lighter. Then she rode her bicycle a couple of miles to the nearest Internet cafe.
Walking past security guards, she took a seat at a desktop console, typed the password to her blog, Generacion Y, and quickly uploaded her latest post:
"I can't remember a single discussion, one heated argument, to come out of its monotonous meetings ... not one parliamentarian saying, 'No, I won't accept that.'"
Within hours the post attracted a stunning 726 comments from all over the world, some in favor and some critical. But Sanchez wasn't arrested.
Sanchez's outspoken comments are a rarity in Cuba, where printed criticism of its communist system can be considered "enemy propaganda," punishable by stiff jail sentences.
But more open debate is flourishing on the Internet where bloggers like Sanchez, who is not part of the island's so-called dissident movement, walk a fine line between criticism and political opposition.
"Cyberspace hasn't been fully regulated here yet. It's in a legal limbo," said Sanchez, 32, who began blogging in April. "I think that's why I am still here because there is no clear illegality in writing on the Internet."
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Sanchez's site attracted 800,000 hits in January, most from outside Cuba. Inside Cuba, Internet access is increasing, but it remains an object of suspicion.
Cuba's communications minister, Ramiro Valdes, a veteran comandante of the revolution, recently told an international conference that the Internet was "the wild colt of new technologies," adding that it "can and must be controlled."
Only trusted government employees, academics and researchers may have personal Internet accounts, which are provided by government servers.
Ordinary Cubans are allowed access to e-mail at local post offices. They can view government approved Web sites through an official Cuban "Intranet" that blocks pornography and anti-Castro Web sites.
Sanchez sticksto the rules. She never uses the free Internet access offered at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. Nor does she use improvised Internet setups that some Cubans have installed illegally at home.
"I can't do that. I want to explore the small cracks in the wall to see what is permissible," she says.
That often means a bike trip to the Capitol building, which houses one of the country's two open-access cyber cafes. She canwait two hours for a computer.
Internet access is expensive in Cuba. One hour costs about $6, the equivalent of two weeks salary for the ordinary Cuban.
Sometimes Sanchez tries her luck at one of Havana's tourist-only hotels, which have Internet cafes. Petite and fluent in German, she is adept at dressing like a tourist and brushing past hotel doormen.
Cuba defends its restrictions as necessary to block what it calls U.S. efforts to overthrow the government. It blames limited access on the U.S. economic embargo, which prevents the country from linking to underwater fiber-optic cables 12 miles offshore. Instead, Cuba must use expensive satellite uplinks.
Valdes, the communications minister, defended Cuba's "rational and efficient" use of the Internet, highlighting how the government put computers in schools and a network of 600 government-run Youth Computer Clubs.
While computers are not freely available, Cubans who travel abroad are allowed to acquire them. Secondhand models - as well as parts - are available in Cuba on the black market.
"To someone who lives in the U.S. that may seem like hell on earth, but it makes sense here," said John "Circles" Robinson, an American blogger who writes from Havana.
Robinson, unlike Sanchez, blogs from home. He works for a translation agency and has state-approved Internet access.
"It's not that the government doesn't want people to have computers in their homes," he said. "The government has a limited amount of money and it has to prioritize. It's a very centralized system, for better or worse."
* * *
Sanchez, a literature graduate, has no formal job or stable income. She and her husband, journalist and fellow blogger Reinaldo Gonzalez, make money doing translations and guiding tourists around Havana.
The name of her blog refers to the popularity early in the Cuban revolution for children's names starting with "Y" - Yoandri, Yuslady, Yuniesky. These "children of the revolution" were brought up on socialist promises that the state would provide for everyone. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed, ushering in an era of dire shortages.
In a Jan. 26 post, Sanchez described a futile search for lemons to cure a sore throat. It became an opportunity to question Cuba's centralized agricultural system:
"Should I keep up hope, or conform and forget the taste of lemons?" she concluded. "When will the land belong to someone who makes it produce, and not a state that under-utilizes it in abandoned large estates?"
Sanchez says her blog is an effort to break the silence of her generation. "I felt I had this internal pressure building up inside me after so many years of silence. I felt a need to express, to vomit it all up - an exorcism."
She and her husband bought a World Wide Web domain in Germany and friends helped her design the site.
"I think she is a great observer and a great writer," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute in Washington, and author of the Cuban Triangle blog. "It's very micro, in her neighborhood, slice of life observations - things that a mother notices."
While most comments on Sanchez's blog are favorable, she also comes under attack from government loyalists, who sign off with the slogan "Long Live Fidel."
So far she been allowed to operate unmolested.
She puts that down to media exposure surrounding her blog, as well as an "inoffensive face." But she senses disapproval isn't far away.
"My neighbors don't greet me, and my friends don't visit me as much as they used to," she said. "I get the feeling I'm watched."
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.
www.desdecuba.com/generaciony. Available in English translation.
The Cuban Triangle
Circles Robinson Online
[Last modified February 7, 2008, 00:09:18]
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