INSIDE CUBA: Guerrilla Blogging
A virtual democracy against all odds.
By Orlando Pardo Lazo
Blog." Many people in Cuba don't understand all the fuss regarding this
mono-syllabic word that seems to have no relationship to the daily
routine of survival.
On the Island, the blogosphere is an incipient media and, outside of
Havana, all but invisible. Though their work generates controversies and
awards worldwide, Cuban bloggers are largely unknown here. With Internet
access in Cuba restricted to the very few, the nation's bloggers
function as a kind of guerrilla underground. They work as independent
agents whose existence heralds a civic re-activation that will modulate
the Revolution's Realpolitik—or is that Raúlpolitik?
Blogs Sobre Cuba, an online database founded in 2007, lists more than
1,000 blogs on Cuban topics, both on and off the island.
The State monopoly of the printed word, which continues to be the media
most read, doesn't seem interested in acknowledging the 21st century's
cursed tetragrammatron: BLOG. So when a State journalist needs to quote
from some foreign (never domestic) blog in his article, he does it with
sterilized surgical gloves, never explaining the format of his source.
Curiously, these same State newspapers have their own digital replicas
that are a lot less orthodox than their print counterparts. They're on
State cyber-portals that celebrate the government's achievements in
health, sports, technology, education, tourism, culture, etc. As a
counter-offensive in the "War of Ideas," dozens of official journalists
are also allowed to hang blogs on sites such as Bloggers Cuba and
Blogueros y Corresponsales de la Revolucion . In both cases, the vast
majority of these writers are male and white—not exactly reflecting the
country's population or the rest of the world's multi-culti blogosphere.
Even Fidel Castro has become a blogger with the publication of his
reflections in Cubadebate.
Anidelys Rodriguez, a communications professor at the University of
Havana, has studied the blogs in the State-sponsored Cuban blogosphere.
According to Rodriguez, the majority reflect "professional ideologies
and traditional news values" and "a self-imposed commitment to re-affirm
national identity." In other words, these are not personal blogs but
appendices to the State media in which the writers already work.
But for a Cuban blogger to get to the mythical Ithaca that is the
Internet, they must first navigate an odyssey of obstacles. First, there
is the scandalous cost of connecting, which in just a couple of hours
can swallow an average monthly salary ($15 to $20 U.S.). Then there are
the Paleolithic browsing speeds (usually less than 50 Kbps). And
finally, of course, there is the ministry-level apartheid that prohibits
Cuban nationals from opening a web account with ETECSA, the national
telephone company—whereas any foreign resident can do so with a simple
bureaucratic application accompanied by hard currency.
Nonetheless, whether through tricks or under-the-table payments,
information in Cuba today travels with unprecedented speed. Some people
use online computers at diplomatic compounds, like the U.S. Special
Interest Section, and thus are attacked as "dissidents" by official
spokespersons. Many occasionally log on from hotels to upload and
download all their material for the week—or the month. (Sometimes Cuban
nationals are allowed to do this openly, other times they're banned from
the cyber cafes at hotels that cater to foreigners; it's always a
mystery what will happen at any given hotel on any given day.) Others
don't upload or download their texts and images themselves, but send
them instead, as e-mail attachments, to a collaborator who will do them
the favor from abroad. This is also how many blogs publish in different
According to the National Office of Statistics (which doesn't count
anything outside of formal channels), out of a Cuban population of more
than 11 million, only 1.5 million use the Internet. Online connections
made through student or work centers ban "pornographic and
counter-revolutionary" sites, creating an incriminating nexus between
those two words, and denying access to almost everything published by
Cubans abroad. Domestic connections authorized for individual government
officials are, in practice, also domesticated: portals such as Cubanet
and Cuba Encuentro, both exile news services, are blocked by the Cuban
government, as are various proxy servers. Cuban national servers, such
as Infomed and Cubarte only allow browsing on ".cu" domains, which are
exclusively Cuban State pages and as such are a kind of cyber chastity
belt euphemistically referred to as the "Intranet." In practice what
this means is that most of the few Cubans who have online access don't,
in fact, have access to the Worldwide Web at all—only to e-mail.
Users on these restricted networks assume that their e-mails are
monitored, or even erased if they contain politically incorrect words.
To violate State sensibility can mean having the service suspended, or
Take the case of Ángel Santiesteban, who writes a blog called Los hijos
que nadie quiso (The Children Nobody Wanted).
Santiesteban, a much-lauded writer who has won most of Cuba's top
literary prizes, wrote about the shameful behavior at a minor Mexican
book fair of a delegation of Cuban writers In essence, he chided these
writers "who never question government management" for opportunism, and
for demanding abroad what they would never ask for at home. He quoted
one anonymous writer as saying he/she had agreed to go to Mexico because
of the "proper meals, daily clean sheets, CNN and hot water for showers."
Following that blog post, Santiesteban was called in by an official with
the Instituto del Libro. The tiff with the functionary inspired more
blogs and an assault on the street that left Santiesteban with a broken
arm, but still able to write. Since his blog isn't available in Cuba, it
was presumed that his assailants, who called him "counterrevolutionary,"
were sent by State security. Santiesteban filed complaints with both the
Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba and the Ministry of Culture, which
have promised to investigate.
Then there is the story of Erasmo Calzadilla, a former university
professor who writes for Havana Times, an English-language portal that
was originally run from Cuba by a State-employed, foreign-born
interpreter. (The site is now operated from Nicaragua, where the owner
lives after losing employment in Cuba.) Calzadilla, 34, was fired from
his university, Instec, after posting a series of entries on
controversial topics, such as the naïveté of foreigners when it comes to
Cuba, or how gay Cuban couples have nowhere to go to have sex. He
detailed his dismissal from the faculty in his blog as well and, now
teaching at another school, continues to write for Havana Times.
In spite of this panoptic attempt to control a medium as emancipating as
the web, Cuba has one of the most popular blogs in the world: Yoani
Sánchez's Generacion Y. Sánchez is a 34-year-old philologist who doesn't
write for a newspaper or have access to too many interactive tools, but
she's at the cutting edge of Cuba's digital revolution. (The name of her
blog stems from the curious predilection of Cubans in the '
70s and '80s
to name their children with Russian sounding names.) Like a lot of sites
from the Island, including many official ones, Sánchez uses a
foreign-based server to guarantee the integrity and security of her
In a gesture of solidarity that serves as an example of the Cuba's
independent blogosphere, she shares her site, Voces Cubanas , for free
and without hierarchies, conditions or political sectarianism, with any
Cuban national who wants to create a blog.
On a government site, Cambios en Cuba, which seems practically dedicated
to slamming Sánchez, authorities have added to the Generaci—n Y logo a
swastika and letters reading "CIA."
Because of the stigma now attached to Generacion Y many people
interested in blogging are cautious about actually doing so just yet.
But the diversity on Voces Cubanas is already well-known, including
popular blogs like Sin Evasion and Desde Aqui ; the very dramaticVoz
Tras las Rejas, written by the journalist Pablo Pacheco, who's actually
in prison at an undisclosed location and whose work is produced
completely in defiance of the authorities; the irreverent Octavo Cerco;
a replica of Sánchez's blog, given that the original continues to be
blocked in Cuba by the authorities vocescubanas.com/generaciony and my
own photo-blog, Boring Home Utopics.
Due to the high cost of connection in Cuba, those who can connect rarely
read online, so the distribution of blog materials on the island itself
happens through other means, particularly memory sticks and CDs.
Unquestionably, immediacy and feedback are affected by these second- and
third-hand reading experiences, which sometimes disconnect the bloggers
from their natural audience.
In addition, Sánchez has organized Itinerario Blogger 2009, which
facilitates theoretical and technical exchanges about the blogosphere
and its repercussions worldwide. This past summer, Kelly van der Kwast ,
a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, participated in an
underground workshop in the provinces for future bloggers.
Though the Cuban blogosphere is still emerging and can only be read in
its entirety from outside (of course, on the Island, State security
apparatchiks follow every little millimeter of progress, every update),
today there's a certain optimism among local participants.
The State has not yet passed specific laws against a phenomenon as new
as blogging, although the habit of accusing critical voices of being
"capitalism's useful idiots" or "mercenaries of enemy propaganda" can
serve as a brake on free expression. "It's secret work and neo-colonial
journalism," Fidel Castro said of Sánchez in 2008. But the attacks on
and persecution of bloggers like Santiesteban and Calzadilla are, of
course, frightening. There are also legal warnings issued for
"peligrosidad predelictiva," or "dangerous pre-criminality," which has
been used to arrest and harass, but not yet convict.
Some well-known Cuban opposition figures have just recently begun to
experiment with this form of instant publication, and they consider the
bloggers possible allies in their efforts toward a democratic
transition. But there's a generational conflict because the bloggers'
infamy has practically taken traditional dissidents out of the media
For now, the Cuban blogosphere perseveres, on and off the island, with a
broad, chaotic diversity of opinion on all sides—a virtual democracy,
against all odds.?
Orlando Pardo Lazo is editor of the e-zine The Revolution Evening Post.
He is the author of Collage Karaoke (Letras Cubanas, 2001), Empezar de
cero (Extramuros, 2001), Ipatr'as (Unicornio, 2005), Mi nombre es
William Saroyan (Abril 2006) and Boring Home (digitally domestic, 2009).
INSIDE CUBA: Guerrilla Blogging — In These Times (6 December 2009)