Friday, October 12, 2007

Cracking the Door Open In Cuba

You've heard about blogging for peace in the Middle East, Egyptian bloggers who act as daring critics of the regime they live under, and the citizens of Myanmar opening a rare window into their closed nation with videos of the protests there.

But perhaps one nation you wouldn't expect to hear about being a hotbed of subversive blogging is one right in our backyard: Cuba. The International Herald Tribune reports on this phenomenon in "Blogging from Havana, secretly":

When Yoani Sanchez, 32, wants to update her blog about daily life in Cuba, she dresses like a tourist and strides confidently into a Havana hotel, greeting the staff in German.

That is because Cubans like Sanchez are not authorized to use hotel Internet connections, which are reserved for foreigners.

In a recent "GeneraciĆ³n Y" posting (www.desdecuba.com/generaciony), Sanchez wrote about the abundance of police patrolling the streets of Havana, checking documents and searching bags for black-market merchandise.

She and a handful of other independent bloggers are opening up a crack in the government's tight control over media and information to give the rest of the world a glimpse of life in a one-party, Communist state.

"We are taking advantage of an unregulated area. They can't control cyberspace out there," she said.

But they face many difficulties.

Once inside the hotel, Sanchez has to write fast. Not because she fears getting caught, but because online access is prohibitively expensive. An hour online costs about $6, the equivalent of a fortnight's pay for the average Cuban.

Independent bloggers like Sanchez have to build their sites on servers outside Cuba, and they have more readers outside Cuba than inside.

That is not surprising, since only 200,000 Cubans of the 11 million on the island have access to the World Wide Web, the lowest rate in Latin America, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Only government employees, academics and researchers are allowed to have their own Internet accounts, which are provided by the government.

Regular Cubans are allowed only to open e-mail accounts that they can access through terminals at post offices, where they can also see Cuban Web sites, but access to the rest of the World Wide Web is blocked.

"My access to Internet is very irregular," said the anonymous author of a blog called "My island at midday," (http://isla12pm.blogspot.com).

The Cuban government blames the limited Internet access on the U.S. sanctions that bar Cuba from hooking up to underwater fiber-optic cables that run just 12 miles offshore, a highway of broadband communication. Instead, Cuba must use expensive satellite uplinks to connect to the Internet via countries like Canada, Chile and Brazil.

Critics say that is just a pretext to maintain control over the Internet, a powerful tool that some believe could play an important role in spreading information in Cuba.

Not surprisingly, many of those 200,000 who do have Internet access are leery of losing their privileges through any imprudent posting that could place them at odds with the Castros:

Dozens of government supporters, mainly state-employed journalists with Internet accounts, have blogs. But most of them avoid commenting on the travails of daily life in Cuba and stick to the official line.

Many reproduce columns that Fidel Castro has written from his sickbed, along with criticism of the United States taken from the state-run press.

One exception is Luis Sexto, a columnist for the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde, who recently posted a blistering attack on state bureaucracy at http://luisexto.blogia.com.

"Without public criticism, mistakes will continue to hurt our country," Sexto wrote last month.

Others avoid politics and discuss cinema and literature, or nostalgia for the Soviet cartoons Cubans were brought up on (http://munequitosrusos.blogspot.com).

But most prefer to remain anonymous or use pseudonyms in order to protect themselves.

A blogger who goes by the name of "Tension Lia" posts mostly photographs of the ruinous state of Havana's architectural treasures on a blog called Havanascity (http://havanascity.blogspot.com).

The creator of "My island at midday" told Reuters by e-mail message that the anonymity of the blog has allowed him to say some things that nobody has dared write about.

"Dissent has always been frowned upon," the author wrote. "Intolerance is still the rule in Cuba, even though Cuban society is starting to adapt to diversity of opinions."

I've committed myself to investigate each of these blogs and attempt, in my mediocre Spanish, to comment on whatever I find interesting. (The blogs are, of course, in Spanish.) I think it would be fascinating to start a dialogue with ordinary people in a country whom I would not ordinarily have contact. The Internet, if made widely available, could truly be a powerful tool to allow the Cuban people to gain access to far more information than can be gleaned from the state-run media, and hence a much broader view of the outside world. Of course, it is for precisely this reason that Internet access is restricted to a mere 1.8% of the entire population. As with the State Department's Digital Outreach Team efforts in the world of Middle Eastern blogging and media, starting a dialogue with those who oppose you or don't understand you helps to combat misinformation and is the first step towards righting wrongs and attaining mutual respect.

Clearly, the Internet has revolutionized the world, and will continue to do so for years and years to come. By posting this very feature, I, like millions of other people across the globe, am contributing to the common repository of knowledge and conversation that is the Internet. It is truly unfortunate that the Internet has clearly not affected all parts of the world in a similar fashion. Internet censorship still persists in China, Iran, and a variety of other nations under repressive regimes.

But for now, such censorship can only be defeated by the daring actions of these brave souls. The future of a global exchange of ideas and democratization depends on ordinary people, just like them.

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