When I started working at the independent press agency, Cuba Press, in December of 1995, internet sounded like a science fiction concept. Very few of us knew anything about it. In that highway of information we just saw a complicated trick of interconnections destined only for computer specialists. And according to what the government would tell us, it was a monster of the CIA.
In 1995, the island was still not connected to the internet. In Cuba Press, we were only about 20 correspondents, some of who had experience in State journalism. We couldn’t even dream of having a PC or a laptop. We would look at that kind of equipment as if it were strange creatures. The tough guys from State Security were searching to see if we had computers to try to demonstrate that we were an active nucleus from the United States special services.
We would type up the texts with typewriters, some older than others. Meanwhile, some of us would conserve the Robotrons, that old fossil made in Eastern Germany. Those machines had such hard keys that they would sometimes produce strong pains in the tips of our fingers. One day, a foreign journalist passed by Havana and left us his laptop, and we actually traded it in for a portable Olivetti Lettera 25 typewriter.
My dream was to write with an electric machine with a soft keyboard, with sufficient blank sheets at hand, as well as carbon paper and black tapes. Nearly everyone prefered not having a computer. Using one seemed far too complicated. It required a lot of attention and they could easily accuse you of being a “spy”.
In June of 1997, three State Security agents searched my house for a computer. My mother told them that we did not have any, but that if we did have one we would have gotten rid of it a long time ago because a neighbor of ours had told us that State Security asked the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) to keep a watch on us to see if they could catch us with our hands on… a computer!
Despite our technological backwardness, ever since Cuba Press was created on September 23, 1995, all the chronicles and articles — dictated by phone — would get published on the internet, thanks to the collaboration of Cubans living in Miami.
We would write for websites we had never seen and we couldn’t even imagine how they looked. Every once in a while they would send us printed copies of our works. The only way we were used to reading: touching and smelling the paper.
Granma International was the first government publication which used the internet, in 1996. They officially initiated this move during the Pope’s visit to Cuba in 1998. But the top leaders of the Communist Party continued to suspiciously observe the new tool. They carefully analyzed the pros and the cons. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the ideological talibans understood that the internet could be used as an effective weapon in favor of them as well. In matters of new technology, Fidel Castro has always tagged along.
In that silent battle between official clerks and alternative reporters, the regime was the one that lost. And it wasn’t because we independent journalists were geniuses (we really weren’t), but simply because we were — and still are — free beings at the end of the day.
During the Black Spring of 2003, Castro was out of his wits with the opposition and the dissident press. He hated it so much that he took 75 opposition members to prison, out of which 27 of them were independent journalists.
The Cuban regime has always considered the internet to be a dangerous enemy. To confront it, it has created a special regiment within counter-intelligence and the University of Information Science, located in a former electronic espionage base which was used by Russia some time ago. There, amid sex and relaxation, 8 thousand young communists prepare themselves to sabotage blogs and web pages of those who think differently.
Although they existed before, it wasn’t until 2007 that island bloggers became popular outside of Cuba. But it’s only fair to point out that 12 years before, when internet was a rare word and having a laptop was a luxury, a group of journalists living at the margins of state control, who were technologically daring and novice, were already using the internet to publish their articles.
Postscript by Tania Quintero
In an interview with Rosa Miriam Elizalde, published in Cubadebate, one journalist spokesperson for the Castro regime affirms at the end that, “Cuba has taken a very hopeful step for the future of Cuban internet: the submarine cable which connects us with Venezuela. We know that the cable is not the magic solution for our connectivity issues, but we do know that it will improve our communications, and upon benefiting many people, it will also strengthen our internet values. And I sincerely believe that 11 million cyber-activists with values of the Cuban Revolution generate more panic for the United States government than the ghost of Julian Assange multiplied many times”.
The challenge is in motion. When Cubans finally have free internet access from their homes, and not only “intranet” with the possibility of logging on to international e-mail providers like Yahoo or Gmail, then we will see if it’s true that “the revolution” will have “11 million cyberactivists”. In today’s impoverished Cuba, maybe 1 % of the population have computers in their homes or possess laptops or “tablets” which allow them to communicate freely without having to turn to email offices, computer clubs, or state-run cybercafes where both users and their connections are controlled.
It would be wonderful if 10% (or more) of Cubans on the island had the opportunity to buy computers and be able to pay, in foreign currency, for their home connections. Perhaps half of those 10% are fervent defenders of the Castro brothers and their revolution. But I doubt it.
In fact, in 1998 when Rosa Miriam Elizalde was studying in the final year of her journalism career in the University of Havana, in order for her to train in television technologies they put her and Grisell Perez, a fellow student, in the editing office where I worked for Cuban TV. We made a point of view show titled “Ruling women, get in your place”. It was finished in Sancti Spiritus, the native city of Rosa Miriam. One night she took us to met her uncles — the ones who raised her after her mother died.
On Sunday, February 21st of 1999, page 5 of “Juventud Rebelde” (“Rebel Youth”), Elizalde wrote (or signed) an attack against independent journalism titled “Mercenaries in a Rush”. I responded with “Without Hypocrisy”, which was published in Cubafreepress on March 1, 1999, the same day I was arrested by State Security in Marianao while I was heading to the trial against four members of the Internal Dissidence Work Group. I was locked away in a dungeon in the police unit situated on 7ma and 62 in Miramar for 29 hours.
As a matter of fact, Rosa Miriam Elizalde and myself are the only two Cuban journalists mentioned by the Catalonian writer Manuel Vazquez Montalban in his book “And God Entered Havana”, published in 1998 (TQ).
Translated by Raul G.
April 10 2011