Cuban Blogosphere: Stings and Irritations of the Internet in Cuba / Miriam Celaya

(Work originally published in number 9, Voices magazine)

Several weeks ago an interview appeared in the virtual space The two-part interview was conducted by Luis Manuel García Méndez, and the person interviewed was the young American scholar Ted Henken. Titled “Mapping Blogolandia” (May 2011), Henken traces, with remarkable objectivity, his map of the Cuban blogosphere and its different trends, and offers his personal views about the blogger phenomenon in the Island. As expected, after this professor had been warned by the Cuban authorities that he would not be allowed to reenter Cuba, some official bloggers have reacted with special virulence towards the analysis Henken conducted and, as usual, they have unleashed the well-established smear campaign.

But beyond the irritation that the interview may have awakened, his observations place the sights on a phenomenon which — perhaps for being new or controversial, since it was born within the dissident faction of the island — is quite unknown to Cubans. Possibly because it is “new” in a country that since the last five decades has been characterized by late access to technological advances, or the whiff of suspicion that emerges from the unknown, the Cuban blogosphere is permeated by somewhat confusing classifications, labeled with adjectives that do not clearly reflect the reality of the phenomenon.

Thus, bloggers emerged spontaneously and free through our own personal spirit and resources within the dissidence or the alternative civil society (which in Cuba are almost the same thing), we do not have statutes or programs and are not grouped under any direction, association or institution or directed by any leader. We are the so-called alternative or independent blogosphere. It’s basically people who do not associate with each other, with complete autonomy; we each assume full responsibility for managing our blogs and what we publish, while deciding everything about our blogging activities. So we are a rebellious sectors of Cuban society, alternative voices to that official aging press tainted by triumphalism, the manipulation of information, secrecy, conspiracy and flattery to the system.

On the other hand, sometime after, the official blogosphere was created (and the semi-official, its lighter variant), comprised of official journalists, who have received the express direction of the Cuban government through the Communist Party to create their own personal blogs to attack the independent bloggers and counteract their potential “adverse effects” on Cuban youth, and also represented by other pseudo-official spaces, controlled or supervised by the government or encouraged by leftist foreign sympathizers, i.e., blogs with relative autonomy from the government.

As a variation between the two, the second has more critical views –though moderated and tolerated by the authorities- and as their common denominator, they enjoy the protective impunity that the status of “revolutionary” allows them, and they have better possibilities to free access to the Internet. However, one obvious glaring contradiction in this concept (official blogosphere) jumps out, because the notion of “blogger” in its most pristine sense is incompatible with the word “official.” “Blogger” is the essence of freedom of expression. Thus, by its very nature, the official blogosphere can only be a phenomenon of totalitarian regimes, as is a normal response directed against those in power in sharp contrast to the freshness, freedom and spontaneity of citizen journalism endorsed by the alternative blogosphere, devoid of guardians, controls and fixtures.

At the same time, in 2008 a weekly meeting space for independent bloggers also began, where they exchanged knowledge, information and expectations, strengthening the links between participants and consolidating at the same time in real space and in personal contact, the blogger spirit born in the networks. This experience of regular meetings, called “Blogger Itinerary”, also had its virtual space and was the direct forerunner of the Blogger Academy that between October 2009 and April 2010 provided free knowledge on the use of information technologies and other topics of general interest, such as writing, ethics and law, Cuban culture, photography, to help the formation of bloggers, an experience which resulted in graduating thirty students, adding new voices to the Cuban virtual independent spectrum.

Viewed this way, an approach to the Cuban blogger landscape would seem like a kind of chaotic war between good and evil, repeating and moving to the virtual venues the old, outdated and simplistic Manichean scheme, established decades ago by the leader of the Cuban revolution, when he decreed fascist statement “within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing”, still absurdly applauded by one or another Coryphaeus of power.

However, every social phenomenon reflects the nature of processes that have specific causes, and the Cuban blogosphere is no exception to that rule. This phenomenon is the child of circumstances and it evolves with them; a free blogosphere could not exist in conditions of dictatorship without its counterpart, the official blogosphere. And it is also because of that that the official blogs, much to their annoyance, constitute the consecration of our existence in Cuba. It is, in a certain perverse way, the government’s acknowledgement of our labors.

Short Review of a Brief History

The Cuban blogosphere is a recent phenomenon. It started around April, 2007, when the blog “Generation Y” was born on the website By then, both the owner of this blog, Yoani Sánchez, and the small group of graphic artists who worked on the page, which also housed the magazine Contodos and also contained a section known then as Portfolio, with different independent personal projects, took some time in experimenting with the editorial work. Some of us were volunteers of the magazine Contodos and also wrote for different sites, such as Encuentro on the Web and other publications overseas. So the necessary conditions existed for the occurrence of the blogger explosion subjectively, a feeling of freedom of expression as an inevitable individual personal right, and the individual willpower to put this right into practice; in the objective field, the existence of the Internet as a vehicle designed to overtake the government’s monopoly on the media, and the possibilities offered by computer information and communication technology for the people to practice freedom of speech. The introduction of the “blog” variant, an option that for many of us was completely unknown until then, was fertile ground for the most authentic manifestation of citizen journalism in Cuba to take-off.

Within months, what began as a spontaneous alternative among a group of individual Cubans started to interest others, many of them young, with some knowledge of the use of technology, who were experiencing in finding a place for self-expression. A small number of people got together, some of whom had already dabbled in online journalism or had taken their first steps in isolated blogs. Blogger enthusiasm quickly spread like an epidemic, giving rise to the platform Voces Cubanas, which houses in the same web dozens of Cubans of diverse occupations, interests and ages, who have found in the virtual network possibilities to express themselves not possible, or extremely limited, in social reality.

In 2009 the first blogger competition, “A Virtual Island” was held, convened by the independent blogosphere and directed to bloggers in Cuba. By then, the international awards received by Yoani Sánchez had put the focus of international public opinion on the blog Generación Y, and, by extension, the alternative Cuban blogger phenomenon. This raised the alarm in Cuba, so the government felt compelled to call on their media Yeomen to “the Party’s task” to start up their blogs, designed to neutralize the voices of independent thought that were proliferating on the Internet, offering the world a version of Cuba that differed substantially from the idyllic image released by the official press. The people’s journalism belied the happy society that the official window was displaying and it was damaging the perfect effigy of the tropical version of Castro-style socialism. The Cuba that was reflected in the alternative blogs had nothing in common with the victory speech of the traditional press, controlled by the government; and what was worse, the alternative blogosphere, free of controls, was a growing phenomenon. Cuban authorities had delayed too long to understand the power of technologies at the service of individual freedoms. Behold just a small number of emancipated individuals with a bit of technology, minimal access to the Net and a good dose of audacity, were putting the powerful half a century monolith press in check, and, full of pride and arrogance, the disinformation apparatus and computer intelligence agents were summoned to face the new “threat.” Thus began a new era of repression in which the struggles and reactionary tendencies of the ideology in power would move to the virtual space.

The Official Blogosphere

It is known that in the manual of the official Cuban repression the first basic principle adheres to the policy statement “within the revolution everything …” therefore, everyone who does not abide by the designs of the government or who deviates from the limits or ordinances established by it, is considered “the enemy” and must be fought to the death. In turn, the first step to fight the enemy is to demonize him. It is thus no coincidence that, after having been conveniently ignored by the mainstream media -up to where it was possible or prudent to the regime- we alternative bloggers are being presented under the generic label of “mercenaries working for the U.S. government” or, to become more in tune with the times and technology, “cyber-terrorists.” Once they have coined the term, almost everything boils down to mashing the same refrain, in which an individual morphs from one day to the next from a peaceful neighbor who is unhappy with the system into a dangerous agent of the CIA, US Treasury Department employee, with all the shady attributes that it implies… albeit without the benefit$$$.

The configuration of the official blogosphere and that of the pseudo-official is also quite varied. It is composed of both vocal and vitriolic journalists and “intellectuals” officers of long standing, who have proved their obedience as a group of young “revolutionaries” who have assumed moderately “critic” ideas inside the system. This last trend includes some that point out the deficiencies produced “by the bureaucracy” and the “corruption of the images of those who have not known how to interpret the historic leaders” and other dubious novelties of the “revolutionary” process. Neo-guevarism is a standard that seems to focus Cuba’s hopes in a sinister creed, with Holy Saint Ché and his ideas as the main object of worship. There’s even a group by the name of La Joven Cuba (Young Cuba) as an organization run by Guiteras, a revolutionary of the first half of the last century, known for his adherence to terrorist methods of struggle. As for me, I distrust a lot of those who declare themselves as followers of militant and violent subjects. However, the repertoire of these hardened guys (reluctantly acknowledged) results in various Trotskyists, Stalinists and revisionists of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and even of a Martí, conveniently decontextualized, setting a style that fills your hands with strong ideological components.

Under the traditional militaristic discourse that so pleases the revolutionaries, today the Internet is for them a “trench”, a “new battlefield” where a “cyber war” is developing in which “it is necessary to eliminate the opponent”. That is, in the government’s mentality and in that of its followers, the Net stops being a peaceful means of communication between individuals and groups that shed and exchange standards, knowledge, information and ideas to become a dangerous war theater where it is necessary for some ideas to have to triumph over others. I prefer to opt for peaceful proposals, in the style of Gandhi or Mandela, to achieve freedom and rights for everyone, and I also hope to continue to find, in the company of my readers, a civic venue of debate and of the democratic application of opinions.

Another common element of combating blogs is that, without exception, they shy away from contact or exchange with alternative bloggers and refuse to direct and open public debate, either from their own digital spaces or in a public venue to which they themselves might convene. In any case, the official blogosphere and its variants, as the effect of alternative response to the blogosphere, lack the freshness and spontaneity of the alternative bloggers, and do not have the ability to take independent personal or group proposals, therefore, they are condemned to get exhausted by their own logic. The limitations of a closed system cannot be overcome if an open, direct, and inclusive debate cannot be established.

Internet: a Democracy Challenge

Nevertheless, I feel that the existence of such proposals within the virtual spectrum of the Island is healthy. An essential component of democracy is, certainly, plurality. The mere presence of places for opinions, the practice of communication and the management of technologies, however limited or controlled, will lead to the emergence of large sectors that will gain in independence. A discussion forum cannot escape the scrutiny of public opinion, and just as it spreads free speech or a dogma, it also exposes your weaknesses and flaws, thereby circulating ideas, whether related or contradictory to their original intent. It is a big breakthrough in a society marked by decades of stagnation, conspiracies and secrets.

On the other hand, to have raised a formal response of so great a magnitude signals that the alternative blogosphere is not as insignificant and innocuous as the government pretends. You do not fight with such viciousness what is inconsequential, especially in a country where the minimum accessibility of the Internet dramatically decreases the effect of blogs of any stripe or affiliation. Contrary to what the authorities intend, far from removing what they consider the blogger threat, they are strengthening it. Somehow, when their own cyber-servers read us, they are being exposed to a world of diverse opinions, the exercise of freedom of expression and the debate among Cubans so long proscribed. The more they glimpse at free venues, the more aware they will be of their status as slaves and perhaps it is true that they will be closer to the emancipation of granted and not conquered freedoms, but freedoms nevertheless.

Today, when thanks to world technology many voices that have been silenced for too long are earning their place, the Cuban government is not willing to face the huge challenge of placing communication in the hands of all Cubans. It is a silent admission of weakness. How is it that people so revolutionary and educated do not have free access to information and global communications? What is the justification that the first illiteracy-free country in this hemisphere is now technologically illiterate? Internet is peace and democracy, so, to assume it is a battlefield can only mean a guaranty of defeat.

Translated by Norma Whiting

August 8 2011