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    New media bring the world closer to Cuba

    Posted on Tuesday, 10.04.11

    New media bring the world closer to Cuba

    Cuban bloggers and dissidents are becoming adept at sending news of
    protests abroad, but internal communication remains difficult.

    When two women at 's Cuatro Caminos market began beating on pots
    and pans with spoons one day in August, their protest call for
    echoed around the world.

    At least 16 video entries, many of them the same or similar footage,
    were posted on YouTube and reposted on websites from Miami to Madrid.
    They showed the women calling out for freedom before arrived to
    take them away. As a crowd followed, a rhythmic chant of " Libertad,
    Libertad, Libertad'' began.

    Cuban dissidents have long demanded respect for human rights and for
    just as long, pro-government demonstrators have clashed with them. But
    what has changed in Cuba — and changed drastically — is that new media
    are bringing these events to the world almost as quickly as they unfold.

    A protest by a group of women on the steps of the Capitolio building in
    Havana was likewise prime material for videographers, bloggers and
    Twitter aficionados. Members of the crowd can be seen holding up
    cellphones to capture the event.

    During a meeting of dissidents in Palma Soriano — a small town northeast
    of Santiago that was a hotbed of protests this past summer —
    José Daniel Ferrer, watching from a distance, posted tweets as security
    agents surrounded the home and broke up the meeting with tear gas.

    "It's undeniable that the new media is playing a role in the narrative
    of what is coming out of Cuba," said Ted Henken, a Baruch College
    professor who has studied Cuban bloggers. "There is this network where
    people have learned to share their view of reality" through texting,
    sending videos, and blogging.

    New media are capturing not only the protests of human rights activists
    such as the , who are calling for the release of
    political prisoners, but also the aggression of pro-government mobs who
    try to break up their marches.

    But for those who hope that the cascade of emails and texts that led to
    mass mobilizations during the Arab Spring might be repeated in Cuba, the
    island's antiquated telecom system is a stumbling block. With only about
    16 percent of Cubans with access, it is the rest of the world
    rather than those inside Cuba who are more likely to see the videos and
    Internet updates.

    "The Cuban Internet is like their old cars — Cuba is stuck at Web 1.0,"
    said Larry Press, a professor at California State Dominguez

    An undersea fiber optic cable connecting Cuba and that should
    make Cuba's Internet connections much quicker and more efficient has
    been completed for months but service still hasn't begun.

    Still, dissidents and bloggers have expanded their repertoire and often
    exchange information on how to thwart government blocks on blogs and
    other websites.

    Independent Yoani Sánchez, who has established a reputation
    writing about the activities of dissidents and her own thoughts on Cuban
    life, seems adept at getting around censors. The government is no longer
    blocking her blog and she has said sending SMS — text message — tweets
    from her mobile phone has become an important alternative when Internet
    access is lacking. Sánchez has nearly 165,000 Twitter followers and
    usually sends out several tweets daily.

    "Yoani Sánchez is better known outside Cuba than inside Cuba," said Andy
    Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Center for Cuban and
    Cuban-American Studies.

    Cellphone use has grown rapidly in Cuba, increasing from 621,000
    registered phones in 2009 to 1 million last year, according to Cuban
    government statistics. But per capita subscriber rates are low,
    according to Press, exceeding those of only eight other nations —
    Somalia and North Korea among them — that report to the International
    Telecommunication Union.

    "For the most part, it's like the cellphones we used 10 years ago," said
    Press. Most Cubans don't have phones with Internet access.

    Ninoska Pérez, a Miami radio host and director of the Cuban Liberty
    Council, which condemns Cuba's human rights record, said the cellphone
    has made a difference in getting news from Cuban dissidents.

    In one case, Pérez said, she was interviewing a dissident on Radio Mambí
    when a pro-government mob began to surround the home. She could hear the
    sounds of the crowd through the phone.

    Right now, said Gomez, the cellphone might be one of the more effective
    methods to encourage change in Cuba: "Travel to Cuba. Ttake a cellphone
    and leave it behind. Improve the social network. That is itself a major

    Havana has claimed that the is waging a "cyberwar" against
    Cuba with its recent attempts to distribute satellite Internet
    equipment. The U.S. says its effort is designed to encourage civil
    society. But it isn't always successful. U.S. contractor , who
    tried to deliver communications equipment to the Jewish community in
    Havana, is now serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba.

    Ironically, the dissidents may have become better known in Cuba because
    state-run media have aired or printed various reports in recent weeks to
    discredit them as paid mercenaries of the United States and to accuse
    the U.S. of mounting an international media campaign that presents a
    distorted image of Cuba.

    Current protests don't seem to have reached the level of those in other
    times of economic crisis. During the summer of 1993, for example, after
    the collapse of the Soviet bloc sparked food shortages and power
    blackouts in Cuba, there were almost daily reports of spontaneous street
    demonstrations against the government.