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.
By MIMI WHITEFIELD
When two women at Havana's Cuatro Caminos market began beating on pots
and pans with spoons one day in August, their protest call for freedom
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 police 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 — dissident
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 Ladies in White, 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 Internet access, it is the rest of the world
rather than those inside Cuba who are more likely to see the videos and
"The Cuban Internet is like their old cars — Cuba is stuck at Web 1.0,"
said Larry Press, a professor at California State University Dominguez
An undersea fiber optic cable connecting Cuba and Venezuela 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
Independent blogger 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
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
"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 United States 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 Alan Gross, 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.