by Carlos Gomez:
Yoani Sanchez was headed to a demonstration for nonviolence in November 2009 when she was kidnapped and beaten by government agents. The famed Cuban blogger had her hair pulled, knuckles smashed, and head, chest, knees, and kidneys punched and kicked. Cries of “traitor” and “dissident” were hurled her way as she was forced into a car, beaten, and then thrown out on the street 20 minutes later. Such harassment is not uncommon in Cuba; Sanchez is but one of many who have suffered under the government’s harsh policies toward independent journalists.
Sanchez created her blog, “Generation Y,” in 2007 as a place to write freely about Cuba, without government interference. It has since drawn attention to the repressive regime and sparked a new wave of Cuban bloggers committed to reporting the real stories of Cuba. Working within the constraints of the country’s almost nonexistent Internet infrastructure and against the government’s attempt to restrict them, these bloggers must draw on all their creativity and courage as they attempt to launch a new generation of Cuban journalism.
Voices of the Government
“Independent journalists are mercenaries,” read a 2000 headline of Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde. “The U.S. Empire pays, organizes, teaches, trains, arms and camouflages them and orders them to shoot at their own people.”
Clearly, independent journalists have a strained relationship with the Cuban government, which owns all major news outlets on the island. Civilians are often hard-pressed to find information not supplied by the three state-controlled newspapers, La Granma, Juventud Rebelde, and Trabajadores. These three papers serve distinct purposes but share common themes: party loyalty and Cuban nationalism. La Granma, the official organ of the Cuban Communist Party and the most widely circulated of the three, publishes mostly celebrations of Cuban policies and chastisements of the American government. Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth) runs similar stories to those in La Granma but geared towards a younger demographic with the hope of instilling strong nationalism in the rising generation. The third national publication, Trabajadores (Workers), is the official voice of the government-controlled trade union.
Journalists for these three papers are well paid and have access to a number of top government sources, but they trade journalistic liberty for security. The Cuban government dictates what – and how – stories can be reported. In the words of Dr. Jose Alberto Hernandez, president of CubaNet, these government publications produce “very somber and unimaginative journalism.”
But the creativity allowed for by independent journalism brings with it significant risks. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) puts the number of independent reporters in Cuba at only 25, probably because these journalists are subjected to routine harassment.
“Immediately the government will identify you,” said Hernandez. “On a daily basis, they make your life miserable.”
Independent reporters lose at both ends of the journalistic process. Sources easily available to government writers suddenly become unreachable, and publication becomes exceedingly difficult. Because the Communist Party controls all communication, selling independent work is impossible, making a sufficient income unattainable. Independent journalists also frequently have their phone lines disconnected and are under constant surveillance by government agents. Consequently, Juan Gonzales Febles, Odelin Alfonso, Luis Cino, and Sanchez – the only Cuban bloggers with available contact information – could not be reached for this article despite numerous attempts.
Some reporters are put under house arrest. Others are rounded up and driven to remote locations in an effort to keep them from publishing for a few days. More seriously, prison is a constant threat. Journalist Bernardo Arevalo served a jail sentence of six years simply for referring to Castro as a “liar” after the president failed to enact promised democratic reforms. In March 2003, a period now aptly referred to as “Black Spring,” 75 Cuban dissidents were arrested and imprisoned, including 23 journalists. Many remain in jail, making Cuba home to the third largest number of imprisoned reporters, after China and Iran.
With the change of leadership from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul in 2008, some hoped for an improved journalistic atmosphere. However, Carlos Lauria, director of the Americas region for CPJ, says that despite Raul’s announcement of reform, nothing has changed. “In terms of independent reporting and the ability of journalists to work freely in Cuba, it’s just not possible.”
Slipping Past the Guards
In the past few years, independent journalists have found a new venue for their writings: blogs. Beginning with Sanchez’s Generation Y blog, Cuban journalists have turned towards less traditional media to disseminate information. The CPJ reports that there are about 25 regularly maintained news blogs from Cuban authors. These young reporters are mostly stationed in Havana, as the Cuban capital is the easiest place to access the Internet. Rather than engaging in the purely anti-government rhetoric sometimes associated with independent journalists, the blog entries focus on telling stories not published in the government-sanctioned papers. Laritza Diversent, for example, runs a blog entitled Laritza’s Laws, which explores legal issues in Cuba. In a recent post titled “Legal Illiteracy,” Diversent discussed the disparity between the idealistic concept of justice she learned in law school and the reality of working as a lawyer in Cuba.
“Bloggers are slipping through the tight restrictions of the regime and have been able to report on some of the issues that Cubans face daily, like food shortages, health care, and education problems,” explained Lauria, but “they face huge practical obstacles from the restricted Internet access in Cuba.”
Since surfing the web in Cuba costs six dollars an hour, while the median salary is $17 a month, the CPJ reports that only about 2.1 percent of Cubans have Internet access. Most of these few are government employees. Posting blogs online thus presents problems. Cuban writers are forced to type their blog posts on home computers, copy them to flash drives or CDs, and take them to Internet cafes to send via email. This is complicated by the fact that most Internet centers aren’t open to civilians. Sanchez, for example, must pretend to be a tourist to slip past guards. Other bloggers are similarly forced to use creative methods to send their entries to friends abroad who post them online.
Cuban citizens, in turn, have a hard time accessing the Internet due to its high price and painfully slow connection speed. Some of the entries are distributed through the population via CDs and flash drives. The blogs’ real successes, however, have occurred in the international community. Sanchez has received a number of international accolades for Generation Y and was included in Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2008.” In addition, organizations like Reporters without Borders and the CPJ now put Cuba on their top priority lists, and sites like CubaNet.org post articles that can’t be published in the mainstream Cuban media. Recently, even President Barack Obama responded to a series of questions posted by Sanchez.
The Government Responds
Sanchez and other bloggers have mostly eluded the level of government harassment faced by traditional independent journalists. Dan Erikson, a Cuban expert for Inter-American Dialogue, suspects that this is because most government officials are over 70 years old. “I suppose there’s a generational disconnect between the activities of Raul Castro and Yoani Sanchez,” he said.
Nonetheless, the government consistently denies Sanchez the travel visa necessary to leave Cuba. Clearly, independent blogs are no longer going unnoticed. As of August 2009, all blog sites were blocked within Cuba. In addition, the government is reportedly hiring computer science students to serve as cyber police to monitor the content of these different sites. “There could be a massive crackdown if the bloggers’ work continues to be recognized abroad,” Lauria said.
With the increased attention that the blogs have generated, however, most agree that international scrutiny will prevent another Black Spring. The 2003 arrests caused the European Union to issue economic sanctions against Cuba, which the country can’t afford to provoke again. In addition, the global community now monitors the government’s actions more closely. After the recent assault on Sanchez, the U.S. Department of State promptly declared that it “strongly deplores” violence against journalists and urged Castro to honor the “full respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all its citizens.”
Castro has yet to respond, but Cuba’s new blogging community shows no signs of slowing down.
Carlos Gomez ’13 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com.