Internet renegades in post-millennial Cuba.
By **Julia Cooke**
Photograph by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo.
This past summer, Cubans and foreigners alike began to murmur excitedly about the government’s announcement that the underwater fiber-optic cable from Venezeula to Cuba was ready for use. Although the government also said that it would keep tight control over web access, Cuba-watchers were encouraged by the advent of the technology itself. “If the cable is activated, I’m sure some of those fibers will reach people like me,” dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, whose Generation Y is translated into sixteen languages including Finnish and Korean, told the Global Post in June. Combined with wide-reaching economic reforms in Cuba and the fresh memory of internet-based rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt, the development seemed to foreshadow some sort of change. Finally, the least-connected island in the hemisphere would get quick internet.
Months have passed, however, and there’s been no further mention of Cuba’s phantom internet cable. Today, less than fifteen percent of the country’s population has regular access to the internet. “The big problem is that the level of connectivity is so low now that you’re really only communicating within the elite,” says Cuba scholar Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York. “But because they’re an elite group, they’re opinion-makers. Their debate about policy has an echo.”
Apparently, none of that is changing soon. Instead, news of loosened regulations surrounding the sale of private property have dominated the airwaves, and Cubans rumor that the cable never existed in the first place. But even without broadband, bloggers have continued to brave the epically slow dial-up internet. And there’s a small handful of them who are laying an intelligent base for the day when that disappearing cable goes live, pushing the envelope of what is expected by posting less overtly about Cuba’s politics and instead assuming familiarity with its one-party system. In doing so, they’re looking beyond the country’s politics and aiming to attract Cuban visitors, too, not just foreigners.
In Cuba’s highly polarized nascent blogosphere—most bloggers are flagged as either Cuban government propagandists or U.S. government “mercenaries,” all out to shape the global opinion of the country—just a few avoid openly political content. By using humor and tongue-in-cheek commentary, they’re cleverly eschewing the label of “dissident.” At the same time, they’re creating space for a more nuanced blogosphere, laying the groundwork for a more connected country, and contributing to the discussions accompanying Cuba’s recent changes.
[A]s money from Cubans abroad flows into the country to help relatives seek prosperity through new businesses and car and home purchases, it may not even be necessary to wait for any cable.
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s photoblog, Boring Home Utopics, was born of a very political situation: his images were meant for a state-published book, until the editors saw the content—Havana in all its dilapidated beauty—and balked. So Pardo decided to post his crisp photos, which capture the alternating boredom and bustle of life in Havana, on Boring Home Utopics. When he began the blog in 2009, Pardo says, “The Cuban blogosphere was becoming ever more polarized and politicized.” By publishing his photos free of commentary, Pardo, whose Twitter feed reflects a much harsher stance against his country’s government, hopes to create a “climate for less radical readers.”
He’s not the only one. Twenty-eight year-old university professor Raul Reyes began his blog, El Estúpido Escribir, last May, after extended status updates on Facebook garnered dozens of comments from Cuban acquaintances living abroad and local friends with access to the internet. Reyes steers clear of politics because, as he says, “it’s not a topic in my day-to-day life. It would be hypocritical. I make many references to the special period and other restrictions because they are part of the collective history of every Cuban, but beyond that, I don’t want my words to later be used to support someone else’s political agenda.” Instead, his posts include a discussion of “online dating,” Cuban-style: the sexualized social networking among friends-of-friends on Facebook, within the class that has regular access to the internet. Friendship requests crescendo to “poking” and messaged “holas,” which become real-life dates.
It’s from these same young Cubans that twenty-nine year-old Lizabel Mónica culls some of the jokes on the collaborative blog Cuba Fake News, a The Onion-esque project that she started for the 2009 Havana Biennial of Art. She says, “All those kids who fight to be able to connect to Facebook once a month, these are the kids who [if the cable were activated] would have diverse blogs that aren’t necessarily related to the political problems in Cuba. They don’t want to debate politics; they just want to have the best possible life they can.”
Then there’s Estado de Sats, which posts videos of a local TED-like conference of the same name in Havana. “My family has never belonged to the Communist Party, nor do we have any relationship with the current government. Nevertheless, I don’t believe Cuba will have a prosperous future if it doesn’t include all of us in a national dialogue,” writes founder José Calaforra on the homepage. The diverse group of his invited guests, whose hour-long conversations are recorded and posted on the blog, have included Yoani Sánchez as well as artist Lazaro Saavedra, singer-songwriter William Vivanco, and Wilfredo Vallin, lawyer and chief of the Cuban Juridical Society.
While it may prove true that, as Sánchez predicted, better internet access in Havana would result in ranks of bloggers like her, the more interesting moment will come when increased numbers of Cubans, like the ones Mánica speaks of, can use the internet to see the blogs that already exist. In the changing atmosphere of present-day Cuba, as money from Cubans abroad flows into the country to help relatives seek prosperity through new businesses and car and home purchases, it may not even be necessary to wait for any cable.
Over 4,300 homes were listed on Revolico.com, the Cuban version of Craigslist, the morning after the purchase and sale of private property was legalized on November 10. The elite Cubans who are already online are clearly interested in utilizing the internet to improve the quality of their daily lives. Maybe next they’ll decide that submitting a joke to Cuba Fake News or attending an Estado de Sats talk would prove a welcome change, too.
Julia Cooke is working on a book that combines memoirs of the year she spent in Havana in 2009-10 with in-depth reportage on youth culture in the city. She is currently pursuing an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia University. Prior to moving to New York, she lived and worked in Havana and Mexico City as a cultural journalist; her journalism and essays from both cities have been published in The Smart Set, Monocle, The Christian Science Monitor, Metropolis, Condé Nast Traveller (U.K.), and other magazines.