Multimedia artist, writer, activist and teacher Coco Fusco is a visiting associate professor at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies this year, and she introduced herself to the Center for Civic Media community with a stunning talk this past Thursday, unpacking the history and the possible futures of the Cuban blogosphere. Fusco is a frequent traveler to Cuba and has interviewed many of the key figures in the space and offered an overview that’s complex, subtle and by far the most informative picture of the space I’ve heard thus far.
Fusco frames the Cuban blogosphere, in part, from her own background in performance art. Since 2008, when restrictions on cellphone use were lifted in Cuba, opponents to the Castro system have been engaged in activism that Fusco sees as having “a very media-savvy, performative character.” Citizen journalists and activists are sending text, videos and photos that document confrontation with state authorities, which has turned dissent into a kind of performance art.
If dissent is a performance, part of the audience is the United States. Not only is there a massive expatriate Cuban population in the US, there is a media system based and funded in the US, hungry for reports from independent Cuban bloggers. USAID has had a direct role in building this blogosphere, Fusco tells us. Her slides begin with the image of a Wifi logo painted onto a wall in the colors of the Cuban flag. These images are painted by activists, then painted over, in an ongoing battle. “If you didn’t know better, you might assume that ordinary Cubans were demanding free wifi. In fact, it’s part of a campaign by a USAID-supported group.”
The support from the US, the ways Cuba is trying to influence online speech, lead to a blogosphere in which participants are performing for multiple audiences. That said, the space has emerged as a critical digital public sphere for Cuban political dialog. Conventional public debate in Cuba is extremely limited, Fusco tells us. It’s officially organized, hosted solely in Havana, isn’t documented via video and has carefully controlled attendance. There’s no significant space for debate in Cuban daily newspapers or television, so the debates that happen in blogs, often hosted in Spain or Miami, is a critical digital public sphere.
The figures involved with this new public sphere are complicated. Elicér Ávila, blogger at Diário de Cuba, is supported by money from the US National Endowment for Democracy, send through Spain, Fusco tells us. On the one hand. he’s famous for confronting a government official in one of these staged official meetings, and his blog is a key part of the Cuban online scene. On the other hand, he “came out” in 2011 as a spy (in an interview with Cuban super-blogger Yoani Sanchez), part of Operación Verdad, a government project that encouraged the online harassment of independent bloggers in online media. He’s subsequently been “reborn” as a dissident, demanding a new, competitive political party to challenge the state. Figuring out who’s on what side, who is supported by whom and whose politics are genuine or performative is part of understanding this complex space.
Fusco offers a brief timeline of the internet in Cuba, starting with the arrival of internet service in 1996. This service was expensive and out of reach of most ordinary Cubans, so internet usage didn’t really come into play until the middle of the next decade. The “black spring” of 2003, where 75 journalists and human rights activists were imprisoned for their offline media activities heled step the stage for Cuba’s internet transformation. In 2006 when Fidel stepped down and Raúl took over power, many expected the political environment to open up somewhat. But it took “the Pavon case”, the online debate about the rehabilitation of a former government censor and extremist, to demonstrate the utility of online spaces as a place for political discussion. These dialogs took place via email, the medium most accessible to the few Cubans who were online at that time.
Shortly afterwards, Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y blog opened this new space to a younger generation. Shortly after, in 2008, bloggers began meeting in public, weekly, to discuss both political issues and the challenges o being online in Cuba. At the same time, restrictions were lifted on cellphone ownership, opening a new channel to online participation for the majority of Cubans who did not have access to an internet connected computer. By 2009, Sanchez and her husband had founded Blogger Academy, which trains bloggers in how to use key social media tools. The Taza de Café blog, started by Lizabel Monica, launched with technical advice about accessing internet services using Cuba’s slow internet. And in a validation of blogger influence, the Cuban government responded by launching a set of government-sponsored blogs to counter the independent ones. These blogs now outnumber independent blogs by 2:1, but have a much lower reach and readership.
Like many closed societies, Cuba has a complicated love/hate relationship with the internet. Access to the net in increasing – there are now about 1.5 million cellphones in Cuba for a population of 10-11 million, so mobile access has outpaced access to land lines, with teledensity at about 10%. Fusco estimates that roughly 25% of Cubans have internet access, but notes that there’s no way to measure that decisively, as Cubans use wifi from hotels, rent internet access from foreign workers and use any number of creative methods to get online.
The Cuban government tends to see the internet as a threat to national security, and especially as a tool for the US State department to engage in pro-democracy propaganda. Thus the Cuban internet is controlled via site censorship, through the criminalization of some kinds of communication and through limitations to online access. Officially, email in Cuba is through an in-country system, where you need to be a union member or university student to have access. The mobile phone company, Cubacel, is a monopoly, controlled by ETECSA, the national telephone company. Access is slow, and costs are extremely high. Access through a hotel costs $6 an hour, and $4.50 an hour at internet cafes. In a country where the average salary is $20/month, there’s not a ton of usage through those channels. More common is access through the mobile phones, where charges are $1 per SMS message and $0.45 a minute for a domestic phone call. Fortunately, diasporans and other supporters of Cuban bloggers are able to send phones into the country and top up mobile phone accounts remotely. (Most Cuban bloggers have a “donate” button on their blog, which solicits funds for cellphone airtime.) The $2 billion in remittances into Cuba annually are what makes citizen media on the Cuban internet possible.
Even when Cubans can afford to get online, they face substantial technical challenges. Email is really the online reliable service in Cuba, so posting to blogs, Facebook and Twitter happens primarily through email – the best bloggers have setups that trigger tweets and Facebook updates as soon as they publish new content. Cubans have grown used to a culture of surveillance, in which journalism is pre-approved, where sites critical of the government are censored, and where surveillance of phone calls and email is routine. Still, even in such a controlled environment, some information spreads relatively freely.
Fusco explains that most Cubans don’t want clandestine political media so much as they want games, music and movies. They get these through the “paquete”, the colloquial term for a package of digital media delivered on USB flash drives. These drives are assembled by diasporans and often include political news from TV Martí, as well as entertainment media. The keys sell for roughly 2 CUC, or $2 (the Cuban convertible peso, which trades for roughly $1 per CUC – it’s a parallel currency to the Cuban peso, for use in foreign transactions, by tourists and others.) Since games often circulate on these keys, it’s become a popular business to run gaming parlors for $1 an hour. While wholly political paquetes do circulate, the ones that mix political and entertainment content seem to have the best success. (I see parallels to work friends have done circulating CDs with political content in Zimbabwe, to be played on buses and in taxis. A mix that’s 2/3rd to 3/4s music, with 1/3-1/4 political content seems to work, while all politics tends not to get well circulated.)
The paquete is not the only way Cubans are hacking digital media, Fusco tells us. Used phones and smartphones need to be modified for use in Cuba. Anyone licensed to do phone repairs will employ someone – often a small team – to alter these imported phones. There’s also a business in modifying Nintendos and Playstations for domestic use. All software used in Cuba tends to be pirated, and some software – particularly mobile phone applications that depend on network access – need to be modified to work mostly offline. There’s a thriving online market for these products – revolico.com – which Fusco describes as “the illegal Cuban craigslist”.
Those Cubans who are able to get online are often engaged in independent blogging and citizen journalism. Generación Y, founded by Sanchez, is now translated by volunteers into 14 languages (leading to accusations that she obviously must be a US spy, as volunteers obviously couldn’t be counted on to translate a website into dozens of languages…) Sanchez also maintains Voces Cubanas, a group blog representing the broader Cuban dissident blogophere. Havana Times is edited in Nicaragua, but features writing from people on the Island and is regularly translated into English. In addition to technical advice from La Taza De Café, Cuban bloggers can seek legal advice from Cuban Legal Advisor, run by Laritza Diversent, who tracks changing media and propaganda laws closely and offers advice for dissidents on jail and detentions.
That this community survives is something of a miracle, as blogging began as the process of sending SMS messages to friends and asking them to post to websites. Called “blind blogging”, this was replaced by using sites like Blogger, Twitter and YouTube via email. Yoani Sanchez showed Cubans how to use MMS to send data-rich short messages, which Fusco argues led to a major change in US journalistic coverage of Cuba. Still, these journalists and activists face a daunting set of challenges, starting with the difficulties of building a local base, given the cost of accessing the Internet. There are draconian legal restrictions if you are found of publishing with US government involvement, and the online space is deeply dependent on US pro-democracy funding. Fusco explains the debates that occur in Cuba – is blogging a “mercenary activity” funded by an imperialist government, or is this autonomous action by Cuban bloggers, who need money to support this work.
In addition, bloggers are isolated geographically and politically, and rarely have the opportunity to collaborate with others facing similar situations. State security has proven itself effective in fomenting discord between opposition groups. And these groups and bloggers tend to have narrowly focused agendas that can make it hard for them to reach international audiences even when they are technically able.
Fusco offers a bit more hope to Cubans using digital media to shape culture through literature, music and film. Projects like the Voces literary magazine are providing an alternative space for artists who don’t have official recognition from artists and writers union. (This official recognition matters – it is difficult to travel without this official status.) Artists have taken to keeping online video diaries to document their work and their process, hoping this will serve as a “shield” if they are detained or arrested and a rallying point for their supporters. Even given tight restrictions on content, some controversial material, especially films, are making the rounds of global film festivals, including films like Monte Rouge (about a security official visiting the house of an intellectual) and Los Aldeanos (link en español) (a documentary about Cuba’s hip hop underground). Cuban music is making an impact as well – Porno Para Ricardo, fronted by enfant terrible Gorki Aguila, survives and has visibility globally despite four (likely politically motivated) drug arrests of Aguila.
El Comandante, by Porno Para Ricardo
Fusco’s talk ends with discussion of the uncomfortable and complex relationship between Cuban media and audiences abroad. Blog dailies are published in Havana, Miami and Madrid. These sites, which feature writing from Cubans on the island, serve as what should be the opposition press, and are widely quoted by wire services and other international news agencies. They also serve as fodder for TV and Radio Martí, the American-produced channels that seek to reach Cubans on the island and in the diaspora. Martí received a large increase in funding in the wake of the 1996 Helms-Burton acts tightening US trade embargo against Cuba (a reaction to Cuba shooting down “Brothers to the Rescue” planes that sought to rescue Cuban refugees on rafts), and now the US government provides massive funding to pro-democracy media in Cuba.
This funding has supported people like Alan Gross, a contractor for USAID, who made five trips to Cuba bringing in phones and, perhaps, equipment designed to disguise satellite phone calls. Gross was arrested in 2011 and his family worries he will die in Cuban prison during his 15 year sentence. While Gross’s case has drawn international attention, Fusco notes that Cuban bloggers who accept US support – sometimes unknowingly – risk similar sentences.
She is hopeful that the $2 billion in remittance money send to Cuba might have more of an impact than the $70 million allocated to USAID, much of which is spent in the US. Projects like ZunZuneo, secretly created by USAID contractors to be the “Cuban Twitter” are far less interesting that projects like Yagruma, which supported creative projects in Cuba through a Kickstarter model before being stopped by the Treasury department in 2013, or Roots of Hope, organized by Cuban Harvard students, which coordinates tech donations to Cuban citizens.
Two interesting points came up in discussion with the Center for Civic Media team. Dalia Othman, an expert on social media in Palestine, noted that the Arabic blogopshere has moved almost entirely onto newer social media platforms. This shift hasn’t happened in Cuba, Fusco believes, because time moves differently on the Cuban internet. “It takes four hours to get to work, so why would you blog everyday? There’s no sense for the tactical use of brevity.” And because Cuba’s internet access is so slow, the always on world of social media doesn’t make much sense to Cuban users.
I asked Fusco what she would advise Secretary of State Kerry to do regarding independent media in Cuba. Her main point was that Cubans are far smarter about what works in Cuba than US contractors. Acknowledging that it’s dangerous for the US to fund Cubans directly, she’d like to see more diverse and less polarized funding for media in Cuba. At the same time, it’s important to question some of the Florida-based expatriate organizations, which have historically been sponsoring violent opposition and are now sponsoring technology. Critically, she thinks Cubans need to get beyond the idea that US support for independent media is a “mercenary” activity – independent journalism should not be seen as mercenary, or as a US demand. Instead, it’s a demand for a functional society.