Monthly Archives: June 2011

All politics are local, and maybe personal too

When I met Roger, a blogger and IT specialist in Cuba, we sat and talked in a little park in Old Havana and then walked down Calle Obispo, a bustling commercial walking street. A man called out to Roger and he recognized him immediately. They hugged and talked and Roger gave him his phone number. They made plans to get together later in the week. We said goodbye, and continued walking.

“He’s an old friend,” he said to me. “He went to Germany six years ago. This is the first time I’ve seen him since. But then we got in touch on Facebook last year.” Roger talked about how for his entire life, when friends left the island, it was as if they had disappeared or died.

“You would expect never to hear from them or see them again,” he told me. This has been a common experience of Cubans for many generations. But it has begun to change as Cubans have gained more opportunities to communicate online. Friends who had “disappeared” suddenly have begun to reappear as Cubans on and off the island have built (or re-built) their social and familial connections, often with the help of social networking platforms. Roger was not the only Cuban person who told me stories of using social media to reconnect, and in some cases reconcile political differences, with friends and family members who have emigrated or sought exile to other countries.

There is no question that while Facebook remains inaccessible for most Cubans, it is another example of how technology is helping to repair connections between people on and off the island. While it’s often exagerrated in popular rhetoric, Cuba’s isolation from much of the world, and particularly the US, has had a powerful impact not only on the nation’s economy, but also on its social fabric. This has, in turn, impacted public sentiment about Cuba in a powerful way.

As families and friends find more ways to communicate and reconnect, this eventually reverberates within a broader discussion about policy, particularly in places like Miami. I understand that this isn’t seen as being important in way that the critical blogosphere is, but I think it deserves to be included in the broader discussion about how new media is impacting change in Cuban communities, both on and off the island.

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This Cold War isn’t over yet

This week on Global Voices I interviewed Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger who recently began the Cuba Money Project, a non-profit research and reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater transparency and accountability to US federal spending on ‘pro-democracy’ programs in Cuba.

I focused on the Cuba Money Project’s Vimeo channel, a telling archive of interviews that Eaton has conducted with people on all sides of the opposition movement, both in Cuba in the US. The interviews defy the common assumption that there is a single narrative, or a black and white, to the relationship between Cuba and the US today. Cubans that Eaton interviews express a diverse range of emotions about politics on the island—there is frustration, ire, ambivalence, and among some, fervent support for the revolutionary government.

Tracey Eaton interviewing a man in Baracoa, Cuba. Posted with permission of Eaton.

¿Cambio con qué?

In practice, the majority of these funds are allotted for opposition groups, but the range of recipients is impressive—on one end of the spectrum, there are initiatives to support important causes like LGBT rights and benefits for the physically disabled, and on the other, there are Miami-based groups manufacturing condoms with the word “cambio” (change) printed on them and shipping them off the Cuba.

In another example, a youth group in Havana received help from a USAID subcontractor to organize a rap concert. I question the value of this. Scholars like Sujatha Fernandes have done well to document the political role of rap and hip-hop in Cuban society, which the government has come to accept and sometimes support since the late 1990s. In brief, she argues that these art forms function as a socio-political “release valve” or space where Cuban youth can express and share their frustrations through music, rather than through much more dangerous and controversial activities of political demonstration.

My sense overall is that some of the programs that USAID funds are fine, and probably providing much-needed resources to Cubans. Others are misguided, and reflect a significant lack of understanding of life on the island. But all of these are overshadowed by the funds allocated to opposition groups.

What is certain, and what Eaton’s research speaks to, is that programs funded by the US in Cuba are politically untenable from the start. In most (if not all) cases, it is illegal under Cuban law for Cubans to accept financial support from US government agencies, because this money is seen as a means of supporting subversive activity on the island. Government agencies can say all they want about helping Cubans to “freely determine their own future,” but the fact is that these programs have not changed very much since their express, stated purpose was to undermine the Castro government. In Cuba, ‘pro-democracy’ is just another way of saying ‘counterrevolutionary.’

“Rights come out of histories”

One of the most powerful commentaries in the Cuba Money Project interviews comes from John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for ending the embargo. McAuliff, who has worked on issues related to US-Cuba relations for over twenty years, seems to be one of few voices on the US side that understands what it may take for the relationship between the two countries to change.

[The US] seems to insist on [carrying out programs that provoke] the most basic nationalist reaction…[this] discredits the US, discredits the Cubans who work with the US…[And these programs] are tied with the legitimate Cuban suspicion that US policy is still grounded in an effort to create system change if not regime change in Cuba.

“Rights come out of histories,” McAuliff says. He talks about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, and invokes the Civil Rights movement in the US, calling on viewers to think about how strange it is that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society.

If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.

Eaton asks McAuliff how the US should proceed. We must begin, McAuliff says, by respecting Cuban sovereignty, no matter how strongly we disagree with Cuban law and policy.

You have to do it starting on the premise of their history and respecting who they are. […] [The US] has to say, ‘we’re not going to put programs in your country unless you find them acceptable.’

Opposition support as political discrimination

I can’t overstate the irony here: the supporters of these programs are desperately seeking ways to funnel money to Cuban dissidents, while we simultaneously cling to a failed trade embargo that makes it impossible for most Americans to spend any money in Cuba at all.

If we really want to help Cubans “freely determine their own future,” we may need to take the long road and find a way to lift the trade embargo. This would drastically impact the Cuban economy and the ability of all Cubans to access capital, goods, and technological tools. Right now, by sending money and supplies only to those who are openly involved in opposition work, we are stoking the anger of the Cuban government, and simultaneously carrying out a policy of discrimination.

What of those Cubans who simply want better lives? Or those who want information technologies because they want to learn more about the world, or to share information with one another? It seems unfair, and politically ignorant, to focus our efforts on a marginal sector of the population that has never been able to consolidate broad support on the island.

This would take time, but it would bring change to Cuba in a way that ‘pro-democracy’ programs never will. The US Congress should find a way to shift its focus from politics to policy: discontinue programs that send money to Cuba in violation of Cuban law, and lift the trade embargo. Then we just might be looking at a clean slate.

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The digital mirror

A few weeks ago, I was asked by an expert on international Internet policy to describe what I think are the biggest threats to freedom of expression online in the region. While I have a well-rehearsed set of talking points on the particular situation in Cuba, Latin America is different, and very difficult to conceptualize as a region when it comes to Internet policy. So I rattled off whatever was circling around in my brain at the time—threats of violence against journalists, laws that can be used to limit expression, and the lurking, ever-present, and impossible to quantify “self-censorship.”

One of the reasons that Latin America (perhaps with the exception of Cuba) is often left out of the conversation about Internet policy and freedom of expression online is that it’s a region where technical filtering is pretty rare. This is a good thing. Yet in many countries, freedom of expression online is nevertheless very much at risk.

Internet cafe in San Jose del Pacifico, Oaxaca. I checked my email and then took this photograph.

In Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, escalating levels of violence and organized crime have made violent threats against journalists and bloggers commonplace. In communities where rather than Spanish, K’iche, Quechua, or Aymara* are the most commonly spoken languages, online content is often inaccessible because of language barriers. And throughout Latin America, levels of Internet accessibility match the glaring unevenness of economic development in the region: every megalopolis is saturated with WiFi, Internet cafes, and soaring cell phone towers while rural areas are left wireless, literally.

Not surprisingly, the conversation about free expression online in Latin America tends to focus on Cuba and Venezuela, two countries that explicitly limit expression within their legal codes. They form an obvious (though certainly necessary) target because the laws are concrete—it is clear to advocates of Internet freedom what needs to be changed. But in the examples above, the root causes are much broader, and some are deeply entrenched in histories that began centuries before the Cuban revolution. How does one build a framework for improving freedom of expression online when it is directly tied to a drug war, chronic underdevelopment, or the marginalization of indigenous communities in a region that is linguistically dominated by the language of an old empire?

Of course I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I want to begin thinking about them as legitimate queries within the larger tech-and-society conversation about international freedom of expression on the Internet. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Cuba that can inform how we think about Internet policy in other national contexts, it is that national identity, ideology, and economic and political structure are the root determinants of the life of the Internet in any society—to look at a country’s Internet policy is often like holding a mirror to its political identity. This is all to say that in the cases of many Latin American countries, I think it is time to take a closer look.

 

*While language barriers are far from overcome, there are many great online projects devoted to increasing indigenous language content online. One example is the Global Voices Bolivia team, which is making great strides with the GV Aymara page.

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