Category Archives: Cuba and Latin America

In Mexico, government is only part of the problem

Over the last several weeks, I’ve been involved in discussions on and offline about the growing role of blogs and social media in covering drug-related violence in Mexico.

CPJ reports that thirty journalists have been killed or disappeared in Mexico since  2006. Journalists covering drug activity in Mexico’s northern states have proven to be at the greatest risk for threats and acts of violence in retribution for their work. As a result, print news coverage of drug violence in the region has diminished, and in its absence, community blogs and online forums like El Blog del Narco and Mundo Narco [NSFW/graphic content] have become important spaces for sharing information about drug violence. Contributors to these sites typically write about incidents that they’ve witnessed firsthand, or repeat accounts that they’ve gotten from friends or other sources they trust. These reports are explicit, and often very scary.

Last month, a reporter and active blogger who wrote about drug violence on the site Nuevo Laredo en Vivo, under the pseudonym “La Nena de Laredo” [The Girl from Laredo], was found decapitated in Nuevo Laredo. Beside her body lay a sign that read:

“Nuevo Laredo en Vivo y redes sociales / Yo soy la nena de Laredo y estoy aca por mis reportajes y los suyos” [Nuevo Laredo en Vivo and social networking sites / I'm the Nena de Laredo and I'm here because of my reports and yours.]

Many digital rights activists responded by urging social media users in Mexico to begin posting anonymously (or pseudonymously) and using technical anonymization tools such as Tor and HTTPS.

This is an important measure for bloggers to take in any situation in which they may be at risk of harm. But it is not a silver bullet.

In Cuba, few bloggers write anonymously—this fact tends to surprise people. A blogger I spoke with in Cuba told me he believed that even if bloggers there were to use pseudonyms, or blog anonymously, authorities would still have little trouble identifying them. Most bloggers there seem to have made a similar calculation. If there’s one thing that works in Cuba, he said, it’s state security. .

Yoani Sánchez has made the point that within a democracy, in a real civil society, there would be nothing wrong with having a blog like hers. This is the kind of society that she says she’s “practicing” for online, until the real thing comes along. In that society, she should have no reason to mask her identity.

Yoani has spilled a lot of kilobytes writing about the connections and disconnections between life in the on and offline worlds, and part of her point here was that she is a participant in what she writes about. She is trying to build a civic dialogue, as fractured, inaudible, and imperfect as it might be. As much as I’ve come to question her persona over time, I think some of the things she says are very smart.

In broad terms, the bloggers in Mexico are doing something similar to those in Cuba. They are participating in an online conversation about what is happening in their communities. But they are not playing cat-and-mouse with the soft social control mechanisms of Cuban state security.  They are writing about acts of crime, violence, and corruption that are happening where they live, and they’re often writing about drug cartel workers—a group of people who have gained substantial immunity from law enforcement in certain parts of Mexico, and who are, as most accounts have it, incredibly well-connected and very aware of the obstacles they have to overcome in order to make a profit.

Many members of the digital activist community rightly focus their energies on how governments limit the rights of their citizens, and the ways in which technology can help circumvent these limitations. But Mexico’s case is different. There is much to be criticized about how the Mexican government has handled the drug war, particularly since Felipe Calderón took office, but the government is not the source of the problem. Rather than working against injustice at the hand of their government, these bloggers and citizen journalists are speaking out against (and trying to protect their communities from) a very powerful criminal organization that has little incentive to hold itself accountable to anyone, other than its clientele (nearly all of which, by the way, is in the U.S.) How do you work to protect free speech when it is being threatened by a criminal organization?

There are many ways that citizens can advocate against what is happening in Mexico—they could demand that the government experiment with different strategies for combating cartels, or even begin supporting drug legalization movements in the U.S. But this won’t change the fact that by writing what they know and putting their voices into public space, some of these bloggers are putting themselves at a real risk.

This is a very hard question to sit with. There is no clear solution, and there are clear limitations to what technology can do to help. As much as possible, I do think that it is important to listen and participate in the conversation about what’s happening in Mexico. Locally and internationally, awareness does matter, and can have an impact. But it is hard to know what to do beyond this.


Filed under Cuba and Latin America

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.


Filed under Cuba and Latin America

Yes, it is a real revolution

I am in Buenos Aires this week, visiting my significant other and our friends here. Last week marked the 35th anniversary of the 1976 military coup that resulted in Argentina’s six-year dictatorship, which is also known as the guerra sucia, or dirty war. Although none of these friends are old enough to remember the dictatorship, some see this date as a breaking point, as a moment where the possibility of a revolution or of some adoption of socialist ideals was snuffed out by Jorge Videla’s military regime. It comes as no surprise then that for many people in Argentina, as in much of Latin America, the Cuban Revolution remains a powerful idea. The revolution represents evidence of what could have been, if things had gone a different way.

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