Category Archives: Intellectual community

Take a closer look, freedom-lovers

Around this time last year, I had a meeting with a graphic designer who had come to my former office to bid on a project. The designer’s name was Bob. Eager to get our business, he asked me about my research and we discovered that we had something in common. Bob had also been to Cuba. A former jiu jitsu master, he had traveled to Havana with the US jiu jitsu team.

When I asked about his impressions of Cuba, he skipped straight to the end of the trip. The team’s return flight had departed late, and for reasons that went unexplained, the athletes had been made to wait for their aircraft on the tarmac, as opposed to in the shady, humid environs of Jose Martí International Airport.

I quietly take pleasure in the perennial challenges and inconveniences of travel in underdeveloped countries. When no amount of complaining or haggling will improve the situation, you give up. You get a chance to watch the people around you, think about where you’re going and about where you’ve been. What began as a harrowing rush becomes a laid back affair. But Bob had no such appreciation for the experience.

“They had us sittin’ out there, in the blazing hot sun,” he told me. “We had our bags with us and everything. And you know what? After a little while it was like, I started feelin’ like a political prisoner.”

I let out half a laugh.

“Really,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s just terrible there.”

He meant this in earnest. Bob believed that the extremely temporary inconvenience suffered by the jiu jitsu team, which seemed to have caused no actual harm to anyone (with the potential exception of the fairer-skinned members of the team), was apt for comparison to the reality of politically-motivated incarceration in Cuba.  The results of US mainstream media mythology about that country turn up in the darnedest places.

As bizarre as it was, I figured Bob was not all that different from most Americans. He didn’t claim to have any expertise on Cuba–he was just giving his impressions of the place, which is fine, drenched as they were in preconceptions. I expect the Bobs of the world to continue thinking this way.

I’ve been thinking of Bob lately because I’ve begun to encounter people in the digital rights community who claim to have some knowledge about Cuba and the politics and policies of Internet use there, but whose understanding of the political and human rights situation on the island is not much deeper than Bob’s was. In the mainstream world, this kind of ignorance is disappointing, but it’s tolerable. In the digital rights community, it’s not. It is a problem.

I attended an event recently at which the speaker described the situation of Internet access in Cuba. In addition to getting certain facts wrong, he compared Raúl Castro to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chávez, and various other commanders-in-chief around the world who, to quote George W. Bush, are best known for “hating freedom.” Rather than simply mentioning these ‘freedom-haters’ by name, he showed a series of slides depicting each leader cowering in a corner of a room, opposite a piece of communications technology–a computer monitor, a smart phone, a mouse. Dictators are afraid of technology because it threatens their power. This was the main thrust of the presentation–there was no deeper argument, no new insights or information.

I think there is no gain to be reaped from surface-level Cuba research that leads to the same simplistic conclusions that we hear uttered on the evening news from time to time. Cubans are helpless. Cubans have no Internet access and no knowledge of the outside world. Cubans ache for freedom. Similar narratives are familiar to anyone who studies China, sanctioned countries in the MENA region, and a range of other places.

It is perfectly true that political leaders of various persuasions see technology (in the hands of citizens) as a potential threat to their power and stability. Fine. But the kind of rhetoric that I’m referring to typically stops there. Somehow, we are made to assume that once a country is “not free” on some imaginary “fundamental” level, there’s nothing more to know. Somehow, it is assumed that this is the only thing that matters. There is no legitimate consideration of what is happening there or what one can do to learn more. Not very progressive, not very thoughtful, and not very Internet-y, is it?

If in any given country the Internet acts as a mirror, a space that reflects certain truths about the ways and wants of the nation, then I think it is irresponsible to claim expertise on the Internet in any country if one does not know a good deal about it economy, its politics, and its culture.

Like any society, Cuba is complex, and yes, its unique political and economic systems make it particularly difficult to understand how things work there. But this should be all the more reason to dig deeper: do careful research, consult a range of sources, and be discerning in what you believe. And there has never been a better time to do this: the Internet allows people off the island to learn about life in Cuba in ways that simply weren’t possible a decade ago.

If digital rights advocates want to be supportive of on-island efforts to increase access to technology and information, they must listen carefully to Cubans in Cuba, and they must listen to a diverse range of individuals. The members of the fragmented dissident community, or those of the most combative corner of the nation’s diverse blogosphere, have important perspectives. But they are not the only Cubans bringing their ideas to the table, nor are they the only Cubans who are active online.

I do not defend the human rights record of the Cuban government, nor do I defend its abuses of Cubans’ civil and political rights. But I know enough about Cuba to say that I think it’s counterproductive and actually harmful to perpetuate such overly simplistic narratives. If advocates want to take a stand against government practices, they must understand how they work, where they come from, and what effects they really have on people. And they must think strategically about what kinds of pressure could bring change, and what kinds of pressure will do nothing but exacerbate the status quo.

There is so much to learn about what is happening there, and unlike in the past, we have an amazing new tool that allows us to do this. Many people in the space, both in and outside of Cuba, are working on citizen media projects that are having a marked impact on interconnections and public knowledge about civil society in Cuba. I hope our colleagues will soon begin to do the same.

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In Cuba, art is a public good (but the Internet will have to wait)

In addition to triggering the greatest civic hell-raising in Internet history and inspiring numerous nonsensical quips about Latin cuisine and Kate Middleton’s younger sister, the SOPA/PIPA laws have touched a nerve in Cuba’s digital community. Bloggers from a diverse range of political perspectives are interpreting the proposed legislation not merely as a law on piracy, but as a powerful statement about how the US values culture and creativity as part of society.

Voces Cubanas blogger Regina Coyula’s post on SOPA was particularly moving. She wrote of the FBI’s partial shutdown of file locker site MegaUpload, which took place shortly after Wednesday’s Internet blackout, describing the event as follows:

“‘The bad guys,’ those who wield freedom as a paradigm, with allegations of piracy, encroached [upon] the also alleged right of millions of citizens of the global village to download content that they know they should not — or cannot — pay for.”

Note: the freedom-wielding “bad guys” are U.S. officials who plead for reforms in Cuba by offering the (perhaps empty-seeming) promise of the inherent good that democratic values could bring to the island. She continued:

“The issue is extremely complicated for me, a semi-surfer from a semi-connected country. I assume that the technologies have developed faster than the copyright laws and I assume that these illegal downloads don’t affect the artists themselves so much, as it geometrically multiplies the distribution of their work (provided there is no plagiarism and credit is given) as a form of advertising.

It’s true that there is a symbiotic relationship between art and the marketing that puts it in the hands of the consumers. But to see art as a commodity has resulted in the promotion of products of dubious quality at the expense of other values. I don’t consider myself an elitist or an expert; the simple perception of success and popularity reveals very aggressive publicity campaigns. […] At some point, a balance must be achieved between both interests.”

Coyula makes two very important points: first, file-sharing sites provide something akin to a public good—they benefit people who otherwise cannot access or afford their contents in other ways. Second, these are laws that ostensibly favor commercial interests over the cultural commons and the “gift economy” in which art is created, re-created, and circulated. Most Cubans writing on the issue agreed on this point, and reason for this seems clear: in Cuba, culture has been legally enshrined as a public good since the triumph of the revolution.

In 1961, the revolutionary government made a bold, robust commitment to supporting artists and writers and making art accessible for all Cubans. While this wrought bitter controversies over what it meant for artists to join their fellow citizens in the trenches of an ideological war, it also led to the creation of a strong system of support for artists and cultural institutions that remains highly active today. In Cuba, one can attend the national ballet for just a few pesos more than it costs to buy a movie ticket. Access to culture is not a privilege of the upper classes—it’s a right that all Cubans share.

Yet most Cubans are far worse off than any American when it comes to accessing information and media online. There, the Internet remains a battlefield, a contested space where government authorities and the official press denounce the United States’ cyberwar on Cuba, and the boundless universe of culture and knowledge online is scarcely mentioned. Cuban authorities have elected to limit Internet use presumably in order to dampen the effects of political speech and economic activity online—they feel they must control such activity in order to preserve the socialist project.

If things had played out differently last week, and SOPA/PIPA were looking inevitable for us, we would have to get used to the idea of our government that limiting Internet use in order to placate content (music and film) industries. SOPA or not, we are far better off than Cubans when it comes to Internet use. But the question of what motivates our government to limit the Internet is still worth earnest consideration: are we a society that is okay with commercial interests trumping those of public goods? Congress may be, but last week’s uproar suggested that millions of us are not. I hope people are willing to keep sending this message to Congress, because it may take more than an Internet blackout to truly win this one.

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Filed under Art community, Blogs out of Cuba, Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

Free isn’t easy

As I study Internet use and human rights in different parts of the world, I am routinely struck by how difficult it is to make speech truly “free,” even when policymakers and citizens seem to agree that this is a good choice.

Last spring I wrote about a video interview conducted by journalist and fellow blogger Tracey Eaton with John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for developing respectful diplomatic and political relationships between the US and communist/post-communist countries.

"Your URL is blocked!" Screenshot by tonystl. CC BY-ND.

McAuliff spoke of how we must understand rights not as static illustrations of what is good or moral, but rather as products of history. As he spoke to Eaton about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, he invoked the Civil Rights movement in the US, pointing out  that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society. He said to Eaton:

“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.”

Many of us think of free speech as an unquestionable good—it sits at the level of ethics or morals and it seems indestructible as an idea. But clearly it’s not. Yesterday, Global Voices, Wikipedia, Google, and thousands of other websites participated in a strike in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two very bad pieces of anti-piracy legislation in the House and Senate. If passed, these bills could severely hinder free speech and innovation online, in the name of protecting copyright holders. I think it’s fair to say that since the First Amendment was written, lawyers, policymakers, and the US judicial system have worked very hard to interpret, protect, and apply this law as time has worn on and technology has evolved. We have come a long way. But the bills currently in Congress show that we may still have a long way to go.

As I juxtapose SOPA and Cuba’s limitations on free speech, it may sound like I’m comparing apples and mangoes—on several levels, this is true. But my point is that high-level political rights don’t come easy, and that even when you have these rights, you have to work hard to uphold them. For Cuba, it is hard to imagine when free (or even free-er) speech will become a possibility. The good news for people in many other parts of the world is that we have the power to act in support of good laws. If you vote in the US, and you want the Internet to stay open and free, visit americancensorship.org and give Congress a piece of your mind.

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Filed under Intellectual community, Technology in Cuba

Julia Stiles should stick to her day job

Hollywood actors can do almost anything—unless they are short on cash. A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal featured an essay by the actress Julia Stiles, on her 2009 trip to Cuba. She traveled to the island with a humanitarian aid group, then spent some time doing touristy things in Havana, and suddenly found herself broke and (gasp) unable to use her credit card.

Here’s the lede: “With three days left to go in my trip, I was walking around Havana flat broke.” This could be the beginning of a good story. But what follows is a generic, unremarkable account of a visit to Cuba by a person who clearly didn’t know much about the place before she arrived. The experience of being (briefly) broke in Havana caused her to think hard about poverty, communism, Cuba’s shabby telecommunications infrastructure, and the goodness of humanity. In the end, she borrowed some money from her sister and got herself back to the US without any trouble. Oh, and while she was there, she got nominated for a Golden Globe.

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Wikileaks and Cuba: what if there were no documents to be leaked?

I have a lot to say about Wikileaks as far as Cuba is concerned, but rather than squawking about whether or not Michael Moore’s Sicko was banned in Cuba, I want to do some thinking about the meaning of an organization like this in the Cuban context.

Much of the conversation about Wikileaks has not focused on the cables themselves; rather, it has revolved around the question of what Wikileaks means for the US, a country that claims to uphold public rights to free speech and freedom of information.

One of the most common observations about the documents made public by Wikileaks is that they have revealed very little. Indeed, though it is far from perfect, the US  government scores relatively high on a global scale when it comes to state transparency. This isn’t to say that the US has nothing to hide, but in sum, the cables indicate that the US government may not be the conspiracy-based organization that Julian Assange imagines it to be. In Cuba, on the other hand, it is well known that secrecy and surveillance represent critical components of state stability. So I was interested to see Yoani Sánchez’s compelling (if melodramatic) post on Wikileaks and its meaning in a place like Cuba.

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Cuban self-censorship

Elaine Díaz is an “independent” blogger in Cuba. As she put it, she is a blogger who has not declared a political position or agenda in her work, one who just wants to write, wants to express herself.

She has her own blog, La Polémica Digital [Digital Polemic] but also contributes to a group site, BloggersCuba, a sort of digital magazine with thirteen writers and photographers who write on politics, sports, and the arts. Elaine’s story, and the story of BloggersCuba, has not inspired the sensationalism that has followed Yoani Sánchez. But my conversation with her may have been one of the most enlightening exchanges I’ve ever had about Cuba.

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Marianela Boán on art worlds in Cuba and the US

During my recent break from work (and half-wired), I had a chance to interview Philadelphia-based Cuban choreographer Marianela Boán, who I got to know while working at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival a few years back. Marianela is one of Cuba’s foremost, internationally renowned contemporary choreographers working today, and she has brought a unique approach to performance to Philly’s dance and theater communities and to Temple University’s MFA program, where she is a faculty member. Take a look at my piece on Marianela’s latest work, Decadere, and on Cuban cultural policy, on the Live Arts Festival Blog.

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Filed under Art community, Intellectual community