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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Sleeping at Martí’s feet

Last Sunday, people celebrated International Worker’s Day around the world, and in Havana. Seven years ago on May 1, I saw Fidel Castro speak for the first time in my life.

Late on the night of April 30, my American friends and I had walked to the famous steps of the University of Havana’s main campus, where we had been told to come before the big day. We arrived to find hundreds of students dancing to reggaeton in the darkness, and passing little boxes of rum from one mouth to the next. Around 2 a.m., the party transitioned into a chaotic scene of student leaders distributing tiny leaflets with revolutionary chants written on them, small paper flags, and red t-shirts for everyone to wear. And we then began our march to the Plaza de la Revolución, a sea of red moving steadily down the avenue.

Plaza de la Revolucion, la Habana. By Reno Massola. Labeled for reuse.

When we arrived, we found the section reserved for university students and moved towards the front of the area. As if waiting to buy tickets for a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the year’s most coveted Christmas toy—both things they surely had never done—our classmates laid their jackets on the ground, curled up, and went to sleep. No one had warned us about this part of the event. We watched for a while, perhaps overly fascinated by the sight of several hundred young Cubans sleeping before the larger-than-life statue of José Martí that sits at the Plaza’s center.

Early the next morning, the loudspeakers that marked the perimeter of the Plaza began to boom with the energetic voice of a man who we could only assume to be a charismatic Caribbean incarnation of Big Brother. This was the official state wakeup call. The plaza was now filled with battalions of soldiers and servicemen, delegations of PCC party members from each province, and countless habaneros, already fanning themselves in the early morning sun.

We listened to speech after speech, watched unusually patriotic salsa dance numbers between speeches, and observed the crowd, until it was time for Fidel. Those who were not standing, stood. Children were lifted onto shoulders. The plaza became a shimmering field of little paper flags, waving vigorously in the humid spring air. Fidel moved gingerly, but without assistance, to the lectern, his green comandante uniform making him almost indistinguishable from the rows of soldiers in the foreground. He spoke for two hours, periodically reaching peaks at which the crowd would shout, ¡Viva la revolución! ¡Viva Cuba libre! I don’t remember much of the speech now, and I don’t know that it was particularly remarkable, as his speeches go. But I remember that I understood every word he said. Fidel’s voice and diction were impeccably clear, clearer than any Cuban I had heard speak since I’d arrived four months before. His ruthless, unflinching commitment to the triumph of this Revolution seemed palpable as ever. One could see that like a great performer, he understood how to move people.

Though he went on for about two hours, people began to leave thirty or forty minutes into his speech. When he was finished, the applause quickly faded and the crowd began to flow outward, down the many streets that lead to the Plaza. As we made our way home, my American friends and I listened as the speeches continued. Aging loudspeakers (that I had never noticed until that morning) hung from the telephone poles on each street, emitting the tinny sound of every speaker, and each and every slogan. You could hear the revolution for miles.

Today marks the inauguration of embedded photos on half-wired! I certainly won’t be able to do this with every post, but I’m hoping to add some color once in a while from now on. Enjoy.

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And now?

I’ve been following the reactions of Cuban bloggers to last week’s Congress, and I’ve been surprised to find more commentary about the dynamics of the Congress itself than anything else. Many have criticized Party leaders for keeping the Congress closed to the public–this seems like a fair point. Certain documents, mainly the transcripts of Raul’s speeches, have been printed in the major dailes; Granma has records of certain Congress proceedings, but accessing these files online is all but impossible for most Cubans. It’s not clear to me what else is available for Cubans who don’t have Internet access.

One blog that I hadn’t seen until recently, Kimbombo que resbala, had some coverage of Cubans’ reactions to the Congress. Kimbombo has a favorable view of the government, but unlike many blogs of this kind, the author, Deisy Francis Mexidor, actually interviews people and asks for their opinions. I like it. Here is one of her posts on the Congress [es].

Then there are others, like Laritza Diversent, who suggest that the public has little interest in this information, since it may not matter much in the long run. Diversent was quoted commenting on this on the English translation site of Pedazos de la Isla:

“From my point of view, the Congress was totally insignificant, because they say one thing there but what they do in reality is something else. [...] Taking these processes into account, they celebrate their Congress, they take their measures, and they reach agreements upon themselves. There is no restructuring of the Party and there is no democratic restructuring either. But none of this has any importance for the citizens of Cuba. It has no importance in comparison to the importance it has outside of Cuba. And this is precisely because very few Cubans are interested in politics, or simply they do not understand it. And they feel this way because of the “back and forth” of the government, while one day it says one thing, tomorrow it’ll say another, and so on. Because of this insecurity, we do not pay any attention to this Congress.”

Ouch. Diversent is associated with the “critical” or “dissident” bloggers who most often make the news–Yoani Sanchez, Claudia Cadelo, et cetera, but I think she’s often more cynical (perhaps more realistic) than some of her contemporaries, particularly when it comes to the Cuban public’s appetite for change. I appreciate her honesty.

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A future with ham and cheese?

When Fidel remarked last summer on how the country’s economic system “doesn’t even work for us anymore,” he set the tone for the sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), which concluded this past Tuesday. The roughly 890,000 members of the party convened in Havana to discuss and vote on changes in the nation’s economic system. Remarks made at the Congress reminded me of my struggle to understand Cuba’s quasi-Marxist economic system, which began when I was a student at the University of Havana in 2004.

During that semester, most of my interest in the economy revolved around the challenge of feeding myself each day. On one corner near the University’s main campus, there were two small business operations run out of store windows: one sold fresh juices and peanut butter bars, and the other sold ham sandwiches. The sandwiches consisted of two slices of ham on a potato bread bun. No toppings, no condiment. These bocaditos made you feel like you were eating a bad joke about the so-called “Cuban sandwich” that appears on so many restaurant menus in the US. But they were better than peanut butter bars alone.

One afternoon, a friend and I found ourselves in Old Havana on the prowl for a quick lunch. We located a vendor similar to the one near school, and each bought a sandwich. But in these sandwiches, we found two slices of classic (indescribably bland) Cuban cheese.

“You know, ” my friend said to the vendor, “we usually buy our sandwiches from a guy in Vedado. But his sandwiches have ham,” she told him. “What if you had ham and cheese on your sandwiches–then you might sell a lot more. You two could collaborate! That way you wouldn’t have to buy more food.”

“But it’s a different zone,” he said again. “In this zone, we have cheese for sandwiches. There where your friend is in Vedado, they have ham. This is how it works in this city. If I had ham and cheese, it would upset the equilibrium. It would unfair for the other vendors.”

Before, we had supposed that the only problem at hand was scarcity of resources. But it was more than that–it was an economic logic that we had never seen in practice, and a social code (“it would be unfair to the other vendors”) that we’d read about as a theory, but evidently had never imagined in real terms.

I thought of this exchange when I read in Escambray, a newspaper in the Sancti Spiritus province, that a proposal had been raised at the PCC conference to change how construction is compensated. The newspaper’s website reported that “[t]he delegates…agreed that to achieve greater efficiency in the construction sector, it would be appropriate to pay according to the results and quality of the work…” I’m sure nothing could sound more natural to most readers, but as the sandwich story illustrates, the idea of linking the quality to price, or compensation, is novel in many labor contexts in Cuba.

Bold ideas have come to the fore at this Congress. On Monday, PCC members voted unanimously to impose term limits (two, of five years each) on high-ranking elected government officials–a proposal introduced by Raul himself. They also voted to make it legal again for Cubans to own, buy, and sell homes. It’s hard to know what this will mean in real terms, but if it is what it sounds like, it will mean real change. More on this very soon.

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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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