After the “half-news”

In the autumn of 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, bringing the beginning of the end of communist rule for most, but not all, of the world. In Cuba, the revolution continued, albeit stunted by the sudden collapse of its greatest and wealthiest ally. Cubans learned of these events and witnessed drastic changes in the country’s economic and social landscape that took place as a consequence. But the actual news of the wall’s destruction may never have reached the island as it did much of the rest of the world. In one of the most moving pieces I have read by Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most famous blogger, Sánchez describes seeing photographs of the Berlin Wall coming down for the first time in the year 2000.

I chose to study Sánchez’s work, and to make her the focus of my MA thesis, because of her bizarre brand of digital fame, but also because of her writing about the peculiar life of information in Cuba. Her blog, Generación Y, which garners over 15 million hits per month, chronicles the ways in which technology is changing the production, circulation, and control of information on the island. Calling the state-supported media the “half-news,” she describes the constant exercise of reading between the lines that it requires, and the effects it has had on shared knowledge and the construction of history. She writes:

[At the end of the Cold War] few Cubans had access to a video player or to the foreign press. The news came to us when it was already history. The young man who defied a tank in Tiananmen Square only took shape before my eyes a decade after those events. Not to mention things happening on our side that we barely heard about. So, when the Maleconazo[1] happened in August 1994, we reconstructed the atmosphere of sticks and stones of that day from fragments disseminated by foreign television.[2]

But she writes in the past tense—technology has arrived, she says, and it is transforming the life of information in Cuban society. Although only ten percent of the population uses the Internet, communication by cell phone, email, and blog post is generating dialogues on the island and between Cubans and the ‘outside’ world in ways that were not possible until a few years ago. In the Cuban blogosphere, writers document and comment openly on the events of daily life, building a collective, kaleidoscopic alternative to the ‘official reality’ articulated by state media and historians. Such a thing has not truly existed in the revolution’s fifty-one years.

The idea of using the Internet as a venue for forming an ‘alternative reality’ is not unique to Cuba, but it takes a unique shape in the Cuban context. International media and press freedom organizations have rushed to conclude that digital samizdat will be the magic medicine, that digital networks will somehow cure the island government of its stubbornness and trigger its emergence from the trenches of tropical utopianism. But I don’t think it can be that simple. Like most of us, they cannot perfectly circumnavigate the information vacuum that lies somewhere between Havana and the Florida Keys. And every method of seeking and producing information has its limits.

While I’ve encountered many of the same problems that journalists and activists do, there are some advantages to studying Cuba in the academic world. I was able to visit the country as a tourist and student, without the red letters of a press credential hanging from my neck. Over the summer of 2009, I traveled to Cuba for the second time, and spent many long, blisteringly hot afternoons talking with academics, journalists, and bloggers about the intellectual history of Cuba, and the impact that digital culture may (or may not) have on its future.

I left Havana with more pictures and stories and questions in my mind than I could ever justify incorporating into a Master’s thesis. During a nasty heat wave on the east coast of United States, the kind that makes your brain work very slowly (but also reminds me of Havana in July—it is never as bad as Havana in July), I decided to start a blog. Half-wired will give me a place to consider the latest news from the island and to tinker with my own ideas about what it means to be wired in Cuba (and in other places too). I want to discourage readers from over thinking the blog’s name—it is a half-baked solution to the problem of having too much information for a single paper, and it is a blog about what happens when new communication technologies begin to encroach upon the regime of the “half-news.” In abstract terms, Cuba is wired differently than a lot of places, but as a name for a blog, “wired differently” didn’t appeal to me. In a literal sense, Cuba is wired in some ways, and not in others, so half-wired seemed like a good choice.

I hope to have a few readers (maybe more) and I look forward to occasionally gritting my teeth through their constructive and hot-headed criticism.


[1] The Maleconazo protest and riot took place on August 5, 1994, at the height of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, when many Cubans attempted to flee the island on rafts. The name, Maleconazo, refers to the malecón, Havana’s waterfront seawall, where the incident occurred.

[2] Yoani Sánchez, “Habeas data,” posted on December 2, 2008, http://desdecuba.com/generaciony/?p=190 [accessed on July 5, 2009].

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