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.
Like Sánchez, Elaine is bright, insightful, and deeply devoted to the blogosphere. Her writing is often similar in essence (not in style or attitude, but in fact) to what Sánchez and Claudia Cadelo write. She criticizes the Cuban economic system, laments Havana’s housing crisis, and makes a serious case for why the government should invest in Internet connectivity and access for the entire population.
But she calls herself a revolutionary, which is how Cubans identify themselves as government supporters. She works quietly on the sidelines of the virtual battle that has unfolded between bloggers like Yoani Sánchez and the Cuban government, and she often neglects to take on the most controversial subjects of the moment. This summer, for example, she did not once mention the government’s decision to release fifty-two of Cuba’s political prisoners.
Many people would read this and think, “well, that must be self-censorship.” Sure. Organizations like Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists “document” self-censorship all the time. They report on government repression of journalists and then make the reasonable assumption that this might lead journalists to censor themselves in the future. This makes perfect sense, but we never get very far past this, for obvious reasons. It’s easy to study and report on people who have been censored, or punished for what they’ve written—it’s not so easy to study those who censor themselves, because they have decided not to act.
I had wondered a lot about this before my 2009 trip to Cuba, and raised the question of self-censorship with Elaine Díaz. What is actually happening when an individual chooses not to write (or read) something because they believe that it is too politically dangerous to do so?
“When you work at a newspaper, it’s not like there’s someone next to you,” she told me, gesturing as if pointing to a computer screen. “No one sits there and points and says, ‘no, you can’t write that.’ Most people know exactly what they can and cannot say.” [i]
But when you’re writing a blog post, is there not some line that you know you can’t cross? Or are there certain things you know you can’t say?
“It’s self-censorship,” she said. “And self-censorship is something you learn from birth.”
She explained that she didn’t have to worry—she knew that there were certain things she would never write, things she would never even think to write. And this made her free to write whatever she wanted. From what I could understand, what she meant was that for her, self-censorship was a deeply internalized, subconscious process that she was aware of, but not actively in conversation with. Her simple awareness of this process or mechanism made her feel comfortable writing whatever she pleased. So in her terms, she was free.
“I know it’s different in other countries,” she told me. “But this is how it is here, or for me at least.”
Self-censorship is something you learn from birth. Elaine told me this only forty-five minutes into our first conversation. I do not know how real or constructed this might be. But the more I have thought about it, I have realized that there was something very intrinsically human about what she was describing, something that extended far beyond the strangeness of Cuba’s social politics.
Part two (originally posted on September 20, 2010)
After we spoke, I thought that maybe I needed to forget actual government censorship, a state-run press, and an Orwellian information policy enforcement agency (all things that Cuba has) and think for a minute about the individual.
Forget journalism, art, and other seemingly noble professions that center on the act of expressing ideas or information: think instead of everyday conversations, of the myriad social codes and cultural norms that govern your every exchange, even perhaps your thoughts. You start to recognize how much you censor yourself. How many things you might want to say to a person of authority, but which you choose to utter in some other, more private space, to a trusted friend or family member, away from sensitive ears.
While the administration of Barack Obama has certainly helped to bring outliers out of the woodwork, Americans are generally brilliant self-censors on the subject of race. This may not be a direct result of government-imposed ideological standards as in the case of Cuba, but it has unquestionably trickled down from the governmentality of other powerful actors and institutions in our society.
Of course, there is a difference between what we hope this accomplishes and the kind of self-censorship that Elaine talked about. But what she said identified a gap in how I think many people tend to conceptualize self-censorship. What she told me suggested a more complicated picture than the one we’ve often been encouraged to imagine, where Cubans walk about living in fear of the dictatorship, or the state security agent who will hunt them down the moment they utter an “abajo Fidel.” Most probably don’t get this far. If they worry about the political significance of their words or ideas, they worry what their families or neighbors will think. They worry about the security of their jobs.
In the US, discourses surrounding the idea of “Internet freedom” assume that all people (though particularly those in repressive societies, it seems) harbor an inherent desire to consume, conceptualize, and even act upon information. But what Elaine told me suggests that there are deeply rooted obstacles at play in this scheme. Unlike Diáz, bloggers like Yoani Sánchez and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo belong to a very small, risk-loving class of citizens. They have passed the threshold; they have somehow rid themselves of the almost unconscious mechanisms of self-control that keep most Cubans from expressing (or even fully exploring) their political ideas. And this is inspiring to many readers (including myself) who believe strongly in the importance of free speech and freedom of information.
Elaine’s story is not inspiring in this way—her explanation of how she feels free is difficult to comprehend, and may be troubling for some. But it is real. And it says a lot about how people (Cuban and not) choose to express themselves.
[i] All translations on half-wired are mine, unless otherwise noted.