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.


2 thoughts on “Take a closer look, freedom-lovers

  1. Faisal kapadia says:

    Absolutely agree 🙂 too many people in the world thing of ‘freedom’ as some kinda western self justification for looking down on the rest of the world. The world is abstract at best certainly not black and white!

  2. Masha Egupova says:

    Hey Ellery,

    I think similar logic applies to Russia. I know certain political activists abroad who are overly cyber-optimistic and believe that the Kremlin is afraid of modern technology and doesn’t know how to use it,. In fact, Russian authorities are very effective at sabotaging online activism. They simply ignore these activists and their semi-faded attempts to protest some state initiative. They exist in parallel universes. The government doesn’t care of what digital activists have to say, while activists don;t have enough power to actually make a difference. After all, it is very difficult to get out of the house and go to a protest.

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