Cuba is rapidly sprouting blogs – even though Web access is scarce and slow, computers cost more than a year’s wages, and only China has more journalists in jail. Intrepid Cuban bloggers like to turn their troubles into posts. In May, when a clerk at Havana’s Melia Cohiba hotel turned Reinaldo Escobar away, telling him the hotel’s Web access was for foreigners only, his wife and co-blogger Yoani Sanchez covertly filmed the exchange and posted it. The ban was soon reversed. On another occasion, when the two were ordered to report to the police, Sanchez posted her summons with a characteristically arch remark: “I wonder if I should bring a toothbrush?”
No, fortunately, at least not yet. As Sanchez reported on her blog Generation Y, the “intimidation professionals” let her and Escobar go, after ordering them to cancel a long-planned gathering of Cuban bloggers. They held the meeting they called Blogger Journey anyway, six months later. A dozen new bloggers huddled over laptops to study WordPress, the open-source software used on Generation Y (and this blog), and traded ideas for how to get their posts onto the Web at all.
Cuba claims that 11.5 percent of its population has Internet access, but for most of those, access is limited to a Cuban national Intranet, and connections are extremely slow. Lacking access to fiber optic cable because of U.S. trade restrictions, Cuba relies on satellites. But Venezuela has agreed to lay cable between the two countries by 2010, and in April President Obama said he would lift restrictions to allow U.S. telecommunications firms to do business in Cuba.
For now, even where bandwidth is adequate, it is prohibitively expensive at $5 a hour – one-third to half of a month’s salary. So most bloggers email their writing, photos and videos to friends abroad, who post the content and sometimes translate it into other languages as well. Sanchez has been blogging for just over two years, describing daily life in Cuba with eloquence, novelistic detail, and exasperation. Her blog is one of seven on the site desdecuba (from Cuba), which is hosted, ironically, in Germany. Time magazine named Generation Y as one of the Top 25 blogs of 2009, and Spain recently awarded Sanchez its prestigious Ortega y Gasset digital journalism prize, but Cuba denied her permission to travel to Madrid to accept it.
Sanchez is glad of the attention (“every person who reads us, protects us” she writes) but she asks that her admirers avoid “the cult of a single emblematic blogger” or “personalismo,” about which Cubans know a little something. “Let’s avoid in the virtual world what has done so much damage in the real one.”
Scant Internet access prevents Cubans from reading blogs of course, not just writing them. The tech-literati use sneakernets -passing around flash drives, CDs, and other storage media loaded with blog posts and other commentary. Flash drives are a hot black-market item, to say nothing of PCs themselves, small digital cameras, and cellphones. In a wish-list that Sanchez posted recently, in response to queries from readers asking how they can help Cuban bloggers, she asked for donations of those items, as well as links to Cuban blogs from other websites, help posting the emailed work of Cuban bloggers, and, especially, help disseminating the content of Cuban blogs to Cubans who can’t read them online. Since the vast majority of Cubans have no computers, the blog posts must be passed around on paper, like smudged samizdat copies of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, in the old Soviet Union.
Susan Benesch is an adjunct professor of law and Fellow, Center for Applied Legal Studies, at Georgetown University Law Center.