one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, and while the
government has significantly improved technical infrastructure and lowered
prices in recent years, regular internet access remains extremely expensive,
connections are poor, and authorities both monitor usage and work to direct
traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The state engages in
content-manipulation efforts while blocking a number of independent news sites.
Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, including Decree
Law 370, which has frequently been used against online journalists. However,
despite heavy restrictions, Cubans continue to circumvent government censorship
through grassroots innovations.
Cuba is a
one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, bans independent
media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The
government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit
some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not
changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018
and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.
At the age of 15, Camila Acosta
Rodríguez (Isla de la Juventud, 1993) won a scholarship to study at Havana’s
prestigious Vladimir Ilich Lenin Vocational High School, which she graduated
from in 2011. She went on to study Journalism at the University of Havana.
Before graduating in 2016, she did internships in various official media
outlets in the capital including Granma, the official organ of the
Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.
These experiences did not give her
much in the way of journalistic practice. However, they did provide her with
two elements that have since proven essential in her professional development.
First, she realized at an early age that she couldn’t do journalism in a media
system structurally designed to serve as a channel for the party’s “ideological
propaganda machine.” Second, and quite ironically, these internships and her
subsequent period of social service as a reporter at Canal Habana provided her
with much freer access to the internet than she had had at the University of
She took full and frequent advantage
of this crack in the wall of state-imposed censorship to spend endless and
“spectacular” hours searching for information on Facebook and YouTube. “For
that, the internships actually helped me tremendously,” she says with a laugh.
She resigned from Canal Habana after
just a year and a half because this short period of time was more than enough
for her to experience “first-hand all the censorship and lack of freedom of
expression one must accept when working in the official Cuban media. Being
exposed to that,” she clarifies, “also taught me how to criticize the official
media and defend my current position as openly against the island’s reigning political
Acosta has been working as an
independent journalist for less than two years, a task she began full-time in
August 2019 as a reporter for CubaNet. She has also made several
award-winning documentaries about Freemasonry in Cuba and has published her journalism in
other independent digital press outlets, including Periodismo de Barrio, El
Toque, OnCuba, the cultural magazine Árbol Invertido, Diario
de las Américas, and Diario ABC. Additionally, she is a member of 27N, a movement born on November 27, 2020 as a
result of the now historic spontaneous demonstration that took place that
evening in front of the Cuban Ministry of Culture.
Since fall 2019, Acosta has
experienced in flesh and blood nearly all the repressive strategies that the Cuban government’s state
security agents unleash against those who attempt to practice journalism free
of ideological control on the island.
She has been evicted from a series of
different rental apartments in Havana, fined for the crime of “reception,”
fined under Decree-Law 370 (against which she has been one of the clearest and most constant voices), interrogated and
strip-searched, arbitrarily arrested in public, “regulated” from traveling
abroad, placed under house arrest, and defamed both on social media and
national television. While arbitrarily detained, state security agents have
stolen money from her and broken or confiscated at least three of her cell
phones, which has become one of the most basic tools necessary to carry out her
work as an independent journalist. Finally, members of her family have been
summoned for interrogations of their own and threatened with reprisals if they
couldn’t get her to stop reporting.
Despite all this, Acosta has chosen
not only to stay in Cuba and continue working as a journalist but also to focus
ever more intently in her reportage on what she calls “the root causes of
Cuba’s problems,” which for her is “the prevailing political system in Cuba,
That is to say, she wanted to go
beyond simply “playing with the chain” of the system by cataloging its endless
string of negative consequences without ever touching “the monkey,” the
totalitarian political system itself, which for her is the root cause of all
the problems. Here she cites the well-known Cuban expression that sets the
unwritten rules for “legitimate” criticism within a system
that still claims it’s a “Revolution”: “tú puedes jugar con la cadena, pero no
con el mono” (you can play with the chain but not with the monkey). “I wanted
to get to the causes,” she insists.
As a direct result of her playing
with this “monkey” again and again, of giving visibility to figures from the
political opposition through her interviews and investigative reporting, and of
making clear and repeated denunciations of state repression and of the island’s
reigning dictatorial political system itself, she quickly fell into the
crosshairs of the island’s extensive state security apparatus, which has tried
unsuccessfully to silence her.
However, their repression has
backfired. She is ever more emboldened.
Could you describe
your family and social origins? What kind of work do your parents do, and how
“integrated” was your family in the revolutionary process growing up?
My parents are working class. My
father is a farmer and my mother is a bookkeeper in a state-run cafeteria.
My mother’s family was always quite
integrated in this political process. My aunt, an internationalist doctor, is a
member of the Party. My maternal grandparents were also Party members for many
years. My grandmother even belongs to an “Asociación de Combatientes,” given
her past resistance against the Batista dictatorship. On my father’s side, it’s
just the opposite. My father’s brother had to go into exile in the United
States because he was the leader of a dissident organization on the Isle of
Youth. My paternal grandfather is from Matanzas, and in the 1960s they removed
him from his land because he supported the rebels in the Escambray mountains. In other words, that side of my
family is against the Cuban regime.
were you when you were young? How would you describe your educational
experiences up through high school?
Since I was a child I was much more influenced
by my mother’s side of the family. In addition to the indoctrination I
experienced at school.
I was always a very good student. I
participated in all the student academic competitions, starting in elementary
school. In middle school, I became part of the group of students chosen to as
In the ninth grade they suggested
that I join the Union of Young Communists (UJC), which they did with the best
students, but I refused. By then I had become a bit suspicious of anything
ideological. I just wanted to study. I didn’t want to be linked to any
political-ideological issue. That’s why I rejected membership in the UJC.
Later, in high school, when I was in
eleventh grade, I decided to ask to join the UJC because I believed that it
would help me win a spot to study Journalism at the university, the major I had
already decided on. Many times, belonging to the UJC can help you get into the
major of your choice. But once a student at the University of Havana, I was
never really that active in the UJC. Of course, I did go to some marches and
other political activities that were mandatory. And at one point I think I was
even secretary of the UJC among my cohort because nobody else wanted that job.
I had to put in my time for a year, but I really didn’t do anything much. It
was all quite banal.
How and why did you
decide to study journalism at the University of Havana?
I am from the Isle of Youth (although
I prefer to say “the Isle of Pines”) and when I was 15 years old I came to
study in Havana, at the Vladimir Ilich Lenin vocational high school, because
there were no such schools on the Island. In my last year of high school, I
decided to opt for a degree in Journalism, because it was the major that most
aligned with my talents and sensibilities. I always liked the humanities and
found that I performed best in those subjects. I have also always liked to read
and stay informed. And I wanted to do something in which I felt useful, where I
could help other people and do something to transform my reality, my country,
the things that I believed should be changed.
Back then, what
were the things you wanted to transform or change?
I really didn’t see myself doing the
same thing every day, or doing an office job where I didn’t get any feedback.
Because I am one of those people who constantly sets goals in life. I always
try to improve myself spiritually and professionally. And I think that with
Journalism I have achieved that: I get feedback and spiritual nourishment from
the practice of my profession.
concerns did you have when you were still unsure about the character of the
Cuban political system?
I did not understand that in a system
that was said to be so humanistic (the official discourse of promoting equality
or eradicating inequalities) there were so many inequalities. For me, in
practice, there were many contradictions: I saw that theory had nothing to do
with reality. I saw that there were mothers who could barely feed their
children. I myself suffered having to go without many necessities. I went
hungry when I was on scholarship and the Lenin vocational school, between the
ages of 15 and 18. When I started college, I barely had clothes to wear because
my parents are working class and didn’t have the resources to support me here
in Havana. My mother earned about 300 pesos a month, and a pair of shoes cost
me 500. Things like that, which I didn’t understand at the time, made me ask:
“How is this possible?”
My aunt, who is a doctor, had to go
on an international medical mission for a year when her daughter was just 3
years old. Later, when her daughter was about 7 or 8, she had to go back to
another mission, this time to Venezuela. And she was away from our family for
six years. She would come back once a year to visit, but only for a month. Her daughter
and I, we practically grew up together. I experienced all her pain, having to
be apart from her mother. And I also understood that my aunt had to do it
because it was the way she saw that she could get ahead financially. To help
In fact, during those years she was
the one who helped just about all of us to find clothes and shoes, to put food
on the table. And I used to ask myself: “How is it that a professional, a
doctor, has to go far from her country to survive economically, if this is her
country? This is where she studied. Here she can work…” And at the same time, I
saw how terrible the health service in Cuba was, the educational system. These
were things that I questioned.
Along with this family experience,
when I came here to Havana I realized the great social differences that exist
in Cuba. In the provinces, in the towns, at that time this was less evident.
For example, at the Lenin school, there were children of many political
leaders, of people with a lot of resources, and they dressed very well. And
they made fun of people like us, who came from the Isle of Youth, from small
towns, and who didn’t dress as well as they did. They discriminated against us.
In Havana, I also began to see that
many people could afford luxuries like going to bars and parties while I
couldn’t. Some students even drove to campus in their own cars wearing
expensive clothes. While there were others, like me, who could barely afford a
pair of shoes.
When I decided to study Journalism
and during the time I was studying for my major, I had these social concerns
but was unaware that Cuba was a dictatorship, for example. I didn’t even know
there were political prisoners. Little by little, especially after graduation,
with greater Internet access, I started to meet people from the opposition and
to open up to a world totally unknown to me.
After graduation, I think was my
awakening. Over time, I have been able to access many banned books that
broadened my horizons and helped me to better understand all those concerns
that I had had.
What are some
examples of the books you discovered at that time?
I have read Journey to the
Heart of Cuba by Carlos Alberto Montaner. I read Juan Reinaldo
Sánchez’s book, The Secret Life of Fidel Castro. I have also read,
for example, the book by Andrés Oppenheimer, Castro’s Final Hour.
It was very important to me. It inspired me tremendously. I have found it
difficult to find books by Rafael Rojas,
but I keep looking. I have also read the book by Comandante Benigno [Daniel
Alarcón Ramírez] Life and Death of the Cuban Revolution. Benigno
was one of Camilo’s guerrilla fighters, and later part of Ernesto Che Guevara’s
On the Internet, I have been able to
find many works on Cuban history. I have also interviewed many people as part
of my research project on Freemasonry in Cuba. There were even freemasons among
the Cuban political prisoners known as “los plantados.”
What attracted you
to the idea of being a journalist in a country like Cuba?
The constant exchange with people,
feeling that I was providing people with a social service. Since I became an
independent journalist, many people have approached me for help.
What kind of help
have they requested?
I have covered cases of families in Old Havana whose homes are in danger of collapse. And when I publish these articles, the authorities
are forced to visit these buildings and try to remedy the situation in some
Another experience I had, last year,
was a family that contacted me through a friend, because the father of the
family had a son with chronic schizophrenia. This was around the start of the
pandemic when there was all this paranoia in Cuba of arresting and fining
people for not wearing a mask. So, this young guy, suffering from
schizophrenia, decides to go out for a walk. And the police catch him without a
shirt or a mask. They gave him a summary trial, without a lawyer and without
the presence of his family, and sentenced him to a year in prison. His father
had not been able to visit him during the whole process. He even took his
medical history to prove his condition, but the authorities did not take it
I did some investigative reporting on this case, and as I began to
inquire about all the violations that were being committed, in less than 10
days they released this kid. They called his father and handed him over without
further explanation. He is free. After being sentenced to a year in prison.
People have found, in the independent
press, a form of social denunciation. They can be heard in the face of so much
injustice. Those are the things that comfort me, make me proud of what I do.
And that’s why: the public service I provide thanks to the profession I chose.
What did you write
your thesis about and why? Who was your thesis director?
I graduated from the Communication
School at the University of Havana in 2016, and my thesis was a video
documentary on the history of Freemasonry in Cuba. My tutor was Maribel Acosta,
a tenured professor at the University.
Freemasonry was a subject that
interested me. First, I set out to put together a book of interviews. But then
I saw that there was material worthy of a documentary, because nothing of the
sort had been done before. In fact, in all modestly, mine was the first
documentary on the history of Freemasonry in Cuba.
Freemasonry has been quite momentous
in this country’s history. The first separatist conspiracies in the 19th
century were orchestrated by Freemasons. The Cuban flag and the national coat
of arms were both devised by Freemasons. The national anthem was written by a
Freemason. The Ten Years’ War was also hatched in Masonic lodges. José Martí was a Freemason. Later, during the years of the
Republic, the Masonic order continued to have tremendous influence.
Later as I delved more deeply into my
research on the history of the order in Cuba, I discovered that the female
branch of Freemasonry, for example, was something has been almost completely
ignored. Right now, I am finishing up my book on all this so I can enter it
into a journalism contest. I think the main contribution I make is on the
history of the order in the last 60 years, which is also unknown, unpublished.
How would you
describe your internships at different state media outlets during college?
They were all about the same
political-ideological question. I don’t think they contributed much to my
development. I do remember that at Granma what we did was
accompany older journalists in their coverage and see how they did things. And
they gave us advice.
However, we students spent most of
our time on the office computers. Sometimes we even skipped class so we could
go on-line. The Internet access they gave us at the university was negligible.
It didn’t allow us to do anything. Back then, I didn’t even know what Facebook
was. I had never had a laptop or anything like that. So, to walk into a
newsroom with so much connectivity, to find myself with access to all that, for
me it was something spectacular.
I remember spending hours and hours
on Facebook, on YouTube, watching videos, looking for information. For that,
the internships actually helped me tremendously.
Karla Pérez (Cienfuegos, 1998), the
young Cuban woman whom the Cuban government prohibited from returning to her country
yesterday, March 18, is 22 years old. She graduated with a degree in Journalism
in December 2020 from the Universidad Latina de Costa Rica.
The prohibition of her return to the
country where she was born in 1998 occurs almost exactly four years after she
was expelled for political reasons from the Journalism program of the
Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas (UCLV) on April 13, 2017.
According to a detailed report from
the Observatorio de Libertad Académica in November 2020, a few months before
entering UCLV, when Pérez was still only 17 years old, she joined the political
movement Somos +, an organization established in 2013 with the objective of
“building a modern, prosperous and free country.”
This dissident initiative has been
both disqualified and persecuted by the Cuban government, which classifies it
as a subversive and counterrevolutionary project financed by the United States.
According to Pérez, at that time she
was attracted to Somos + because: “There were many good people there, people
that I considered an example to follow. In the beginning, that movement was
like a mirror of the country that I wanted.”
As a consequence of her membership in
Somos + and as punishment for expressing herself openly on the group’s blog,
she was accused of having violated university regulations and expelled on the
morning of April 13 by a group of “decision makers” from the university, made up
of four journalism professors and six members of the University administration.
More shocking is the fact that a
brigade of FEU (University Student Federation) members from Pérez’s own cohort,
that is, the 14 other students who were studying journalism with her, also
signed onto her expulsion. All of them had already been informed that anyone
who opposed her punishment would themselves be “analyzed” at a later date.
Seeing all the channels for a
professional future closed to her on the Island, Pérez accepted the offer of
assistance from the staff of the Costa Rican newspaper El Mundo and
was able to continue and eventually finish her Journalism studies in that
country between 2016 and 2020. At the same time, she actively devoted herself
to the practice of independent journalism, collaborating with Diario de
Cuba and Havana Times in 2017 and serving as a
“community manager” and correspondent at Tremenda Nota starting
in 2018. She currently works with the magazine ADN Cuba.
As part of a larger project that I am
currently undertaking that traces the career paths of independent Cuban
journalists, I interviewed Pérez on March 15, three days prior to the Orwellian
migration ordeal she is currently experiencing. The interview tries to capture
the process of “conscientization” of a young Cuban woman attracted to the
profession of Journalism in a country like Cuba. Furthermore, it reveals in
gripping detail the many personal, family, and political costs that one must
pay when embarking on the tortuous path of free expression in Cuba.
Ted A. Henken: How and why
did you decide to study Journalism in college? What attracted you to the idea
of being a journalist in a country like Cuba?
Ted A. Henken: How and why did you decide to study Journalism in college? What attracted you to the idea of being a journalist in a country like Cuba?
Karla Pérez: It is not a very romantic
response at the beginning. I had always had an affinity for language and
literature since elementary school. History, Spanish, and literature all
fascinated me. The “romantic” came later, in high school. I managed to have
more access to an alternative civil society, to find out what was happening in
Havana and the “Oriente”, and also to become irritated because I could not read
about these things in the state press.
My nuclear family and I had broken
with the Cuban government a long time ago and I had long since decided that I
would never work in the official press. I wanted to write about what was being
marginalized from the “revolutionary” discourse and I knew that I couldn’t do
it in the permitted newspapers.
Could you describe
your family and social origins?
I come from a nuclear family (my
father, mother, and me) of professionals. My father is a civil engineer and my
mother is an economist. However, shortly after graduating, they began working
in the private sector due to the poor conditions provided by the state sector.
For my parents, there was never a break with the Revolution, because they
simply never believed in it.
My grandparents, as is quite common
in the Cuban family, are people integrated into the revolutionary process, and
I wouldn’t want to go much beyond that out of respect for their privacy.
In my childhood and adolescence, I
focused on going to school and getting good grades. I was already beginning to
develop a critical capacity of my own, but apart from a few controversies with
teachers in middle and high-school, it did not go beyond that. I was never a member of the UJC (Young
Communist League) or the FEU, for example.
In college, I was also like that; I never used the university as a
platform to criticize the government. I did that on the outside (through the
Somos + blog and in my on-line social networks).
What was your first
job as a journalist in the state sector?
I never worked in state newspapers,
although I did do an internship for a month, during my first semester of college
between January and February of 2017. The provincial newspaper 5 de
septiembre allowed me a lot of leeway within the “professional
Calvary” that working in the official media represented. They did not impose the topics I should write
about and I was able to focus on giving a voice to actors in the private sector
who were then emerging in the city (business owners and bicycle taxi drivers).
There was one time where I was directly censored when the then director of the
newspaper, Adonis Subit Lamí, called me into his office to ask me to “correct”
certain phrases of an interview.
I cannot share any articles from that
time with you because they have since been deleted from the newspaper’s
website. Just now, I went back to look for them and they do not appear. However,
in essence I interviewed an engineer who earned his living as a rickshaw
driver, because working in his profession paid little and the owners of a
private cafe known as “La Buena Pipa”; among other jobs that I don’t remember
very well now.
Regarding the censorship of Adonis
Subit Lamí, I remember that it was in the interview with the rickshaw driver
and focused on a passage that quoted him as saying: “there is lack of freedom
to do things[…]”. This was related to private sector work in Cuba. The official
told me that using the word “freedom” was too strong in that context and that I
should change it.
Why did you decide
to leave the state media and become an independent journalist?
Already ever since I was a student
working toward my degree, I wanted to work in the emerging alternative,
independent media sector. I had been watching the appearance of new outlets
like El Estornudo and Periodismo de Barrio.
How did you
discover these two independent media start-ups and how were you able to access
their content during these years?
Through the internet and through
friendships that I had been building through Facebook, which I have been on
since 2011. Also, remember that earlier the “weekly package” used to include
content from dissidents, activists, and independent journalists, especially as
part of programs produced in South Florida. That’s how I discovered figures
like Yoani Sánchez and Eliecer Ávila. Now, however, this kind of content is
systematically eliminated from the “package” by its distributors.
For me, it was just the dream of
being part of the independent media, not actually putting it into practice,
that led to my definitive expulsion from the world of higher education in Cuba.
That triggered my forced exile in
order to complete my university studies. At the same time, I have been
separated from my family for almost four years now (2017-2021). During that
time outside of Cuba, I have also done independent journalism based as I am in
a solid democracy like Costa Rica and have suffered no retaliation because of
Why do you say
Well, it seems enough to me to
qualify as “forced exile”, based on my expulsion at the age of 18 from the university
and the entire system of higher education in Cuba. At that age what you do is
study, right? What was left for me in a country where I could not continue to
achieve my academic goals?
What were the costs
and benefits of your decision to practice independent journalism?
It’s bad enough that haven’t been
able to see my parents, sister, and other relatives for four years. Perhaps the
greatest benefit has been to have a clear conscience for having fulfilled my
duty and feeling that I have served a useful purpose for Cuba, reflecting that
part of reality that never appears in the official media. And that is a big
part of what makes up Cuba.
What is it that
fundamentally differentiates independent journalism from official journalism?
The essential difference is that
independent journalism covers more of Cuban reality; it covers a much wider
spectrum of how life actually goes on in Cuba. Meanwhile, the official media
looks the other way when it comes to poverty, the repression of dissent, and
It is an automated operation and
anyone who has tried to push the limits suffers the consequences. Plus, the
salaries for official journalists are among the lowest in the state sector,
pushing its practitioners into precariousness.
You are a journalist,
but doing journalism outside the official media in Cuba turns you into a kind
of “dissident” in the eyes of the state, even when that is not your aim. Right?
For you, what is the key difference between being an independent journalist and
a dissident? Is it possible to be both at the same time?
I think that in a totalitarian state
like Cuba, I am both: a journalist and also a dissident; I “dissent” from the
established order because it affects me directly both on a personal and
professional level. So, I am not interested in distancing myself from one thing
or the other. Still, of course, I have established limits in my coverage of
dissidents, organizations, and movements.
I am not an active member of those groups, but I do advocate for causes
that I consider just.
And even if a democracy were founded
on the island tomorrow, I would always work to hold the government and its
leaders to account. I would continue being a “dissident” vis-à-vis policies
that seem wrong or arbitrary to me. Injustice
is not automatically eliminated with the arrival of democracy.
For a time, some
blogs and then later independent media outlets emphasized the fact that they
were produced “from Cuba,” in contrast to others that were produced “from
abroad.” For you, does this distinction still have importance, significance, or
relevance given the increasingly “transnational” reality of both journalism and
the Cuban nation itself?
To advance in our common goals, the
inside and outside should no longer be thought of as separate settings.
Although, of course, I consider the
people who do journalism from within the island of greater value based on their
resistance, and I never would, from my position of privilege, minimize them or
try to tell them what to do.
In the end, I think we complement one
another very well. Exiled professionals have always pushed those who fight, in
this case journalists, from within totalitarian regimes.
In all parts of the
world, the model of media financing is in crisis. In Cuba, there is also an
official discourse that argues that the independent journalists and media are
actually “subversives” or “mercenaries” because they have developed alternative
financing. How do you navigate in this extremely polarized and politicized
The key in my work is that there is
no imposition of agendas, editorial lines, or approaches that betray my values
and what I believe is fair. Everything can be discussed in the newsrooms.
There must be openness, of course, but there are basic principles that are
non-negotiable. This is a conversation that we have (and must have) within our
The defamations and slanders that are
showered down from Cuban officialdom no longer affect us. What concerns me is
clarity within myself and with my nuclear family.
What are your experiences
of harassment, intimidation, or detention and interrogation by state security?
Has your free movement been prevented or “regulated” within or outside the
I was interrogated three times
(between September 2016 and January 2017) when I was 18 years old when I was a
Journalism student at the Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas
What were the
reasons behind these interrogations?
My posts and denunciations on social
networks; my collaboration on the blog of the Somos + Movement; my relationship
with figures like Eliecer Ávila and Iliana Hernández; my absence from
political-indoctrination events at the University, such as those that occurred
with the death of Fidel Castro. Later in
April 2017, I was expelled from UCLV and permanently from the entire system of
higher education in Cuba.
I have seen the
document that was given to you justifying your expulsion. Are there other
similar cases of students or professors who have been expelled from Cuba’s
Journalism schools for ideological reasons?
I personally know of the case of a professor from my own University (UCLV), Dalila Rodríguez, a Master of Linguistic and Editorial Studies, who was expelled just weeks after I was. She did not belong to any opposition movement, but the repression occurred because she was the daughter of a religious leader, Leonardo Rodríguez, an opposition leader associated with the Instituto Patmos.
Ted A. Henken (Pensacola, 1971) is an associate professor of sociology at Baruch College, CUNY. His most recent academic works include Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy (University of Florida Press, 2021) and Cuba empresarial: emprendedores ante una cambiante política pública (Editorial Hypermedia, 2020). He is currently working on a history of independent journalism in Cuba.
Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy (Reframing Media, Technology,
and Culture in Latin/o America), June 1, 2021
by Ted A. Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria
In spite of having
a slow, expensive, government-controlled Internet infrastructure, Cuba is
undergoing what Ted Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria refer to as a digital
revolution might be said to have begun in 2007 when Yoani Sánchez launched her blog “Generation
Y.” Internet access was difficult — she would get illegal connectivity at
tourist hotels, and the blog was initially hosted in Germany. Soon, the
Huffington Post began publishing her posts, and she has subsequently received
many international awards, including the Ortega y Gasset Award for Digital Journalism in
I recall reading of
her teaching others to blog at her home, and other blogs followed, but that was
just the start of the digital revolution. Today, she publishes a daily digital
newspaper 14Ymedio which is available in Spanish
and English, and there are many independent (non-government) media sites that
cover fashion, sports, art, music, and technology as well as news, commentary,
and current events.
Since Cuba had and
still has very poor Internet infrastructure, one might ask how this digital content
is distributed. The digital-distribution revolution began in 2008 with el Paquete Semanal, the “weekly
package” of digital material distributed on hard and flash drives that
became a nation-wide sneakernet. El Paquete is financed by advertising and
customer fees and it has been suggested that it is the nation’s largest private
employer. In 2015, the Government began opening public-access WiFi hotspots. Cubans hackers
also created local community networks which did not have a connection to the
global Internet. The largest, Havana’s SNET, had an estimated 100,000 users before it was taken over by the government. More
recently, 3G mobile service was introduced and
now 4G is beginning to roll out.
I’ve been speaking
of media, but Henken estimates that there is also a digitally-convened movement
or protest in Cuba every two months or so. He describes several of these and
their leaders in this article.
If you are
interested in more on Cuba’s digital media revolution, check out Henken’s recent
interview at Tulane University. (It’s over an hour-long, but he
speaks clearly so you can listen at 2X speed). He talks about Cuban media and
introduces a forthcoming anthology he and Santamaria edited. In his presentation,
Henken discusses independent Cuban media and summarizes each chapter of the
book, which will be available from the University Press of
Florida on June 1.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
In Medias Res: Who
Will Control Cuba’s Digital Revolution?, Ted A. Henken
Part I. History,
Media, and Technology
1. The Past,
Present, and Future of the Cuban Internet, Larry Press
Itineraries and Cyclic Trajectories: Alternative Media Communication
Technologies, and Social Change in Cuba, Edel Lima Sarmiento
Part II. Politics
3. Information and
Communication Technology, State Power, and Civil Society: Cuban Internet
Development in the Context of the Normalization of Relations with the United
States, Olga Khrustaleva
4. Ghost in the
Machine: The Incompatibility of Cuba’s State Media Monopoly with the Existence
of Independent Digital Media and the Democratization of Communication, Alexei
Padilla Herrera and Eloy Viera Cañive
5. The Press Model
in Cuba: Between Ideological Hegemony and the Reinvention of Civic Journalism,
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Arechavaleta
6. Digital Critique
in Cuba, Marie Laure Geoffray
7. From Generación
Y to 14ymedio: Beyond the Blog on Cuba’s Digital Frontier, Ted A. Henken
Journalism in Cuba: Between Fantasy and the Ontological Rupture, Sara Garcia
9. Perceptions of
and Strategies for Autonomy among Journalists Working for Cuban State Media,
Media on the Margins: Two Cases of Journalistic Professionalization in Cuba’s
Digital Media Ecosystem, Abel Somohano Fernández and Mireya Márquez-Ramírez
Part IV. Business
Marketing of Touristic Cuba: Branding a “Tech-Free” Destination,
12. A Una Cuba
Alternativa”? Digital Millennials, Social Influencing, and Cuentapropismo
in Havana, Jennifer Cearns
Part V. Culture and
Initiation Ceremonies: Cuban Literary and Cultural E-zines, 2000 — 2010,
14. Images of
Ourselves: Cuban Mediascapes and the Post-socialist “Woman of
Fashion,” Paloma Duong
Sara García Santamaría Blanquerna – Universitat Ramon Llull (Spain)
Since the collapse of
the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent global proliferation of new
information and communication technologies, including the internet and social
media, the Cuban government’s mass media monopoly has progressively
eroded and Cuban citizens — working independently of and sometimes in open
opposition to the government — have increasingly become active participants in
the worldwide digital revolution, remaking the Cuban media landscape in the
This second, digital
revolution has erupted within the Cuban Revolution, leading to a dynamic and
unpredictable struggle over the meaning, impact, scope and direction of both.
Who will control Cuba’s digital revolution? Who will
benefit from it? To what ends will it be applied? Who will be left behind?
The San Isidro Movement (#MSI), which
burst into international notoriety in late 2020 thanks in part to its members’
savvy use of digital technology, is a loosely affiliated group of independent
artist-activists that emerged in late 2018 demanding the revocation of Decree-Law 349, a measure that extends
Ministry of Culture control over the island’s thriving independent artistic
The group’s central
figure, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (whose home in the Old Havana district San
Isidro doubles as the group’s headquarters), has been detained more than 20
times between 2018 and 2020. This is a result of his often provocative and
always unauthorized public art performances, including one in which he paraded
around the city wearing a construction helmet to protest a building collapse in
Old Havana in January 2020 that killed three young girls.
November, rapper and group member Denis Solís
was sentenced in a summary trial to eight months in prison on the trumped-up
charge of “disrespect” after he broadcast via
social media his altercation with a police officer who illegally entered his
home. This provoked MSI members to stage a hunger-strike at Alcántara’s home
demanding Solís’ release, which state health and security agents raided on Nov.
26 on the pretext of controlling “the propagation of the pandemic.”
efforts to block access to social media, the real breakthrough of the MSI was
its effective breakdown of the government-erected wall of fear and isolation
that had previously separated such marginalized “artivists”
from Cuba’s state-sanctioned artistic mainstream. After learning of the
previous day’s violent raid via their cellphones, on Nov. 27, more than 500
mostly young artists and intellectuals from a broad array of disciplines staged
an unprecedented, music-fueled, day-long “clap-in” (giving birth to the
moniker, “La revolución de los aplausos”) outside Havana’s Ministry of
Culture in solidarity with the MSI.
They demanded a
meeting with the cultural minister to address not only the MSI’s original aims
but also the more fundamental issues of artistic
freedom, freedom of speech and the right to dissent.
While this mass
gathering briefly forced Ministry officials to the table, in
subsequent weeks they reneged on their promises of open dialogue and safeguards
from retribution against the protesters. Instead, the government unleashed a
wave of character assassination in the official media against movement leaders
as supposed “terrorists” and “mercenaries.”
This is only the latest
digital-age ordeal for the Cuban government. Prior to the recent MSI
breakthrough, but since the coming of 3G mobile internet in December 2018, Cuba
saw several inventive cyber-denunciations of the government that left an
impact. Among them:
digital campaign urging Cubans to either vote against (#YoVotoNo) or
abstain from voting (#YoNoVoto) on Cuba’s new constitution on Feb. 24,
independent LGBT march spontaneously
organized in spring 2019 via social media after the island’s officially
controlled “pride” march was inexplicably cancelled via a Facebook post by
Mariela Castro herself;
gathering outside the Ministry of Communications together with an expression
of digital solidarity (#YoSoySNET) with the netizen founders of Cuba’s
SNET (street-net), an enormous unauthorized patchwork of local area
networks, after these independent online communities were outlawed and
dismantled starting in August 2019.
Both MSI and all of
these previous protests have unleashed pent-up netizen demands and eroded two
of the key pillars of government information control on the island: fear of the
consequences of speaking out of turn and isolation from others who harbor
However, we should
not assume that a handful of Twitter hashtags linked tenuously to brief marches
and protests by a relative handful of “connected” and politicized Cuban
citizens (however unprecedented they may be) amounts to a social movement
capable of posing an existential threat to a regime that remains entrenched in
power with no well-known or widely credible political alternatives.
Still, one lesson the
short-term success of Cuba’s San Isidro Movement teaches us is that national
culture and political context matter when evaluating the political impact of
new technologies on any given society.
The same digital platforms and social networks that have come under increasing scrutiny and justifiable regulation in the United States and Europe for their monopolistic practices, abuse of user privacy and spread of “fake news,” retain their democratizing and indeed revolutionary potential in the hands of a new generation of artists and activists, facilitating their loss of fear, overcoming isolation and penetrating the information blockade built over the last 60 years by the Western Hemisphere’s oldest gerontocracy.
Cuba has one of the lowest rates of internet usage in the Western Hemisphere, and access to media is strictly restricted—but that doesn’t stop Cubans from watching Game of Thrones. Their secret is El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Packet”), a clandestine in-person file-sharing network that distributes hard drives and flash drives full of media.
Nobody quite knows how El Paquete, which has thrived since the mid-2000s, is created or how it makes its way across the country every week. But Cubans have come to rely on the pervasive distribution of music, TV, and movies—not to mention pirated software and e-commerce platforms.
Ultimately, the uniquely Cuban tech phenomenon is proof that just like life in Jurassic Park, information always finds a way—especially when you’re jonesing for the latest episode of a subtitled South Korean soap opera and the closest open internet is an ocean away.
BY THE DIGITS
5.6%: Cuban households with dial-up connections, at speeds of 4–5 kB/s
386%: Cost of household internet service in Cuba as a percentage of per capita GDP
0.007%: Cuban broadband internet penetration (8,157 connections for 11 million people)
2018: Year the Cuban government has promised to offer mobile internet service
$2: Cost per hour of public Wi-Fi hotspot access, equivalent to 10% of the average monthly salary
$3: Estimated cost of one week’s Paquete, accessed on a Monday
There are a lot of question marks about El Paquete—more accurately, Los Paquetes, as there are reportedly several versions—but this much is clear: At the end of each week, its creator(s) compile the most in-demand media of the week—roughly 15,000 to 180,000 files, 1 terabyte in total. The provenance is murky, but the most likely source is a mix of illicit broadband internet access, secret satellite dishes, and hard drives and flash drives smuggled in from overseas.
From there, it’s top-down distribution. A network of Paquete wholesalers (many based in street-level phone repair and DVD shops) copy the contents onto their own hard drives and flash drives, which are then copied many more times. The last links are the door-to-door Paquete delivery guys, who will bring it to individual residences, copying over select files or the entire thing to customers.
The network is based in the capital Havana, but El Paquete also makes its way to most Cuban towns, with a noticeable time lag. El Paquete is most expensive early in the week; by Thursday or so, prices will have dropped by 50% or more.
The kingpins of El Paquete
Former engineering student Elio Hector Lopez is one of the people credited with starting El Paquete around 2006, where it built on longstanding clandestine networks used to distribute physical media like books, videotapes, CDs, and DVDs.
“At the beginning we saw this as a way to make money—but after having penetrated the entire country we see it more as a responsibility,” he told NBC in 2015.
“For the time being, El Paquete replaces the Internet for those who don’t have it,” Lopez told Reuters. “If tomorrow El Paquete disappears I don’t know what people would do, it’s like water, or a pill for the Cuban body.” According to the CBC, as of 2016 Lopez had moved to the United States.
“El Paquete was founded by several people, each with a desire to find a way to entertain their towns,” he told Polygon last year. “We wanted to find a way for the island to see the world in ways outside of politics, showing them culture, sports, entertainment, economy and society, showing them all the things going on in the world that weren’t making it to our TVs.”
Cuba’s make-do culture
El Paquete is a distinct phenomenon of the internet age, but according to Nick Parish, author of a fascinating in-depth study,there’s an interesting precedent in Cuban history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 left Cuba reeling, “the military issued a book called “Con Nuestros Propios Esfuerzos” (With Our Own Efforts)that served as a chronicle to survival through shared knowhow, with everything from horticultural knowledge and recipes to herbal medicines to public health to transport, featuring tips submitted by ordinary Cubans.”
A volunteer site, Paquete de Cuba, lists the weekly contents, though they’re not available for download.
In the absence of actual internet access, techies in Havana and elsewhere have created a homebrewed network called SNET “that reproduces much of the consumer internet we know in the free world,” according to Wired. It includes copycat versions of Facebook and Instagram—and facilitates dissemination of El Paquete.
How does advertising work?
There are classifieds in El Paquete. According to a report from the Yugoslavia-based Share Foundation: “If you send an SMS to a certain number, the content of the message will appear in the El Paquete folder ‘classifieds’ in form of a jpeg image that has your message on one half and some advertisement on the other half.”
But local ads are also embedded directly into the content: Users might also see video advertisements for local services embedded at the end of a trailer for a Hollywood movie, or ads sandwiched between magazine pages.
There’s even an e-commerce supplement: “a 199-page PDF catalog with interlinked product pages and ordering instructions, so people can purchase handmade products such as purses, shoes, boots, backpacks, and belts,” according to Nick Parish.
So, does the government know?
Cuba’s authoritarian government is known for its censorship and intolerance of dissent, which has prompted many conspiracy theories about El Paquete: Is it all a government scheme to placate the masses with the opiate-like effects of western mass media?
There’s perhaps one telltale clue that Raul Castro’s government chooses to tolerate the existence of El Paquete: It contains no porn or political speech, or even western news accounts that might run afoul of the country’s communist party.
“There exists a kind of established agreement in which El Paquete must not reproduce content critical of the government, propaganda, or pornography, and in exchange the state turns a blind eye,” one Paquete distributor told Cubanet.
At least, that was true until recently: Cubanet reports a new folder called “Tremendo lío” (“tremendous mess”) recently appeared in El Paquete, which contains videos from some Cuban social media stars who voice anti-government views, along with those who support it. Is this a brave new era for El Paquete, or a signal that a government crackdown is coming?
“In a country where materials, shopping, and consumption are limited to food and maybe clothing, El Paquete becomes a luxury, a form of asserting one’s independence from the state’s attempts to suppress individuality.”
— “El Paquete: A qualitative study of Cuba’s Transition from Socialism to Quasi-Capitalism,”an undergraduate thesisby Princeton sociology major Dennisse Calle.
“Prefiero gastar un dólar que estar como un zombi. (I would rather spend a dollar than be a zombie.)”
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: CUBA’S MEDIA VITALLY TRANSFORMED BUT CAUTIOUS APPROACH IS SLOWING PROGRESS
A lively blogosphere, an increasing number of news websites carrying investigative reporting and news commentary, and an innovative breed of independent reporters who are critical of, yet still support socialist ideas have vitally transformed Cuba’s media landscape in the past five years.
The energized press scene is in stark contrast with the island nation’s restrictive legal framework, which curbs freedom of speech under the pretense of protecting the “independence or territorial integrity of the state.” The constitution bans private ownership of the press and all media are supposedly controlled by the one-party Communist state, but the spread of independent reporting is a sign of a changing Cuba.
Reporters, from the most critical—who are known as dissidents—to journalism graduates, documentary filmmakers, and pro-revolutionary bloggers are opening new spaces for free expression and entrepreneurial journalism that not long ago seemed off limits.
Bloggers with whom CPJ spoke said they have embraced the loosening of restrictions. “We are seeing opportunities that were inconceivable five years ago,” said Alejandro Rodríguez, who quit his job in 2012 at Adelante, a state-run weekly in the eastern city of Camagüey, to start a blog.
However, many said that more work needs to be done, with the threat of arbitrary detention, vague and outdated laws, and limitations on internet access slowing Cuba’s press freedom progress.
Internet access in Cuba, which the U.N. ranks in last place in the Americas, is still inaccessible to most citizens. And while large-scale systematic state repression has eased significantly, the most strident opponents in the media told CPJ they still face harassment and intimidation from authorities.
The burgeoning media field began its expansion in 2011, when President Raúl Castro introduced market-style reforms to reinvent socialism. However, many of those reforms have been implemented sluggishly, and even reversed in some areas.
When the call for loosening of restrictions was first made, the party leadership urged the Cuban population to be critical of the government and state institutions. Castro told the People’s Assembly in a December 2010 speech not to fear discrepancies and differences of opinions.
Journalists, especially those working for the state press, have been emboldened by these statements. And while there is almost no criticism of government policies in state media, most newspapers—including the national daily Granma—have started “Letters to The Editor” sections that provide a vehicle for Cubans to express opinions.
State journalists and academics in Havana said they recognize the need for the official press to become more critical, and some have called for a public information law. Laura Blanco Betancourt, a reporter for the state-owned provincial daily Vanguardia, acknowledged that the lack of “a culture of debate” had prevented candid discussions within the official press. José Ramón Vidal, a former editor of the daily Juventud Rebelde, went further in an interview published in the December 2015-March 2016 edition of Mexican magazine Razón y Palabra, where he argued that Cuba should change its “communication model” because “important social issues” were being left behind. Vidal, now a communications professor at the University of Havana, said the propaganda-based media model was facing a crisis and Cubans no longer paid attention to it.
Raudiel Peña Barrios, a lawyer in Havana, wrote in the online magazine OnCuba,“the mere fact that [freedom of information] is under discussion is big news in the Cuban context.” In the article, “The Right to Information Cuba: Possibility or Utopia?” Peña said that such legislation “should help to democratize access to information.”
Blanco Betancourt, who is based in Santa Clara province, said that a public communication strategy could help, adding that any such legislation “must include access to public information for all Cubans.”
While Cuba’s tight grip on the press has waned in recent years, authorities still exert control over the media and the most critical independent journalists continue to face harassment. Long-term incarcerations have become rare since the 2003 crackdown—during which CPJ documented 29 journalists serving lengthy prison sentences—but detentions and summons are still common, CPJ research shows. The once-common accusation of acting as “mercenaries” at the service of the U.S. has become almost obsolete.
“We are seeing opportunities that were inconceivable five years ago.” Alejandro Rodríguez, blogger
The restoration of diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana in December 2014, coupled with U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic March 2016 visit to Cuba, have made it harder for the government to justify press censorship as a means to protect the nation from American aggression, Cuban journalists said.
However, on the day that Obama arrived in Cuba, independent blogger and activist Lázaro Yuri Valle Roca was arrested and held in custody for five days after trying to cover a protest by the Ladies in White, an opposition group founded by the wives of jailed dissidents. The journalist told CPJ after his release that no charges were filed, but he was warned that he could face legal action if arrested again.
The restoration of ties has led to suggestions from some analysts that Cuba may return to the Organization of American States, which expelled Cuba in 1962. But in June, Cuba said that as a show of solidarity with Venezuela, it would not join the group, the BBC reported. Castro’s statement came after the OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro called for sanctions to be imposed on Venezuela. Membership to the OAS, whose charter includes a commission to protect human rights, would require Cuba to improve its press freedom record, including easing restrictions on internet access and ending the harassment of journalists.
Press freedom boundaries
Cuba, ranked 10th on CPJ’s 2015 list of the world’s most censored countries, has the most restrictive laws on free speech and press freedom in the Americas. Its penal code contains restrictive press freedom provisions.
Most criminal prosecutions that threaten freedom of speech include charges of contempt of authority under Article 144, “enemy propaganda” under Article 115, or acting against “the independence or the territorial integrity of the state,” under Article 91, which is often used in conjunction with Law 88, “protection of Cuba’s national independence and economy,” according to a 2016 comparative study of criminal defamation laws in the Americas, prepared for CPJ by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The charges can carry a prison term of up to 20 years.
Most of the prosecutions refer to the defamation of public institutions, organizations, national heroes and martyrs, which is also often used in conjunction with other provisions to curb freedom of expression by preventing public debate and criticism of the authorities and government policies.
The far-reaching transformation of the media landscape has broadened the space for criticism allowing all sectors of the press to delve into issues previously perceived as taboo, such as gay rights, allegations of official corruption and poverty.
The internet is, perhaps, the biggest hurdle for journalists to becoming relevant, because most of their content is consumed outside the island. At the same time, they must pay high prices for online access and find original ways to disseminate their work to a home audience that is largely offline.
These new media journalists also operate in a legal limbo. Article 53 of the constitution bans private ownership of the press and recognizes “freedom of speech and the press in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” Many of the journalists CPJ interviewed said that they approach their work cautiously and sometimes veer away from publishing overtly critical work because of the current legal framework.
Dismantling this framework for the press, removing all barriers to individual internet access, while expanding it to the population at large are key to fostering a more open environment, according to analysts and Cuba experts.
The slow loosening of restrictions reflects a government with many high-ranking leaders above the age of 80 who are not part of an active online community. Within the government and the party leadership there is a debate on how swift this opening should be.
Dissidents, journalists who report on social issues but are not considered hostile, pro-government bloggers, and members of the state-owned press all agree on one point: they want the government to provide more, inexpensive and less-restricted access for Cuba’s 11 million people.
In a July 2015 interview in Juventud Rebelde,José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second-highest ranking member of Cuba’s Communist Party, accused foreigners of trying to promote expanded internet access “not for Cuban people to communicate but to penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest.” This stubborn approach to internet access calls into question whether the government will meet its pledge of bringing internet access to 50 percent of the population by 2020, finances permitting. Such an achievement will demand a great deal of courage from the Cuban leadership.
When President Obama made his historic visit to Cuba last month, the US media followed. At a joint press conference on March 21 with Cuban president Raúl Castro, Obama called on CNN’s Jim Acosta, who asked the Cuban leader if he would be willing to release political prisoners. A flustered Castro sputtered and demanded a list of those imprisoned. Obama directed aknowing wink at the assembled journalists.
Obama’s implication was that by maneuvering to force Castro to respond live in front of the Cuban people and the world, he had bolstered the power of the press. Indeed, one of the key goals of Obama’s Havana trip was to create more space for critical expression in a country that until recently was one of world’s most censored. Among the 13 dissidents Obama invited to meet with him at the US Embassy in Havana on March 22 were several independent journalists. He insisted that his joint news conference with Castro be broadcast live.
While it’s too early to assess the overall impact of Obama’s visit, it seems the right moment to ask a more basic question: Has anything changed for journalists on the island in the month since Obama departed?
Miriam Leiva, an independent journalists and blogger who met with Obama, sees the presidential visit as accelerating trends already under way. “The Cuban government is losing credibility day after day,” Leiva noted by phone from Miami, where she was visiting relatives. “President Castro made many promises and has not been able to fulfill those promises.”
Leiva has been a leading voice of independent journalism in Cuba since 2003, when her husband, economist turned journalist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, was arrested as part of a sweeping crackdown known as the Black Spring. Espinosa Chepe was released after two years due to poor health (he died of a liver ailment in 2013). But many of those detained along with him were not freed until 2010, in a deal brokered by the Spanish government and the CubanCatholic Church.
By far the favored strategy employed by the Cuban government against dissident journalists has been organized stigmatization and isolation. Independent journalists have been confronted by screaming mobs, denounced in the state media, and relentlessly tracked by state security.
That is why Leiva is so heartened by the fact that her neighbors now greet her in the street and even occasionally read her stories, which are distributed by email. “People are now more open, they feel less fear,” she says. “We ourselves have gained spaces.”
Indeed, Cuba’s media landscape is no longer static. While the stale state media predominates, there are over 3,000 blogs. Some espouse dissidence and resistance; others express support for the government and the Communist Party while highlighting shortcomings by local officials. “I wanted something small that wouldn’t be seen as a threat by the state media,” said blogger Elaine Díaz Rodríguez in arecent CPJ report. Díaz was the first Cuban journalists to receive a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University.
For Yoani Sánchez—another leader in the independent media—Obama’s visit had tremendous symbolic value. When Obama arrived in Havana in the middle of a rainstorm, he carried his own umbrella. Cuban functionaries had aides hold theirs. Obama is youthful; Cuba’s leadership is decrepit. Obama is black; Cuba’s leadership is white (despite the fact that Cuba is a majority black country); Obama shows off his family; Cuban leaders hide theirs.
Speaking this weekend at the International Symposium of Online Journalism, an annual media confab in Austin, Sánchez said the primary impetus for change in Cuba has been technology. Only 5 percent of the Cuban population has access to the internet (according to Sánchez; other sources say it’s higher). Cubans must use creative means to access information, including emailed PDFs and flash drives, which are easy to hide and distribute. More recently, Cubans have been flocking to a handful of expensive WiFi hotspots set up around Havana.
“We thought the Cuban people would take to the streets to topple the government, but instead they have done so to get online,” Sánchez quipped.
Sánchez, who started out posting an irreverent personal blog, is now essentially a publisher. She employs a regular staff that puts out a online newspaper, 14YMedio, that provides comprehensive coverage of daily events. “I’m worried less about who will be our next president, and more about who will our next citizens,” Sánchez explained. “As citizens become empowered, they need more information to make decisions. We want to be the newspaper of the Cuban transition.”
While the changing environment for news and information in Cuba is exciting, it is important to keep in mind that is still for the most part taking place within limits set bythe Cuban Communist Party, which while no longer monolithic, is still firmly in control. Its reasons for opening Cuba are complex, but theyare largely dictated by pragmatic concerns and a desire for self-preservation.
Even as it ceded the limelight briefly to Obama during his trip, the government made a point of consistently affirming the limits of dissent. Dissidents were roughed up and detained prior to and following Obama’s visit; the state media, which operates in accordance with Communist Party dictates, published identical headlines; Fidel Castro lashed out at Obama as soon as he departed the island; the Communist Party Congress, which ends today and will set the stage for transition from nearly six decades of rule by the Castro brothers, has been a particularly opaque affair, even by Cuban standards. Raúl Castro emphatically rejected new reforms during his opening speech, which only state media were invited to cover.
In visiting Havana, the gambit for Obama was that his mere presence could accelerate the opening in Cuba; the gambit for Raúl Castro was that he could gain international credibility and legitimacy without making political concessions. With his press conference wink, Obama implied that he had gotten the upper hand, but that is far from clear. While the press conference showed that Raúl Castro doesn’t like answering tough questions, there is no real evidence that he will be forced to do so again anytime soon.
After all, as 14YMedio photojournalist Luz Escobar pointed out, no independent Cuban reporters werepresent. “Cuba continues to be hostile for journalists” she says. “What gives me hope is the changing attitudes of the Cuban people.”
Special to The Globe and Mail, Monday, Feb. 01, 2016 5:00AM EST
Few countries are as technologically isolated as Cuba. Home Internet is rare, data plans are non-existent and, in a country where doctors make the equivalent of around $70 a month, paying almost $3 an hour for government-run WiFi is too steep for many.
Yet, even here, tech startups are beginning to emerge and they’re getting some help from Canada. Montreal technology hub Notman House has launched a program to give Cuba’s nascent startup scene a boost. The idea of Develop Cuba is to create a seed fund and a way to support and educate the community on how to build an ecosystem,” says Noah Redler, the campus director at Notman House and the initiator of the Develop Cuba project. “The major obstacle they have isn’t around talent, it isn’t around want or desire, it’s literally just that basic seed capital.”
In Cuba, a little money can go a long way. So far, Develop Cuba has raised a few thousand dollars to rent space for startup groups to meet in Havana and bought a projector – a rare piece of equipment in a country where even basic supplies can be hard to find.
The next step will be to send a group of mentors from Montreal to visit Havana and work with local startups. If that goes well, Mr. Redler wants to help open Cuba’s first co-working space. The goal is to build capacity for Cuban startups, he says. While Canadians may be helping to get the project off the ground, it will be led by local people.
Internet usage has grown rapidly since the Cuban government lifted an almost total ban on Web access in 2008. By 2014, the country had more than three million Internet users, a little more than one-quarter of the population, according to Cuba’s national statistics agency. By now, that number is almost certainly higher.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-January, about a dozen people are gathered in a public square in downtown Havana, looking at their phones. A couple more sit on nearby benches with laptops. It’s a scene that would be unremarkable in Canada, but was extremely rare in Cuba until just a few months ago.
In June, Etecsa, Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications monopoly, cut the price of Internet access in half and opened dozens of new WiFi access points in parks and public squares across the country. More have opened since then. Before that, getting online usually required waiting to use a computer at an Etecsa outlet or a post office; WiFi was rarely found outside of hotel lobbies. Free WiFi is still almost unheard of, and Cubans have to prepay and show ID to get online.
For startups, “the most difficult part is accessing the Internet,” says Martin Proenza, the founder of YoTeLlevo, a website for booking taxis. While his business is generating revenue, it’s not profitable enough for Mr. Proenza to afford home Internet. Instead, he relies on his day job at a government-owned software company for Internet access.
The lack of mobile data means that Cuban apps are generally built to work offline. AlaMesa, an app for finding restaurants, is fully functional without an Internet connection. Its restaurant directory and map are downloaded onto a user’s phone. If a user opens the app when they do have an Internet connection, the database is updated. “Considering the insufficient connectivity infrastructure and cost of Internet access in the country, an offline solution was mandatory,” says Alfonso Ali, AlaMesa’s lead programmer.
But they also face a uniquely Cuban challenge. “Due to U.S. blockade restrictions, we are unable to use PayPal or Stripe,” Mr. Ali says. “So standard operations like online booking, coupons, etc., are very difficult and costly to implement.”
The Cuban government appears to have taken little notice of the country’s growing startup community, but there are fears about what will happen if they do. While economic reforms that began in 2008 have opened the door to an increasing number of private businesses, there are no provisions for tech startups, making them illegal.
“You have to keep yourself under the radar,” Mr. Proenza says. “But is it a big concern? No. Really, the state is not running after people for creating online businesses.” He does think the government will allow startups to operate legally in the future, and says that’s a view shared by others in the startup community.
In Montreal, Mr. Redler says he sees some hopeful signs – accommodation-rental site Airbnb was allowed to enter the Cuban market earlier this year; there are now over 2,000 listings. But he says he doesn’t expect change to come rapidly.
Despite the challenges, Cuban business owners say they’re optimistic about the future. “The Cuba education system is very good, so it’s very easy to find talented people to work on any field of innovation,” Mr. Ali says. “We used to say ‘need is the mother of invention,’ so people in Cuba have good talent, skills and the mindset to find solutions to almost any problem.”