Costs are high and connections slow at government-run Internet cafés. Access to certain Web sites is blocked as well. (Reuters/Claudia Daut)

Special Report: Chronicling Cuba, bloggers offer fresh hope

A vibrant, independent blogging culture is emerging in Cuba, of all places. Numerous journalistic blogs are exploring important social and economic issues. Will the regime crack down, or is a new era dawning? By Carlos Lauría and María Salazar Ferro

Posted September 10, 2009

Laritza Diversent, a lawyer in Havana, explores legal issues in her blog, Laritza’s Laws. (Family photo)
Laritza Diversent, a lawyer in Havana, explores legal issues in her blog, Laritza’s Laws. (Family photo)
Opening the pages of Granma each day was a frustrating experience for Laritza Diversent, who saw the newspaper, the official organ of the Communist Party, as ignoring her needs and misrepresenting her reality. It convinced the 28-year-old Havana lawyer to start a blog, a place, she says, where she can reflect people’s frustrations and helplessness, their joys and aspirations.

“It belongs to thousands of young people who are trying to express many things, who want alternatives, who dream of a future,” Diversent said. “Even if we feel scared, it is an opportunity to say what we think.”

Despite vast legal and technical obstacles, a growing number of Cuban bloggers have prevailed over the regime’s tight Internet restrictions to disseminate island news and views online. The bloggers, mainly young adults from a variety of professions, have opened a new space for free expression in Cuba, while offering a fresh glimmer of hope for the rebirth of independent ideas in Cuba’s closed system.

Versión en español
Video report
Bloggers speak out: Cino
Bloggers speak out: Diversant

At least 25 independent, journalistic, and regularly updated blogs are being produced by Cuban writers, CPJ’s analysis finds. As many as 75 other independent blogs are being maintained, although they are not reportorial or news-based commentary, focusing instead on personal and family interests. In addition, close to 200 officially approved blogs are produced by government journalists, according to the Web site of the official Cuban Journalists Union.

The emergence of the independent Cuban blog can be traced to early 2007, when the first few were written under pseudonyms. Free press advocates and Cuban journalists point to Yoani Sánchez, 34, as a pioneer in this blogging community. Sánchez, who started blogging in April 2007, was the first to write under her own byline. Her blog, Generación Y, and six others are hosted by the German-based portal Desde Cuba (From Cuba), a place where, as its introduction says, “citizen journalists” can offer “opinions that don’t have room in official Cuban outlets or any other publication that is conditioned by political requirements.”

It might seem surprising that a blogging culture has emerged in a place where only a tiny fraction of the population has personal computers or Internet access, but Cubans have a long tradition in online journalism. The roots of online Cuban journalism can be found in the independent press movement that flourished from the mid-1990s into this decade. Using basic journalistic tools for their reporting, these writers phoned or faxed their stories to news Web sites in the United States and Europe for posting. Many were jailed in a massive 2003 government crackdown and remain behind bars today.

Cuban writer Manuel Vázquez Portal, who was jailed in the 2003 crackdown before being freed and sent into exile a year later, said he sees a strong connection—and notable differences—between the independent press movement of his generation and the new blogging community of 2009.

A new generation
Unlike the independent press of the 1990s, which was composed mostly of opposition activists with strong political views, today’s bloggers have established themselves as distinct from both the government and the dissident movement, Vázquez Portal and others said.

Whether by design or not, they have been shrewd in not directly challenging the Cuban regime, said Daniel Erikson, senior associate for U.S. policy at the Washington-based organization Inter-American Dialogue. “Their blogs haven’t been fierce critics of the Cuban system or authorities, but good venues to exchange information and points of view,” he said.

Journalistic blogs examine issues such as food shortages, health care, education, and housing. Above, a public market in Havana. (AP/Javier Galeano)
Journalistic blogs examine issues such as food shortages, health care, education, and housing. Above, a public market in Havana. (AP/Javier Galeano)

Bloggers are largely based in Havana, where computers and the Internet are easier to access than in the island’s interior. Predominantly in their 20s and 30s, they are journalists, students, teachers, lawyers, artists, photographers, and musicians by profession. A few write with pseudonyms, although most blog under their own byline. CPJ’s analysis of the 25 journalistic blogs found that they critically examine the issues that Cubans face daily: food shortages, health care, education, housing problems, and lack of Internet access. Some chronicle sports and arts news; a handful are devoted to political commentary. Diversent focuses her blog, Las Leyes de Laritza (Laritza’s Laws), on legal issues, “in an effort to educate other Cubans on the country’s legal system.”

The issues addressed in these journalistic blogs are largely unexplored by the official press. And in Cuba, the official press has traditionally been the only source of news for most citizens. The Cuban Constitution grants the Communist Party the right to control the press; it recognizes freedom of the press only “in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.” The government owns and controls all media outlets: five national television channels and several regional stations; two news agencies; one international radio station (Radio Havana Cuba); six national radio stations and several dozen provincial stations; at least four Web sites; two national dailies, Granma and Juventud Rebelde, and one national weekly Trabajadores; and several provincial publications. These outlets operate under the supervision of the Communist Party’s Department of Revolutionary Orientation, which develops and coordinates propaganda strategies. Some Cubans listen to shortwave broadcasts from U.S.-government-funded Radio Martí and Voice of America, as well as from European radio stations, CPJ research shows.

Bloggers face severe legal, economic, and technological limitations. Government statistics from the Office of National Statistics and the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications say that nearly 13 percent of the island’s population has access to the Internet, although independent journalists say that figure is considerably inflated. Even judging by the government’s figures, though, Cuba has the lowest rate of Internet access in the Americas.

Ownership of personal computers itself was restricted until 2008, when the new president, Raúl Castro, undertook a series of economic reforms. In May of that year, the government authorized consumer sales of electronic goods such as personal computers, DVD players, and cell phones—all of which ordinary Cubans had been barred from purchasing. Electronic devices remain prohibitively expensive for the average Cuban.

For the vast majority of Cubans, private Internet access is still restricted by law. Resolution 180 of 2003 allows only those with Cuban convertible currency—a monetary form generally used by foreigners—to obtain individual Internet access. The government-owned Internet service provider, ETECSA, must approve all connections. In practice, then, individual access to the Web is restricted largely to foreigners, intellectuals with links to the government, and high-ranking officials, as well as to certain doctors in hospitals, academics in universities, and government-owned companies. Accessing the Web through the state’s Internet service provider also requires a government-issued password. Like most commodities in Cuba, these passwords are available on the black market at steep prices.

Little wonder then that Havana-based blogger Iván García Quintero calls accessing the Internet “a Kafkaesque process.” Bloggers can go online at government-owned Internet cafés, at universities, and at diplomatic venues. Hotels became another option in 2008, when the government lifted regulations that forbade citizens from entering tourist venues. But even at these venues, Cuban bloggers face practical and economic impediments. Connections are extremely slow—foreign journalists say that sending two e-mails can take up to an hour—and are very costly. An hour of Internet use at hotels and cybercafés can cost 160 pesos (US$6), about one-third of a Cuban’s monthly salary. Bloggers say the country’s intranet is a cheaper alternative, but it provides only limited access to e-mail and a cluster of Cuban Web sites.

The Dutch embassy and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana also offer computers and Internet access. Although some bloggers make use of diplomatic venues, many say they are wary that contact with foreign officials might suggest that they are somehow members of a political opposition.

The Cuban government has not put in place a sophisticated system for Web censorship such as that used by China, but it has enacted a very repressive regulatory framework. It is one of few countries in the Americas with explicit censorship rules intended, as described in Decree 209 of 1996, to “defend the country’s interests and security.” As with traditional media, which is constitutionally controlled by the Communist Party, online information is restricted by an inter-ministry commission charged with “regulating the information that comes from worldwide information webs” and ensuring the country’s cyber security and defense. Online activities are regulated by Resolution 179 of 2008 of the Ministry of Communication and Computing. According to Article 19, Internet service providers are obligated to “adopt the necessary measures to impede access to sites with content that is contrary to social interest, ethics, and good customs; as well as the use of applications that affects the integrity and security of the state.”

Costs are high and connections slow at government-run Internet cafés. Access to certain Web sites is blocked as well. (Reuters/Claudia Daut)
Costs are high and connections slow at government-run Internet cafés. Access to certain Web sites is blocked as well. (Reuters/Claudia Daut)

According to Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz, president of the Havana-based Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Cubans can’t access sites that discuss the dissident movement or Cuban democracy. Nonetheless, many independent blogs are not fully blocked, said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a formerly imprisoned freelance journalist who occasionally blogs about economic issues for Desde Cuba. Instead, the Cuban government relies on practical impediments such as slow and costly Internet connections to discourage blog viewership, he adds. “When accessing the Internet is so expensive, most people prefer to check their e-mail than to try to download or read blog posts,” Espinosa Chepe said.

Several CPJ sources said the government employs computer science students to monitor the content of independent blogs. García Quintero calls them a “a type of cyber police. … If they can figure out the codes to get into one of our blogs, they go in and try to take it down.” Yoani Sánchez, for example, said in late 2008 that her blog had been hacked and taken down for several days. Sources also say that government monitors have disrupted electronic communications. Laura Pollán, a human rights activist and wife of jailed independent journalist Héctor Maseda Gutiérrez, told CPJ in 2008 that her private e-mail account had been tampered with as part of the government’s ongoing surveillance of her family.

Despite all of these limitations, Cuban bloggers still find ways to upload their stories. They write at home on personal computers (some cobbled together from black market parts) and load their information on flash drives that they can take to cafés, hotels, or diplomatic venues. Some say they are able to sporadically post directly to their blogs when they are able to access them from the island. But most e-mail their posts to friends abroad who load them onto their respective Web sites. Even then, bloggers are uncertain of what has actually been posted, said García Quintero, who writes political and social commentary. “Last week, for example, I wrote a post which I am not sure has gone up on my blog,” he said in a recent interview. “I’m frequently unable to see what I write.”

Most blog entries receive dozens of comments, mainly from overseas supporters who write with questions and messages of encouragement, or from pro-Castro visitors who denounce the bloggers and offer links to sites that promote the regime. Traffic to the blogs is largely from overseas viewers.

In fact, because of the numerous obstacles, most Cubans rarely read independent blogs online. “We know that most of our online readers are outside Cuba,” said Juan González Febles, an independent reporter and English translator who runs the news blog Semanario Digital Primavera. “But because our goal is to inform the Cuban population, we are always looking for ways to get the information out to them.”

So, in order to disseminate their posts domestically, bloggers save them to CDs or flash drives that are distributed to independent libraries and groups. Others print, photocopy, and bind their posts into impromptu publications, which, according to González Febles, “are passed from hand to hand, allowing Cubans to be informed on what bloggers are doing.”

Historical connections
Authorities appear to be figuring out their response to the emergence of these independent bloggers. Officials initially paid little attention, blogger Luis Cino said, but they have gradually become more repressive. “Cuban authorities fear anything that could threaten their information monopoly,” said Cino, who writes political analysis for La Esquina de Cino” (Cino’s Corner) on the news blog Desde La Habana (From Havana).

The familiar image of Fidel Castro is beginning to fade. Diversant calls her generation “post-revolutionary.” (Reuters/Enrique De La Osa)
The familiar image of Fidel Castro is beginning to fade. Diversant calls her generation “post-revolutionary.” (Reuters/Enrique De La Osa)

As a way to blunt the impact of independent bloggers, the government supports official blogs devoted to propaganda and Cuba’s image overseas. Two blogs have appropriated the name “Desde Cuba” with slight variations; they are filled with pro-Castro posts and anti-U.S. commentaries, as well as links to official Cuban government Web sites. One of the most publicized blogs on Cuban government sites is Las Reflexiones de Fidel (Fidel’s Reflections), which recycles a series of newspaper articles written by Fidel Castro Ruz after he stepped down as president.

Officials also use these sites to discredit independent bloggers by making unfounded accusations that they receive money from foreign-based opposition groups. A few independent bloggers have been summoned for questioning, denied visas to travel abroad, and directed to stop reporting or face sanctions, CPJ research shows. “I have had a lot of problems since I started blogging over a year ago,” said Claudia Cadelo, a young French teacher who writes the blog Octavo Cerco. “This year, I was even summoned by the Ministry of Interior, and now I feel like I am on my toes all the time.” Cadelo, who said she missed her appointment at the Ministry of Interior due to illness, examines issues such as hunger, judicial injustice, and barriers to education on her blog.

The Cuban government has shown little tolerance of critical news and opinion in the past, as evidenced by its harsh crackdown on the independent press movement.

It was back in the mid-1990s that iconic Cuban writers Raúl Rivero and Rafael Solano founded the independent news agencies Cuba Press and Havana Press. Until then, independent reporting was scant in Cuba. Rivero and Solano surrounded themselves with a small group of individuals who, like today’s bloggers, were not necessarily trained journalists but people eager to report news and views different from those disseminated by the government. This small army of reporters, many with a history of political dissent, began filing stories ignored by the official press to foreign-based online outlets.

Government repression soon tightened. In October 1997, Bernardo Rogelio Arévalo Padrón, correspondent for the independent Línea Sur Press in Cienfuegos Province, was arrested for filing reports to the Miami-based news Web site Cubanet and Radio Martí that detailed how meat was transported from Aguada de Pasajeros, where people were starving, to Havana in order to feed the political elite. A month later, a provincial court sentenced the reporter to six years in prison for “disrespecting” President Castro and Cuban State Council member Carlos Lage.

Arévalo Padrón was the first person jailed for online reporting to appear on CPJ’s annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists. (He was released in 2003 after serving his full term in prison.)

Over the next few years, independent journalists were routinely harassed, intimidated, and jailed for their work. Government repression reached its height in March 2003 when authorities ordered the detention of 75 dissidents, among them 29 independent journalists working for online outlets. The next month, the journalists were sentenced to up to 26 years in prison for acting against the “integrity and sovereignty of the state” and collaborating with foreign media to “destabilize the country.” Twenty remain jailed today, many in inhumane conditions far from their families. They live with numerous physical and mental ailments. (Two other journalists jailed after 2003 are also in prison today.)

Is past prelude?
That there hasn’t been a large-scale crackdown on bloggers, analysts say, does not preclude the possibility of a future assault by Cuban authorities. Some bloggers believe that openness is the best remedy to avoid surveillance and persecution. “By signing your name, giving your opinions out loud and not hiding anything, we disarm their efforts to watch us,” Sánchez wrote on her blog.

Yoani Sánchez, who signs her name to her blog, says that openness can disarm government efforts at harassment. (CPJ/Monica Campbell)
Yoani Sánchez, who signs her name to her blog, says that openness can disarm government efforts at harassment. (CPJ/Monica Campbell)

“My friends think I’m taking a huge risk with my blog,” Sánchez told CPJ in a 2008 interview. “But I think it’s my way of pushing back against the system, if only a little bit.”

Some analysts say the government does not clearly understand the blogging phenomenon because its most influential leaders are over the age of 70 and not part of an active online community. “I suspect there is a generational disconnect between the activities of Raúl Castro and Yoani Sánchez,” said Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue. Others think authorities are unconcerned about the blogosphere because it has minimal influence on ordinary Cubans, most of whom are rarely online. After all, Erikson noted, independent Cuban blogs are not being used as “tools to mobilize people” for political action.

Distinct generational differences separate today’s bloggers from their online predecessors in the independent press movement. Many in the earlier movement supported the Varela Project, for example, a 2001 initiative that sought a referendum on democratic reforms and respect for basic rights. “We were perceived as mercenaries working for a foreign power,” said the once-jailed Vázquez Portal, a 2003 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award. “They can’t use that same pretext with someone like Yoani Sánchez; it makes no sense.”

Blogger García Quintero spans the two generations. He began working as a reporter for the independent news agency Cuba Press during the height of the independent press movement. Today, he reports for foreign-based Web sites and blogs at Desde La Habana. Contemporary bloggers, while casting an analytical eye, do not typically embrace specific political causes, he said. “The majority are people who do not belong to the dissident movement or opposition parties,” García Quintero said. “They are people who have something to say and who use the Internet as a tool for free expression.”

But in the midst of the country’s current economic woes, having something to say about food shortages or health care problems could draw the ire of the Castro regime. In July, Raúl Castro announced big spending cuts to revive a sluggish economy. And already, bloggers are exploring how people view the economic situation—and the government’s actions.

Bloggers are also developing strong global connections, which could cut two ways. Sánchez, for example, has received several awards, including a special citation from Columbia University, and has started blogging regularly for the U.S.-based Huffington Post. While international attention can provide bloggers with some protection from imprisonment or harassment, the Castro regime, in the past, has used journalists’ connections with foreign organizations as reason to crack down.

So, is the past an indicator of the future? If bloggers criticize the government more directly, their risks will certainly increase. The Castro regime has been unmoved by international criticism of its human rights violations, and it still holds 22 people in jail for the “crime” of free expression.

But the emergence of the independent bloggers is also evidence of a generational shift, a sign that even a country as isolated as Cuba is slowly moving into the 21st century. After all, more than 50 years have passed since the Cuban Revolution, and Fidel Castro’s once-omnipresent image is beginning to fade. Diversent said she and her fellow bloggers “are part of the post-revolutionary youth. We were brought up after the fall of Soviet socialism.” It’s a generation, she said, that is unbound by the political considerations of the past. “For us, blogging is saying and writing what we think.”

Carlos Lauría is CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. María Salazar Ferro is senior research associate for the Americas.

CPJ’s Recommendations

To the Cuban government:

  • Put an end to the systematic harassment of bloggers and independent journalists. 
  • Remove all legal barriers to individual Internet access, and allow bloggers to host their blogs on Cuban domains.
  • Fully meet commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which it has signed, by allowing journalists to work freely and without fear of reprisal.
  • Immediately and unconditionally release all imprisoned journalists. 

 To the international community:

  • In keeping with its June 16 resolution calling for results-oriented dialogue, the European Union must press the Cuban government to heed its call to grant freedom of information and expression, including access to the Internet, to all Cuban people. The EU must further press Cuban authorities to heed its call for the release of all political prisoners, including those imprisoned in the 2003 crackdown. In its 2010 evaluation of its Common Position on Cuba, the EU must predicate future dialogue on Cuban authorities making substantial and specific improvements in these regards.
  • The Organization of American States must guarantee that Cuba’s proposed participation in the organization conforms to OAS principles, including the right to freedom of expression and access to information. In the event Cuba joins the OAS, the organization must ensure Cuba’s compliance with freedom of expression standards.
  • All OAS member states should promote a vigorous debate on human rights violations in Cuba, including restrictions to Internet access, and should call for the release of imprisoned journalists.
  • The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression should request authorization to assess the state of freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Cuba and report findings and recommendations. 

To the technology and blogging community:

  • The international blogging community should continue to support Cuban bloggers by publicizing their work and ensuring international readership by linking to their blogs.
  • Companies that provide technology infrastructure to Cuba must ensure their work product is not used to restrict freedom of expression. Companies should follow the principles established by Global Network Initiative, which seeks to ensure that technology companies uphold international freedom of expression standards.