Nov. 09, 2009
BY JUAN O. TAMAYOjtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, speaks during a interview with AFP in Havana, on May 6, 2008. Sanchez won the Ortega y Gasset prize in Spain for digital journalism for her critical Internet blog on Cuban reality. Cuban authorities have refused to give a travel visa to Sanchez so she can receive one of Spain's top journalism awards in Madrid on Wednesday, said Spanish newspaper El Pais which hands out the awards annually. When a dozen Cuban bloggers wanted to stage a protest last month, they simultaneously tweeted, texted and posted messages like ``Freedom.''
One later used a blond wig to sneak into a government building and complain against censorship of the Internet. And the next day, she posted a video of her complaint on her blog. Carefully, but with daring determination, some Cubans whose blogs once focused largely on the frustrations of daily life are moving toward sharp-edged commentaries and activities that some fear will eventually lead to a crackdown by the communist government. ``We do not have a common position . . . but yes, some people have been doing actions that go beyond the click and the keyboard and try to exercise the rights of a free person,'' said Reynaldo Escobar of the Havana blog Desde Aquí (From Here). Some bloggers indeed have become ``more assertive, more confrontational, more pushing the limits -- and pushing their luck,'' said Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who is writing a paper on the social implications of the Cuban blogosphere's growth.
In fact, on Friday the best known of the Cuban bloggers, Yoani Sánchez, reported that she and another blogger were detained and beaten severely by state security agents, apparently to keep them from joining a peaceful march in Havana organized by young musicians. Cuba's blogosphere is tiny for an island of 11.5 million people. About 200 blogs have official approval and 100 don't, among them dissident journalists and human rights activists, according to a recent report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. But about 15 bloggers have captured widespread attention at home and abroad -- sometimes becoming better known than political dissidents -- with posts that challenge the government and break its monopoly on information entering and leaving the island. While human rights activists report ``the sufferings on the island, which are indeed tragic,'' said Henken, the usually younger bloggers tend to use more humor and nonpolitical language to connect with young Cubans and foreigners. ``They appeal to a new generation that speaks their language, the language of social networks'' like blogs and Facebook, he added. ``They appeal to people like my students, who have no politics.''
Escobar said some of the bloggers -- sometimes called alternative bloggers to differentiate them from government-approved and dissident writers -- have now decided ``their purpose is not just to be on the Web but to express their individual will to come together in a place, on an issue.'' They have arranged three ``virtual protests'' since May, but their largest came on Oct. 20, the anniversary of the day the Cuban national anthem was first sung, when a dozen Cuban bloggers and about 100 other sites coordinated their posts, text messages, tweets and other Web activities for Blogacción -- Blog Action. Escobar wrote that if he had a microphone for only two seconds he would ask for ``freedom.'' Myriam Celaya blogged demanding Internet access for all. Claudia Cadelo wrote that she dreamed of the release of blogger Pablo Pacheco, who has been jailed since 2003 but dictates his post to Cadelo, who then arranges to have them posted on Voz Tras Las Rejas -- Voice from behind Bars.
``It's a matter of trying to grease the machinery for online protests,'' Sánchez, 34, wrote about the Oct. 20 event in her blog Generación Y. The total number of participants is unknown, but Google reported 22,000 searches for the words ``Blogacción'' and ``Cuba.'' Six days later, Escobar and Sánchez, who are married, hosted the first session of the Bloggers Academy of Cuba, a series of training sessions for some 30 would-be bloggers in their Havana apartment that includes technology, photography, ethics and the legalities of the Internet. And three days after that, Sánchez sneaked into a government-run cultural center that was hosting a discussion on the Internet. While other cyberactivists were barred from entering, Sánchez took off her wig and launched a withering critique of the government's ``ideological filter'' on the Internet. A video of her comments -- and the thin applause she received -- was posted on her blog hours later. The government has long tried to control Cubans' access to the Internet, putting restrictions on computers and subscriptions, keeping prices high and blocking access to unfriendly sites, including most alternative blogs. It also has assigned university students of computer sciences to post comments supporting the government and attacking its critics.
But Cubans have found myriad ways to get around the roadblocks: Passwords for Internet access sell on the black market for $10 a month. People with access download information to CDs and USB thumb drives and pass them on to others, who then copy the data and pass it further on. One file being passed around instructs cybernauts on how to get around government blocks on the unfriendly blogs and other websites. Yosvani Anzardo, a young engineer from the eastern province of Holguín, even established the digital newspaper Covadonga and an private e-mail system called Red Libertad -- Liberty Net -- by reprogramming his laptop to work as a much more powerful server. Then there's Bluetooth, which allows the rapid transfer of files such as forbidden books, songs and foreign news reports between cellphones that are near each other, without going through telephone or computer lines. Security agents probably don't realize the impact of Bluetooth, Escobar said. ``Those people studied in the KGB and maybe now they are studying in China, but their knowledge is antiquated,'' he said in a telephone interview from Havana.
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