On September 22, 2011, Radio Martí host Karen Caballero moderated a conversation between City University of New York (CUNY) anthropologist and blogger Ted Henken, several Cuban bloggers including Yoani Sánchez and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, and Henken’s students.
This was a unique event for Radio Martí. Funding and oversight for the station come from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a United States federal agency devoted to broadcasting radio and television in countries where media outlets independent of the state are either scarce or heavily censored. Much of Radio Martí programming is explicitly anti-Castro and supportive of US policy towards Cuba; the station is seen by many as a symbol of the political gridlock that has defined US-Cuba policy for decades.
But this particular program focused on a group of Cubans who do not define themselves as dissidents or advocate for the downfall of the Cuban government: bloggers. The participants discussed the increasing visibility of bloggers and social media in Cuba, and the unique ways that new media is used on the island, where Internet and mobile phone penetration rates are extremely low.
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, photographer of the blog Boring Home Utopics, described the Internet “offline” that young, media-savvy Cubans have formed:
Es muy bajo el nivel de conectividad en Cuba… Pero sin embargo hay mecanismo alternativos. Este es Internet “offline,” el Internet sin Internet…circulan las columnas por [el sistema de] los correos electrónicos internos que tiene cuba…Circulan los blogs offline como [en] discos, en CDs, memorias flash, DVD, y entonces de mano a mano esta información pasa…
Sánchez described her “Blogger Academy,” where she teaches friends and acquaintances how to use new media tools that are very new to most Cubans. She described “Saquen el máximo potencial de su móvil” [Get the most out of your mobile phone], a workshop where she teaches participants how to post photos, video, and tweets via SMS.
One of Henken’s students asked Sánchez about her goals as a blogger.
Who do you want your message to reach? The United States, Europe, Asia, or other Cubans? And why spread your message through the Internet when it's very hard to get Internet access in Cuba?
[M]i lector preferido sería el vecino al lado…pero Internet no fue una decisión. Internet era la única posibilidad. […] Llegamos a la conclusión de que nunca nos iban a dar un minuto en la radio, un minuto en la television, ni siquiera unas líneas en la prensa nacional. Entonces tuvimos que usar el Internet como el unico camino ahora mismo de expresión cívica.
Indeed, the Internet is far from “perfect” as a venue for expression and information exchange. For many Cubans, the Internet is still an unknown place, and the very concept of a blog or a Twitter account is difficult to understand. But for Cubans who are able to get online, as well as those who participate in the Internet “offline,” blogs and social networks have opened a space for communication and expression that is completely independent of the state. This is a novel and very powerful thing, and while its social effects may be small and gradual, some bloggers believe that things are beginning to change because of technology on the island.
Cuban poet and author Antonio José Ponte, who also participated in the conversation, supported this idea.
[C]ada vez se hace más visible la informacion—la gente tienen menos temor en informarse ahora. Todo eso se va eliminando a través de nuevos modos de comunicación.
* While this radio program allowed listeners to learn about the unique position of new media in Cuba, the broadcast itself represented a rare encounter within the broader landscape of Cuba-focused media. The second post in this series will feature an interview with Ted Henken, who describes his experience working with Radio Martí, a station which is funded by the US government.