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Cuba: Blogger and Scholar Ted Henken on New Media in Cuba

The first post in this two-post series featured highlights from a discussion between bloggers in Cuba, the United States (US), and Spain focusing on the use of new media in Cuba, where Internet access and technological tools are extremely scarce.

For this post, I interviewed City University of New York (CUNY) Professor of Sociology, Ted Henken, a Cuba expert who is the author of El Yuma, a blog that explores social currents in contemporary Cuba and closely follows the Cuban blogosphere.

I discussed with Henken his recent appearance on Radio Martí where he helped facilitate a dialogue between several of the most prominent Cuban bloggers writing today and his students at Baruch College in New York City. This was a unique event for Radio Martí. Funding and oversight of the station come from the Broadcasting Board of Governors, a US federal agency devoted to broadcasting radio and television into countries where media outlets independent of the state are either scarce or heavily censored.

Ted Henken (on the right) with blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo. Posted with permission of photographer.

Ted Henken (on the right) with blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo. Posted with permission of photographer.

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. Henken shared his perspective on the political nature of Radio Martí:

You can describe their goals in different ways. You can say that it’s intended as a way to overthrow the Cuban government, or as a way to get information to people.

Ted Henken is a unique contributor to the online conversation about Internet use and blogging in Cuba. He is both a scholar of, and active participant in, the Cuba-focused blogosphere. Henken also takes an objective approach to studying Cuban politics and culture; he does not come down firmly “for” or “against” the revolution.

In our conversation, he explained that while he had never wholly dismissed Radio and TV Martí, he has long been wary of the program. “In a perfect world, Radio Martí wouldn’t exist,” he told me. “But the world is not perfect.”

Yoani Sánchez and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo [es], two of Cuba’s best-known “critical” bloggers were featured on the program. Both are members of the Voces Cubanas [es] blogging collective, where most bloggers are explicitly critical of the government. While members of this group are often thought of as “dissident” bloggers, many of them, including Sánchez, reject this label. Henken commented on the distinction between “citizens” and “dissidents.”

[E]ven though they have clear systemic criticisms of the government, their main thing is civic action, working [their voices] into the dominant discourse. To me that is what the story is.

[…]

People try to adopt them as political dissidents, and sometimes they’re presented that way because of their criticisms. Yoani [says], people try to call me a dissident but I think of myself really as a citizen.

According to Henken, under the Obama administration, Radio Martí producers are making greater efforts to diversify political viewpoints in their programming. As part of this effort, they have solicited interviews with bloggers who have been classified as supporters of the Cuban revolution, including Global Voices contributor and La Polémica Digital [es] author Elaine Díaz, who declined the opportunity [es].

Henken noted that many bloggers who are not explicitly against Cuban government policies “would not agree to do this, because of the repercussions it could have for them.”

He acknowledged that Radio Martí, a broadcast station that fits cleanly into the “old media” model of “one-to-many” communication, provided an unusual setting for discussing the power and importance of independent, citizen-driven social media. He paraphrased a quote from Reinaldo Escobar [es], husband of Yoani Sánchez, and an active blogger in Cuba, who acknowledges that Radio Martí is not the ideal venue for their message.

[T]he last thing we want to do is rely on the propaganda of a foreign government to get our voices out. […] [W]e need to communicate with other Cubans. We use the Internet, and that’s limited for all the reasons we know, and we listen to Radio Martí.

In the radio interview, Sánchez mentions that Cubans who want to speak out critically about their government have very limited options as far as different media are concerned. So, as Escobar says, they use any channel to which they can gain access.

“People like Yoani or Reinaldo will talk to anyone who wants to listen to them,” Henken told me. “They’re just responding to people who are interested in hearing what they have to say.”

Voces Cubanas CD, photo by jlori (CC BY-NC-SA)

Voces Cubanas CD, photo by jlori (CC BY-NC-SA)

Though scarce, the availability of access to cell phones and the Internet has strengthened communications between people in Cuba and the rest of the world. These new technologies, along with the old, have created a unique collage of new and old media spaces in which Cubans are able to initiate critical conversations about government policy, human rights, and the direction in which Cuba is headed, without having to rely on government entities for support.

Of course these media remain politicized, but civic dialogue in a politically complex space is better than no civic dialogue at all. Henken believes that what Sánchez and others are trying to do is exercise “real rights.”

[Yoani] tries to say what she really thinks. She tries to exercise real rights. This is in some way more radical. Luckily she’s eloquent and responsible. I think she appeals to a group of people who are, if not middle of the road, at least responsible.

  • Thanks for the post Ellery. It’s always refreshing to see the situation in Cuba discussed in a nuanced way, and I think the point about “dissidents” vs “citizens” is something that bloggers find really annoying (and potentially harmful) in other countries and contexts too. People do good in different ways, and it’s usually more helpful simply to listen to them than to rush to label them. Often in the most interesting political discourse via citizen media (not always, of course) people reject traditional dichotomies and traditional communication channels and try to approach things from a different angle.

  • Pingback: Radio & TV Marti reporter resigns in protest | FavStocks()

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