The New Challenge to Repressive Cuba

Claudia Daut/Reuters/Corbis
Yoani Sánchez, the author of the blog Generation Y, in her apartment, Havana, Cuba, October 3, 2007

For decades, the Castro government has been very effective in repressing dissent in Cuba by, among other things, preventing its critics from publishing or broadcasting their views on the island. Yet in recent years the blogosphere has created an outlet for a new kind of political criticism that is harder to control. Can it make a difference?

There are more than one hundred unauthorized bloggers in Cuba, including at least two dozen who are openly critical of the government. The best known of their blogs, Generation Y, gets more than a million visitors a month and is translated into fifteen languages. Its author, thirty-four-year-old Yoani Sánchez, has won major journalism awards in the US and Europe and in 2008 Time magazine named her one of the world’s one hundred most influential people. Sánchez has set up a “blogger academy” in her apartment, and she helped found the website, Voces Cubanas, which hosts the work of thirty independent bloggers.

Like other government critics, these bloggers face reprisals. Last November, for example, Sánchez reported being detained and beaten by Cuban security agents. Weeks later, her husband and fellow blogger, Reinaldo Escobar, was subject to an “act of repudiation” by an angry mob of government supporters on a Havana street. Such public harassment, as Nik Steinberg and I reported in our recent New York Review piece, is commonly used against “dissidents” on the island, along with police surveillance, loss of employment, and restrictions on travel.1
(The Cuban government requires its citizens to obtain permission to leave the island, and those marked as “counterrevolutionaries” are generally denied it.)

And then there is the perennial fear of the “knock on the door”—as Sánchez puts it—announcing the beginning of an ordeal that has been endured by countless critics: arrest, a sham trial, and years of “reeducation” in prison. Cuba has more journalists locked up than any other country in the world except China and Iran. (In early July, after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro, the Cuban government announced that it would release fifty-two political prisoners who have been held since 2003. However, that group does not include any of the many other Cuban dissidents arrested since Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2006.)

Policing the Internet, however, is not so easy. The Cuban government controls the island’s Internet servers, just as it controls the printing presses and broadcasting transmitters. But the inherent porousness of the Web means that anyone with an Internet connection can disseminate new material without prior approval. The government can block the sites it does not like (it blocks Generation Y in Cuba, for instance), but it cannot stop other sites from springing up to replace them.


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