Saturday, May 07, 2011

Cuba and Its Bloggers: Cyber Civil Society, Surveillance, Control and Academic Research

The story of the emergence of a small but vocal group of bloggers and other social commentators in Cuba is well known. The Cuban state has alternatively tolerated a measure of this development, in part because access to the internet is both limited and expensive, but at the same time it has sought to suppress some blogger and civil society voices that were deemed to politically sensitive or a threat to the political order. The development of the cyber civil society sector is particularly sensitive in Cuba because it is also well known that the United States, and sometimes the European Union, views this as a means of fostering political change in Cuba.

(From Cuba Blog Event, The Embedded Citizen, February 25, 2010 (quoting in part, Yoani Sanchez: "-Y.S.: The Cuban blogosphere is growing rapidly. They also use Twitter. And they have so many things to blog about... - Y.S.: Cuban bloggers hope that the world will understand the diversity of opinions in Cuba. They need support to protect the security for bloggers ad others who voice their opinions. And there should be pressure from the outside world when it comes to the regime censoring / closing blogs.")

From the Cuban perspective, then, blogger civil society can be both internally useful and also pose a threat to the security of the state and the stability of its government.

This view is not unique to Cuba. The Chinese tend to share this perspective, at least in part.
Unfettered cyber freedom is merely an impractical slogan, a Chinese expert on world politics told the Global Times Thursday.

"In the US, a country that boasts its Internet freedom, governmental supervision virtually infiltrates across the nation, and its influence further extends to worldwide servers," said Wang Yizhou, deputy chief of the Institute of World Politics and Economy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The information-searching via Google and the online chatting through Windows Live Messenger are all under stringent surveillance, and the relevant agencies are tasked with compiling backups."

Wang was responding to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made a speech Thursday on Internet freedom at the Newseum in Washington and called on China to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the alleged cyber attacks on Google and other US companies.
Liu Dong, Clinton's Internet freedom speech sparks worries, Global Times, Jan. 22, 2010. Mrs. Clinton's Speech may be accessed here.

Indeed, the United States has not been shy about expressing its views and extending at least symbolic support to Cuban cyber civil society in ways that both embarass and threaten the state apparatus. Former President Jimmy Carter's Maery 2011 trip to Cuba provides a case in point.
Former President Jimmy Carter, met in Havana Wednesday, March 30, with independent bloggers and other Cuban dissidents during the third and final day of his visit to the island in an effort to help to improve decades of tense relations between the United States and Cuba, the BBC and Reuters report.

Participants in the meeting included the leader of the Cuban blogger movement Yoani Sánchez, and other well-known opponents, such as Elizardo Sánchez, leader of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, and Oswaldo Payá, winner of the European Parliament's 2002 Sakharov Prize and leader of the "Varela Project," which sought political reforms on the island in favor of greater individual liberties.

Monical Mendel, Ex-President Jimmy Carter meets in Havana with leader of Cuban bloggers and other dissidents, Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas Blog, March 30, 2011.

 (From Issa Villareal, Bloggers Cuba, Global Voices, Dec. 7, 2009; "November 27 marked the date of the first anniversary of Bloggers Cuba [es], a community of bloggers dedicated to write about their country “from the inside”. Along with their collective blog, their work also includes the “Cuban reader” [es], a collection of RSS feeds from more than 30 blogs of the Cuban blogosphere, that can be used as a starting point for any visitor who wants to read about the country.")

The recent popular manifestations in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, has both suggested to the United States the value of cyber civil society as a tool for political change and heightened the worry of the Cuban government that cyber civil society might be used by foreigners to destabilize the state apparatus or that an indigenous opposition group may form. Yet the development of cyber civil society is not viewed as wholly threatening and indeed the state appears to believe that some forms of cyber civil society--at least those that appear to remain "inside the Revolution"--may be useful and ought to be either encouraged or at least tolerated.

Peering at the upheaval thousands of miles away in Egypt, the Cuban government is increasingly concerned about a burgeoning opposition movement growing through the Internet. . . .

In a 53-minute video leaked last week, a Cuban counter-intelligence staffer warned an audience of Castro government officials that pro-Democracy organizers in Cuba and the United States were using social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to foment a political uprising in the island nation.

"The technology in itself is not a threat, but the threat is what the people who use the technology can do with it," the lecturer said in the video, identified by the Miami Herald as 38-year-old Eduardo Fontes-Suarez. "The Internet is a battlefield." . . . .

But the Cuban government has taken steps that seemingly contradict the premise that they fear the Internet. On Tuesday, Cuban authorities recently unblocked Sanchez' blog, allowing it to be accessed and read within the island for the first time.

Serafin Gomez, Protests in Egypt Spark Fears in Cuba Over Growing Internet Opposition Movements, Fox News, Feb. 10, 2011.

(AP Photo from Serafin Gomez, Protests in Egypt Spark Fears in Cuba Over Growing Internet Opposition Movements, Fox News, Feb. 10, 2011, caption reads: "Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul Castro attend a special session of parliament in this 2010 file photo.").

These tensions have not left American academics untouched. I recent story reminds us both about the importance of the issue of cyber civil society in many states and the effect that this worry may have on public policy and the ability of academics, especially academics from abroad, to work in countries in which the issue of cyber civil society remains volatile.
CUNY Professor Ted Henken just spent 12 days in Cuba talking to bloggers. But the Cuba researcher says the trip may well be his last.

In a posting that should serve as a warning to journalists and academics alike, he reports on his El Yuma blog that upon his exit at the airport, state security agents had a daunting question for him: Who did you get permission from? Well, Henken said, I asked the bloggers’ permission.. . .

Henken acknowledges that he traveled on a tourist visa, as he has since his first trip in 1997. The agents had lots of questions for him, questions they already had the answers to. . . . .
The agents told Henken, the chair of the Black and Hispanic Studies Department at Baruch College, that this 15th trip would be his last. 
Frances Robles, CUNY Prof Banned From Cuba, The Miami Herald, May 4, 2011.

 (Image form Frances Robles, CUNY Prof Banned From Cuba, The Miami Herald, May 4, 2011).

Professor Henken's more detailed description may be found on his blog, Ted Henken, "Esta será tu última vez" - Memorias de la última conversación que tuve en Cuba, El Yuma, May 4, 2011. The description of his trip and his interaction with Cuban cyber civil society is well worth reading.  He ends the essay with his description of the conversation at the airport with Cuban officials:
"Lo que si sabemos es que no eres ningún turista sino que viniste a escribir un libro sobre los blogueros." Y con mucho sarcasmo añadieron, "a nosotros nos gustaría leer este libro y ver qué tan justo y abierto al diálogo realmente eres."

"Bueno," dije, "a ver cuando lo termino si puedo tenerlo traducido al español y les mando una copia."

"Así es. Sabemos que escribes mucho sobre Cuba y que has venido aquí más de 13 veces."

"Sí. He venido a Cuba mas de 15 veces. Es cierto."

"Bueno," dijo el encargado con gran satisfacción dando por terminada la conversación, "estamos aquí para informarte que esta será tu última vez. Entendiste?"

Salieron del pequeño cuarto rápidamente, dejándome un poco frustrado porque me quedaban un par de cosas por decir. Primero, hubiera querido avisarles que realmente no me gusta la playa (pero los mojitos, sí). Además, debería de haberles preguntado por qué el presidente Jimmy Carter, con quien estoy muy de acuerdo, tiene derecho de reunirse con lo que llaman "la contrarrevolución" sin ser tildado enemigo de la patria y yo no.
Ted Henken, "Esta será tu última vez" - Memorias de la última conversación que tuve en Cuba, El Yuma, May 4, 2011. He wonders why it is that Jimmy Carter can come to Cuba and meet with critical members of Cuban cyber civil society while U.S: academics are essentially expelled for doing something similar.  I suspect that from the perspective of the Cuban state apparatus the answer is simple and clear--Jimmy Carter is viewed as an official representative of the U.S; foreign academics, whether form the United States or elsewhere are not.  For a state founded on Marxist-Leninist principles, conduct of political officials, even those from unfriendly states, are treated as matters of state.  Those actions may be tolerated to the extent that it suits the Cuban state apparatus and the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party but that falls within established categories of political strategy and behaviors grounded in the relationship between states.  But, like Cuban cyber society, foreign academics act in the absence of official capacity.  For Cuban cyber society, that produces the tensions inherent in the state's long held policy that "Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing." (Fidel Castro Ruz, Discurso pronunciado como Conclusión de las Reuniones con los Intelectuales Cubanos, efectuadas en la Biblioteca Nacional el 16, 23 y 30 de junio de 1961).  See, Larry Catá Backer, The State of Civil Society in Cuba; The View From the International Conference--Cuba Futures: Past / Present, Law at the End of the Day, April 6, 2011.  For foreign academics it produces a parallel tension--do they serve the state from which they operate? Do they serve the interests of the Revolution from abroad?  Do they mean to destabilize the state apparatus deliberately or otherwise? Do they mean to participate in the internal political struggles?  Even research, or perhaps especially research, can be imbued with significant political effects.  It is to those effects rather than to the production of knowledge, that states like Cuba are likely to be particularly sensitive.  They may be viewed either as agents of a foreign state or as individuals who may be tolerated or who may produce knowledge of value to the state (because for example they may raise issues that might be more difficult to consider internally), or perhaps who may be managed  on the basis of standards of threat or political strategy or convenience that may shift with the needs of the state or the leadership currently in place.  For academics, of course, this is a reminder of the connection between politics, ideology and the production of knowledge.  It is also a reminder that while the political role of the academic enterprise operates is well incorporated into the political ideology of structures of governance in the West, those rules might operate differently elsewhere.

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