Blogging from Cuba is a real challenge. Internet access is severely limited, there aren’t enough computers, and the Cuban government censors any speech that could be considered potentially subversive.1 Many people in Cuba do not even own a cell phone. How can you do citizen journalism in a country where you don’t have access to public space and most people do not have access to digital media? How can you use social media to get to them?
Every activist, blogger, or artist who is running a digital media project in Cuba today has his or her own way of facing these issues. There is one response that, one way or another, all of us arrive at: We need more than chipsets and cables. Cuban digital networks are not only supported by modern technology but also by direct personal exchanges among people barely connected to the Internet.
In 2007, I launched Desliz, an annual digital journal of art and new media. My goal was to promote the Internet as a tool to break the internal barriers to free speech while fostering an exchange between artists on the island and abroad. But because of the limited Internet access on the island, I developed an offline version of the magazine that allowed people to surf the virtual space without an Internet connection. I sent it to a Cuban mailing list, but quickly saw my readers multiply by an even simpler method: hand-to-hand distribution. Thanks to the initiative of colleagues and friends, Desliz circulated around the country in different formats. I received calls from institutions and individuals who obtained copies from “a friend of a friend,” sometimes in a partially printed version.
I had learned my lesson. In the second issue of Desliz in 2008, I published a notice that I was accepting blank CDs and in return, passing out CDs with a copy of the magazine on them. During the first official launch of the magazine at Havana’s La Casa de la Poesía in 2008, I distributed more than 40 burned Desliz CDs. The following year I received a call from the National Registry of Serial Publications telling me that if I didn’t register the magazine by associating it with an official institution, Desliz would be illegal and therefore could not be presented at any public space in Cuba.
Other groups and individuals were using the same strategies. Independent bloggers gave away offline versions of their websites on CDs at Parque de G, a popular park in a trendy Havana neighborhood that was already a hot spot for the underground exchange of unofficial information. There, post-revolutionary identities had found a space for self-expression, as members of the various urban tribes—emos, mikis, frikis (hardcore), and repas (hip-hop fans)—spent the night sitting in the grass, drinking, singing, talking, laughing, and playing their guitars.
In the music world, the hip-hop group Los Aldeanos implemented an even more audacious idea. In 2008 they began to sell their CDs, made entirely at underground recording studios, on the Cuban black market. This grassroots distribution scheme is probably a key reason that this is one of the most popular bands in Cuba today.
Over the past decade, everyone quickly understood that if you were interested in distributing controversial material, you needed to use the most effective forms of alternative media in Cuba: human networks.
When I started Desliz and other subsequent projects, I was looking not just for space outside the stifling control of an authoritarian state where I could speak freely, but also for a new medium that would allow self-expression in ways that the traditional media could not provide. Where one motivation ended and the other began, it is hard to determine. It was a new era for all of us: the generation of writers who were not represented in the official press; the musicians who had no hope of being recorded by the state’s professional studios; the young journalists who believed that the blog platform was the only place where their sentences would not be mutilated. We each had different visions about the past, the present, and the future of our country, but we all agreed that profound changes were needed. At the beginning, I designed Desliz as a PowerPoint presentation, one of the digital formats most commonly used in Cuba. This allowed me to provide a broad range of multimedia content, including video and audio. Unfortunately, each issue of Desliz resulted in a very large file, and there was a long delay between publication dates. Readers knew about the magazine, but they barely had time to read it and were more enthusiastic about disseminating shorter, more frequent material.
A new style of distribution requires a new way of looking at the information that is offered to the reader. This is a concern not only for those Cuban social actors involved in producing and distributing new media, but also for newspapers, mainstream media, and advertising firms worldwide. We need to re-examine our understanding of traditional media by looking at how information is circulating today. I now hear rumors that the Cuban government plans to make the Internet accessible to the general public. This would change the whole picture. Those who are working with digital media would have to bring their strategies up to date. New questions would emerge. Media depends on its context. The effectiveness of digital media and its participatory civic potential are tied to local realities, but not in obvious ways.
Many activists and journalists are enthusiastic about the participatory potential of online platforms that are built for conversation, offering a clear alternative to the top-down dissemination model implicit in traditional media. Nevertheless, in developing countries, poverty and technological limitations result in a new media world less dependent on online platforms and more reliant on offline social interactions. Networks emerge combining online and offline transactions that facilitate the flow of information from the local to the Web and back. In Cuba, people with direct access to the Internet compile packages of global information to be distributed offline among friends and relatives. Meanwhile, local producers and distributors combine traditional forms of communication, such as casual neighborhood meetings and corner encounters with the use of digital tools like audio recorders, video cameras, and computers.
People constantly pass fresh information to their friends, from one digital device to another. If the new listeners, readers, or viewers find the content interesting enough, they make printed copies, burn CDs, or call their neighbors without personal computers so they can come hear the new song and see the latest slideshow or video. Within a few days, the information is shared on those hybrid networks like a virus. This combination of effective hand-to-hand exchanges and precarious digital networks constitutes the most efficient mechanism for the circulation of information on the island today. But this story’s protagonist is not digital technology. The strength of everyday interactions makes direct social capital the most important currency circulating the country. Five real contacts on the streets of Havana are much more valuable to a local editor than 50 virtual Facebook friends. Although we would do better with both, the real medium in Cuba is the people.
Lizabel Monica is a Cuban multidisciplinary artist and a writer. She runs the webzine Desliz (ProyectoDesliz.blogspot.com) and the online newspaper Cuba Fake News (CubaFakeNews.blogspot.com). Her personal website is palaDeOinDeleite (palaDeOinDeleite.blogspot.com).
1. Fidel Castro, Palabras a los Intelectuales (Havana: National Cultural Council, 1961), 32.
Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2012 issue: "#Radical Media: Communication Unbound."