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    In Cuba, Growing Numbers Of Bloggers Manage To Operate In A Vulnerable
    Gray Area
    July 2, 20178:26 AM ET

    In recent years, a growing number of news and political websites have
    popped up in Cuba. Some are taking advantage of what they say has been a
    small but vibrant opening afforded them since former President Obama
    reestablished U.S. relations with Cuba. But others worry that President
    Trump’s harder line toward the Communist Castro government could have a
    chilling effect on the independent media movement afoot.

    Harold Cardenas Lema runs his blog La Joven Cuba, The Young Cuba, out of
    the two-room apartment he shares with his mom and girlfriend in a
    dilapidated building just blocks from Havana’s oceanfront esplanade, the

    “It’s really just one-and-a-half, actually. This is a very small, a very
    small apartment,” he says, laughing. All editorial board meetings take
    place in his bedroom, with everyone sitting on his bed.

    Despite its mundane office, discussions on Cardenas’ seven-year-old blog
    are anything but boring. And they are popular. He says the blog gets
    about 2,000 unique visitors a day, nearly 70 percent coming from inside
    Cuba. That’s quite a following, given how expensive and difficult it is
    to access the Internet on the island.

    Exact numbers on Cuba’s Internet access are hard to pin down. Freedom
    House, a U.S.-based human rights group, estimates that anywhere between
    5 percent and 30 percent of the population has access, one of the lowest
    levels of Internet penetration in the world. Most Cubans connect via
    spotty public WiFi hotspots, mostly in parks and near tourist hotels,
    for about $2 an hour. Many websites, whether they originate on or off
    the island, are officially blocked.

    In a recent post titled “Papa Estado,” Father State, Cardenas opened a
    discussion about whether it was right for the Cuban government to
    control all aspects of private life on the island. Among the questions
    raised: If Cuban baseball players pay taxes, why can’t they hire their
    own agents? And for tax-paying small business owners, why can’t they
    import much needed goods?

    Surprised by the boldness of the topic, I ask Cardenas how it is that he
    can criticize the government so openly on the Internet in Cuba.

    He says there’s more freedom of speech in recent years than outsiders
    might assume. “There is this [misconception] that you cannot do that in
    Cuba — it is pretty much a prejudice of people that don’t know how Cuba
    works,” he says.

    And he puts President Trump, who recently announced new restrictions for
    Americans traveling to the island, at the top of that list. He says in
    the past seven years that he’s run the blog, he’s never been told to
    remove a post or been detained by security forces — though he does say
    he has on occasion been “misunderstood” and called “to task” by
    officials about certain articles. He doesn’t elaborate on either of
    those circumstances.

    In fact, Cardenas says since President Obama improved relations with
    Cuba in December 2014, he has had more freedom than ever to criticize
    his government. It’s a small but important opening he fears will
    inevitably close, given Trump’s harder line toward the island.

    “If Donald Trump really wants to end the Cuban government,” he says, “he
    is not doing a very good job.”

    As the past has shown, Carendas says, when the U.S. clamps down on Cuba,
    everyone goes on the defensive and is less open to self reflection —
    even those who push for wider debate and criticism about conditions at home.

    “We work better and we are a better country to deal with the many things
    we have to solve here when we don’t have the pressure of the biggest
    country, the most powerful country in the world,” he says.

    Cuba’s state apparatus does control news and information on the island,
    but some independent writers and reporters are breaking through and even
    providing unfiltered international and local news these days.

    The best known is 14ymedio, an internationally celebrated site started
    nearly a decade ago by Yoani Sanchez. But others are breaking through.
    One site, Periodismo del Barrio, run by journalist Elaine Diaz,
    chronicles local happenings in some of Cuba’s poorest neighborhoods. And
    Cuba Profunda, run by Gisele Morales, a local reporter out of Sancti
    Spiritus, gives a glimpse of life outside of Havana and into the provinces.

    Recent articles in some of these blogs have tackled local problems —
    everything form debilitating water rationing to cheating on state
    university entrance exams. And many have successfully lobbied the
    government for fixes. According to one blogger, the government changed
    the state exam after the cheating scandal was exposed — a rare reversal
    for Cuba’s state apparatus.

    Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution says these Cuban new media
    journalists are working in a vulnerable gray area. They are tolerated by
    the state but not working with official authorization, either — and not
    without threat of censorship or shutdown.

    “The government has sent agents to shut them down or interfere with
    their work,” Piccone says. “Nonetheless, they are smart, well-educated,
    well-trained professionals in Cuba. And they are committed to expressing
    themselves through this format.”

    While the Castro regime may be giving a slight opening to younger Cubans
    exploiting new media, it continues to crack down on the island’s older
    dissidents, who’ve long protested bans on public gathering and freedom
    of expression.

    And not all of Cuba’s young media professionals are willing to test the
    limits of Cuban openness through politics and opinion. Robin Pedraja
    just wanted to write about reggaeton and rock and roll when he launched
    his cultural magazine, Vistar, three years ago.

    “Everybody told me, hey, you are crazy, the government isn’t going to
    allow you to make this,” he says.

    But in Cuba these days, you are only held back by your own limitations,
    Pedraja says — though he admits to never publishing anything negative
    about Cuban culture, a closely controlled state commodity.

    “I want more. Vistar the magazine is just the beginning … to build
    something very big,” he says.

    He says one day, he hopes to gain official press credentials and even
    start Cuba’s first Billboard-like music charts and award shows.

    Vistar has become profitable as well as popular. While printing a hard
    copy of a magazine or newspaper other than the official,
    state-sanctioned dailies is prohibited in Cuba, Pedraja and many other
    for-profit zines have found another route to readers. He puts a copy
    every week in El Paquete, The Package — an offline compilation of
    pirated movies, TV shows and other media favorites that is
    hand-delivered on USB drives and hard drives around the island for a
    small fee.

    It’s impossible to know how many read Vistar on El Paquete, since it’s
    not a state-sanctioned media venture, but Pedraja says from comments and
    emails he receives from Paquete readers, he believes they number in the
    tens of thousands.

    Not all blogs can take advantage of El Paquete’s distribution, mostly
    because there is a fee to be included in the weekly offerings, about $25
    a week.

    Cardenas of La Joven Cuba isn’t making any money off his blog and
    refuses to take donations from sponsors or off-island institutions. So
    he can’t afford to include his work in El Paquete.

    “They have advertisers, they have a whole economic system, and we don’t
    have that,” he says. He’s negotiating with El Paquete’s operators for a
    lower price.

    For now, that leaves him copying his blog posts to Facebook, sending
    them to subscribers on the WhatsApp messaging app — and hoping for the
    day when Cuba has a faster and more easily accessible Internet.

    Source: In Cuba, Growing Numbers Of Bloggers Manage To Operate In A
    Vulnerable Gray Area : Parallels : NPR –

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