As Hurricane Sandy devastates Cuba, bloggers rise to the challenge
Posted by Max Fisher on October 29, 2012 at 10:31 am
Cuban bloggers are showing surprising initiative in responding to
Hurricane Sandy, which has killed 11 and caused significant damage since
making landfall there on Thursday. It's still not clear how costly the
storm will be for Cuba, but 2005?s Hurricane Dennis caused $2.4 billion
in damage, about 6 percent of GDP. This week's hurricane crisis is
allowing bloggers to assert their value in a country that does not
always welcome them.
It's not easy to be a blogger in Cuba. According the annual Freedom
House report on Internet freedom, released last month, Cuban Web freedom
is the second worst in the world, after Iran, out of the 47 nations
surveyed. Bloggers can face "extralegal detentions, intimidation, and
occasional beatings." The report adds, "An estimated 1,000 bloggers
recruited by the government have disseminated damaging rumors about the
personal lives of the island's influential independent bloggers." Only
about 5 percent of Cubans have intermittent access to the Internet, as
opposed to the state-run intranet.
Even the small community of Cuban bloggers has been at times divided by
infighting. In May, what was supposed to be a national meeting of
bloggers devolved into controversy over two admittedly difficult
questions: should the pro-government "within-system" bloggers invite
more critical "dissident" bloggers, and, as one blogger asked, "how can
one be critical in Cuba without being considered a dissident?"
The past week, though, has seen Cuba's bloggers spearheading coverage of
Hurricane Sandy's impact. Leading the charge has been Havana Times, an
independent blog that says it represents "the voice of Cuban youth." It
has expanded on official damage assessments and reported damage to
17,000 homes in a single northeastern province, where reconstruction
work from a 2008 hurricane is still "pending," meaning that homes were
especially susceptible. In an impassioned Sunday post, a Havana Times
blogger praised the volunteers and government workers poring over the
"trail of destruction," but bemoaned the blocked roads, still-down
electric and telephone services, and shortage of drinking water. "The
sight of women, elderly individuals and children sifting through debris
to salvage whatever was left of their belongings was simply
heartbreaking," he wrote. The post concluded by asking for help with
collecting and transporting donations.
Cuban diaspora blogger Marc Masferrer is aggregating social media from
within the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba, including tweets from the
ground and powerful photos of the devastation.
Havana-based blogger Yoani Sánchez (via Global Voices) used the storm to
call attention to the challenges already facing the economically
depressed regions of eastern Cuba. Emphasis is mine:
Thursday morning will never be forgotten by thousands of people in
Eastern Cuba. The wind, flying roofs, heavy rains and trees falling on
streets and houses, will remain as permanent memories of Hurricane
Sandy. Nor will they be able to get out of their heads that first night
after the disaster in which, from their battered beds or rickety sofas,
they found nothing separating their faces from the starry night sky.
Some people lost everything, which was not much. People from whom
the gale took the modest possessions they'd accumulated over their whole
lives. A human drama extended over this area already affected beforehand
by material shortages, constant migration westward, and the outbreaks of
diseases like dengue fever and cholera. For the victims it rains and it
pours, literally and metaphorically. Nature intensifies the economic
collapse and social problems of this region of the country.
She concluded by calling for action from the government and "solidarity"
from citizens to push for post-Sandy reforms that would help protect
from the next storm. Her proposals are strikingly free market-oriented,
including reduced custom duties for food imports, reduced taxes on small
businesses, and allowing privately run relief organizations to
supplement government efforts. It's hard to foresee Havana allowing any
of these, but maybe this is the point, as Sánchez's criticisms
implicitly highlight the central government's weaknesses and inability
to follow through on its revolutionary promises.
Still, even as the hurricane made landfall last week, bloggers seemed
more preoccupied with the country's loosening visa laws, which will
allow easier foreign travel, and with esoteric intra-activist squabbles.
It's easy to see why these would be topics of particular concern for the
young, Web-savvy, and often government-abused bloggers. But it's a
reminder of the degree to which activist-blogger communities — including
those in, say, Egypt — can end up talking mostly to one another rather
than to their countries' larger, less Web-focused majorities.