May 7, 2014
Imagine not being able to access Facebook or Twitter from your phone or computer whenever you like … don’t panic, it’s only counterfactual in your case, but a reality for many people in various countries.
In a country where there is little to no access to broadband Internet, like Cuba, finding creative alternatives to the exchange of information becomes a necessity. It’s about working with what you have, and in this case, having access to the local intranet through government-run computer clubs, schools and offices. They can access national email systems, a Cuban encyclopedia, a pool of educational materials, Cuban websites, and foreign websites that are supportive of the Cuban government. There are those who find loopholes to tell the stories of the silenced island.
One is Cuban activist, Yoani Sanchez, who has been an active voice in pushing to bring freedom of expression to Cuba. Her award-winning blog, Generation Y, has been mentioned by leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who wrote that her blog “provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in Cuba,” and applauded her efforts to “empower fellow Cubans to express themselves through the use of technology.”
Sanchez spoke at Emerge TechWeek, where she shared thought-provoking ideas on the role technology plays in the fight for the freedom of expression not only in Cuba, but also in other countries in the region. Sanchez, who has about 600,000 followers on Twitter, took the opportunity to announce that she is moving from a blog to launching a full website. Generation Y earned her the prestigious Ortega y Gasset award in 2008.
“You may have the latest technology but not a lot to say. In Cuba, the problem is the opposite problem,” she explains.
Cuba continues to blame the U.S. embargo for its connectivity problems, saying it must use a slow, costly satellite connection system and is limited in the space it can buy. Despite all barriers, Cubans still connect to the Internet through both authorized and non-authorized points of access. Another famous Cuban photographer and blogger, Yusnaby Pérez, shares Cuban everyday life using Instagram. With over 30K followers, the 25-year-old Pérez uses social media to share the hardship of living on the island.
“I believe in social media as a civil rights moment. The responsibility needs to go from click to reality.” explained Sanchez. She went on to mention Venezuela’s social media movement #SOSVenezuela as an example of a social media movement that created worldwide solidarity. Sanchez is hopeful about the case of her country, but she knows her fellow citizens have a long way to go.
“The government is fearful because of what [open access] will due to the current status quo. If you think about it, the first thing is that people would have different versions of an event, this doesn’t happen now. This access would keep it impossible to keep Cubans indoctrinated. A totalitarian system doesn’t work when you have access to information,” said Sanchez to the audience.
Sanchez did emphasize to those with access to family members to support the current network by providing people with information and by bringing them old technology devices. Many Cubans access offline Wikipedia and exchange the information through flash drives, a practice known as “sneakernets.”
Sanchez suggested that people willing to help Cuba should be cognizant that technological empowerment will come on people’s own terms:
“Do not require change; we need to define ourselves as Cubans,” said Sanchez.
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