Saturday, March 29, 2008

Censorship Instead of Prison Is What Passes for Progress in Cuba

Where is Cuba moving under Little Brother?

In an easterly direction. Decisions made by the Cuban government in the past few days suggest there is truth to the speculation that Raul Castro is simpatico toward China’s brand of Market-Leninism.

Slowly, quietly (don’t want to wake up Big Brother), the Cuban government has lifted some of the more ridiculous economic restrictions beloved by Fidel. At the same time, it continues to crack down on free expression, although in a more subtle way than when Fidel ran things.

New policies regarding technology encapsulate what’s going on.

Earlier this month, the regime authorized the sale of electronic equipment like small kitchen appliances and computers.

Yes, it is true: Up until the decree, it was illegal to just go out and buy a toaster. If that old Sunbeam in your family since 1956 broke down, you ate cold Cuban bread until assigned a replacement toaster. Ah, the march of freedom.

Of course, a toaster is just a toaster. A computer, though, is a dangerous thing. Like Information Minister Ramiro Valdes famously put it last year, the Internet is “the wild colt of new technologies that has to be tamed.”

Not to worry about runaway horses. “The echo of the drumbeat announcing the imminent sale of computers, DVD players and other electro-domestic appliances has reached my ears,” writes Yoani Sanchez of Generacion Y, the most popular dissident blog written from inside Cuba. “Like all the latest rumors, it comes from foreign countries. In the stores around my neighborhood nobody knows about this flood of technology.”

And no wonder. The change in policy was leaked to Reuters and the Mexican news agency Notimex, but has yet to be mentioned in Cuba’s state-run media. Besides, few Cubans can afford to buy a computer -- which the stores they are permitted to shop in don’t have on the shelves anyway.

So, no computers to buy and no money to buy computers. But if your cousin in Miami sends you a few bucks and you are lucky enough to track down an old Pentium, go for it!

Oh, well. Being able to buy a computer without worrying about legalities is progress of a sort. It’s the “Market” part of Market-Leninism.

The “Leninism” part comes in what you can do with it.

A 2006 report by Reporters Without Borders called Cuba “one of the world’s most backward countries as regards Internet usage,” with “less than 2 percent of the population online.”

Cuba’s government, says the report, “has more or less banned private Internet connections. To visit Web sites or check their e-mail, Cubans have to use public access points such as Internet cafes, universities and ‘youth computing centers’ where it is easier to monitor their activity.

Internet policy has not changed since the report was issued, two months after the older Castro got sick and temporarily gave up power. Still, those scary wild, wild horses are dragging tech-savvy Cubans away from the grasp of the Interior Ministry. People who manage to get online download files to flash drives, which then circulate among friends and friends of friends. Yoani Sanchez updates her blog by sneaking into hotel cyber cafes, verboten to Cubans, pretending she is a tourist. You can read her in Spanish at; an English-language version,, is very nicely translated but a couple of postings behind.

Of course, being that so few Cubans have Internet access, the majority of visitors to her blog come from outside Cuba. But it seems even her handful of fans inside the island are a perceived threat. Her latest postings charge government censors are blocking her site from users in Cuba, or making their access excruciatingly slow.

In the “Black Spring” of five years ago, 75 independent writers and librarians were imprisoned for terms of more than 20 years. Some were found guilty of having “published counter-revolutionary writings on an Internet Web page.”

It’s a threat that hangs over Yoani Sanchez and other brave Cuban bloggers. Will creeping Sinoization mean they get blocked instead of thrown in jail?

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