Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?

Tom Friedman's NYT opinion column today is about Wael Ghonim ...and Parlio!

I think Cuban bloggers and other active social media users and "cyber-activists" there can learn a lot from Ghonim's 5 lessons below.

The Opinion Pages | OP-ED COLUMNIST

Social Media: Destroyer or Creator?
Thomas L. Friedman

Over the last few years we've been treated to a number of "Facebook revolutions," from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to the squares of Istanbul, Kiev and Hong Kong, all fueled by social media. But once the smoke cleared, most of these revolutions failed to build any sustainable new political order, in part because as so many voices got amplified, consensus-building became impossible.

Question: Does it turn out that social media is better at breaking things than at making things?

Recently, an important voice answered this question with a big " yes." That voice was Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian Google employee whose anonymous Facebook page helped to launch the Tahrir Square revolution in early 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak — but then failed to give birth to a true democratic alternative.

In December, Ghonim, who has since moved to Silicon Valley, posted a TED talk about what went wrong. It is worth watching and begins like this: "I once said, 'If you want to liberate a society, all you need is the Internet.' I was wrong. I said those words back in 2011, when a Facebook page I anonymously created helped spark the Egyptian revolution. The Arab Spring revealed social media's greatest potential, but it also exposed its greatest shortcomings. The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart."

In the early 2000s, Arabs were flocking to the web, Ghonim explained: "Thirsty for knowledge, for opportunities, for connecting with the rest of the people around the globe, we escaped our frustrating political realities and lived a virtual, alternative life."

And then in June 2010, he noted, the "Internet changed my life forever. While browsing Facebook, I saw a photo … of a tortured, dead body of a young Egyptian guy. His name was Khaled Said. Khaled was a 29-year-old Alexandrian who was killed by police. I saw myself in his picture. … I anonymously created a Facebook page and called it 'We Are All Khaled Said.' In just three days, the page had over 100,000 people, fellow Egyptians who shared the same concern."

Soon Ghonim and his friends used Facebook to crowd-source ideas, and "the page became the most followed page in the Arab world. … Social media was crucial for this campaign. It helped a decentralized movement arise. It made people realize that they were not alone. And it made it impossible for the regime to stop it."

Ghonim was eventually tracked down in Cairo by Egyptian security services, beaten and then held incommunicado for 11 days. But three days after he was freed, the millions of protesters his Facebook posts helped to galvanize brought down Mubarak's regime.

Alas, the euphoria soon faded, said Ghonim, because "we failed to build consensus, and the political struggle led to intense polarization." Social media, he noted, "only amplified" the polarization "by facilitating the spread of misinformation, rumors, echo chambers and hate speech. The environment was purely toxic. My online world became a battleground filled with trolls, lies, hate speech."

Supporters of the army and the Islamists used social media to smear each other, while the democratic center, which Ghonim and so many others occupied, was marginalized. Their revolution was stolen by the Muslim Brotherhood and, when it failed, by the army, which then arrested many of the secular youths who first powered the revolution. The army has its own Facebook page to defend itself.

"It was a moment of defeat," said Ghonim. "I stayed silent for more than two years, and I used the time to reflect on everything that happened."

Here is what he concluded about social media today: "First, we don't know how to deal with rumors. Rumors that confirm people's biases are now believed and spread among millions of people." Second, "We tend to only communicate with people that we agree with, and thanks to social media, we can mute, un-follow and block everybody else. Third, online discussions quickly descend into angry mobs. … It's as if we forget that the people behind screens are actually real people and not just avatars.

"And fourth, it became really hard to change our opinions. Because of the speed and brevity of social media, we are forced to jump to conclusions and write sharp opinions in 140 characters about complex world affairs. And once we do that, it lives forever on the Internet."

Fifth, and most crucial, he said, "today, our social media experiences are designed in a way that favors broadcasting over engagements, posts over discussions, shallow comments over deep conversations. … It's as if we agreed that we are here to talk at each other instead of talking with each other."

Ghonim has not given up. He and a few friends recently started a website,, to host intelligent, civil conversations about controversial and often heated issues, with the aim of narrowing gaps, not widening them. (I participated in a debate on Parlio and found it engaging and substantive.)

"Five years ago," concluded Ghonim, "I said, 'If you want to liberate society, all you need is the Internet.' Today I believe if we want to liberate society, we first need to liberate the Internet."

Thursday, December 31, 2015

¿Plus ça Cuba? Cuba's Entrepreneurs Moving Ahead Despite Obstacles - Part III: Quick Facts on Cuba’s “Cuentapropistas”

Quick Facts on Cuba’s “Cuentapropistas

Click here to download.
(This post is co-sponsored by the Engage Cuba Coalition
and the Cuba Emprende Foundation, and was
originally published on the World Policy Blog)

Click image to enlarge.
In late 2010, after years of antagonistic policies toward Cuba’s tiny private sector, the Cuban government dramatically altered its approach in order to unleash its employment potential. Since then the sector has grown from less than 150,000 licensed operators to more than half a million.

When combined with the island’s estimated 600,000 unlicensed or part-time entrepreneurs, the 575,000 private farmers and members of agricultural cooperatives, and the 50,000 employees of Cuba’s joint ventures with foreign companies, the private sector now comprises a full third of Cuba’s labor force.

Click image to enlarge.

Despite this significant and indeed unprecedented quantitative growth during President Raúl Castro’s tenure, Cuba’s “cuentapropistas” (self-employed workers or literally, “on your own-ists”) continue to be hobbled by numerous qualitative restrictions. These include a fiercely-guarded state monopoly on foreign trade, an explicit rejection of private concentrations of wealth, and a restrictive list that limits the sector to just 201 largely unproductive, survival-oriented occupations that create little wealth and fail to take advantage of one of Cuba’s strategic assets: an innovative and highly educated workforce.
Click image to enlarge.

For example, only 27 percent of licenses have gone to skilled workers or professionals, leaving the vast majority of workers trapped in semi- or unskilled jobs like knife sharpener, palm tree trimmer, button upholsterer, and sheep shearer.

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Additionally, the government has yet to set up effective and affordable wholesale markets or sources of credit to help these new start-ups grow. And while Cuba has the most educated, low cost labor force in the world, an effective ban exists on exercising most professions in the private sector.

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With international tourism arrivals up 18 percent in 2015, drivers of private sector growth are accelerating, but severe restrictions remain on converting this promise into prosperity. For example, although Cuba has a large surplus pool of computer science talent, Internet access remains among the lowest and most expensive in the Western Hemisphere. Only between 5 and 25 percent of the population have some form of web access and the typical $2 an hour cost is equal to 10 percent of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

Click image to enlarge.

Still, the private sector has benefitted from economic reforms that include easily obtained business licenses, a more responsive tax code, the ability to hire workers, and a shift in state mentality that sees the “non-state sector” as a positive compliment to the still dominant but largely inefficient and unproductive state enterprise sector.

Click image to enlarge.

Click image to enlarge.
For example, while food service (11 percent), transportation (9 percent), and home rental (5 percent) activities are the leading entrepreneurial sectors both in terms of revenue and employment, another 20 percent of the half a million cuentapropista licenses have been issued to the more than 100,000 “contractors” who work for other private businesses. In other words, the private sector includes both the entrepreneurial owners of small businesses, like Cuba’s renown paladares (private, home-based restaurants) and bed and breakfasts, and the workers employed in those same businesses.

Click image to enlarge.

Even more dramatically, starting one year ago in December 2014, the U.S. and Cuba began a process of normalization, which has included diplomatic recognition, the opening of embassies, and a series of talks focusing on improving telecommunications, and empowering the small-business sector on the island.

This diplomatic thaw has the potential to help Cuba solve its internal economic bottlenecks by providing entrepreneurs access to credit, wholesale markets, and the vast U.S. consumer base, while also allowing American companies to hire Cuban workers and enter the Cuban market.

However, all this potential will remain largely untapped as long as the U.S. embargo remains the law of the land and the Cuban government continues to lock most island entrepreneurs out of the most innovative and productive sectors of the economy.

This fact sheet aims to provide U.S. policymakers and their constituents quick access to basic information on the Cuban economy and the ongoing entrepreneurial reform process on the island so that future changes in U.S. policy can be properly calibrated to encourage and incentivize deeper reforms that unlock the full productive potential of Cuba’s entrepreneurial class.

Click here to download.

Friday, December 25, 2015

¿Plus ça Cuba? Cuba's Entrepreneurs Moving Ahead Despite Obstacles - Part II: 10 Things to Consider before Planning Your Trip

10 Things to Consider before Planning Your Trip to Cuba

Despite the recent economic reforms in Cuba and the normalization of relations with the U.S., the island is far from a predictable tourist destination. Here are a few things to consider when planning your first (or next!) trip to Cuba.

1. Cubans and Americans, a love-hate relationship
Despite half a century of mutual governmental antagonism, Cubans are exceedingly hospitable and inquisitive, and love to engage with Americans. Thus, friendly and gregarious people will become even more so when they discover you're from what they affectionately refer to as "La Yuma," i.e., the U.S.! This means that you shouldn't expect to be called a "gringo," a word Cubans actually don’t use, or a “yankee," a term only used by the Cuban government. However, Cubans are every bit as proud of their country and culture as we are of ours (which is not to say that all necessarily support their government). In fact, they often suffer from a similar "superiority complex" as many Americans do, so your conversations with them are bound to be rich and dynamic, but also hopefully more enlightening than heated.

Monday, December 21, 2015

¿Plus ça Cuba? Cuba's Entrepreneurs Moving Ahead Despite Obstacles - Part I: Return to Havana

Below is the first of a three-part series of posts (one, two, & three), "¿Plus ça Cuba?" that I published over the past month at the World Policy Institute's blog, "The Cuban Reset."

This first one I have re-titled: "Return to Havana."

[Part II is "10 things to consider before planning your trip."]
[Part III is "Quick Facts on Cuba's Cuentapropistas."]

Two things stood out most to me on a trifecta of recent trips to Havana in October 2015 after more than four long years of not visiting the island.

First, led by too many breathless press reports of a fundamentally transformed island by President Raúl Castro's economic reforms, I was surprised to find the gray dinosaur of a ruined, if often, disarmingly charming capital city largely intact.

Despite the undeniable surging innovation exhibited by hundreds of enterprising habaneros who have set up astoundingly creative and sophisticated businesses in response to Castro’s economic opening, such ventures remain islands of innovation in the sea of poverty, neglect, and inefficiency that has characterized Cuba's state-run economy.

And though I learned long ago not to give undue credence to spontaneous reports from random, anonymous cabbies, one such comment stood out to me as I took the pulse of a city I'd once called a second home.

After hopping into the ancient hulk of an American cruiser, used as a "taxi colectivo" (10-peso cab) due to its ability to fit as many as 8 passengers at once I asked the driver about the twin pair of small U.S. and Cuban flags he had mounted on his dashboard.

This was just his way of saluting the hopeful thaw in relations between our countries that had taken place during the previous 10 months, he explained. The driver, an Afro-Cuban, also lauded President Obama's youthful vision and political bravery at reversing the U.S's isolationist policy enthroned in the widely detested bloqueo (blockade).

However, he then turned to me and wondered aloud whether he could expect his government to respond by exhibiting any bravery of its own by beginning to dismantle the thick wall of control it imposed over citizens like him - referred to derisively by this Cuban as the ‘auto-bloqueo’ (internal embargo).

"Tengo esperanza," he said. "Pero la verdad es que no tengo mucha confianza." (I'm hopeful, but the truth is that I'm not very confident).

"They control everything here: the party, the economy, the media... So I don't see how they're going to give that up so easily," he noted in Spanish before adding the rejoinder, "hope dies last they say, but I hope it doesn't die before I do."

Friday, December 18, 2015

Obama & Kerry: One Year On

President Obama's Statement on U.S.-Cuba Relations

"One year ago, I announced that after more than 50 years, America would change its relationship with Cuba and put the interests of the people of both countries before the outdated ways of the past. Since then, we have taken important steps forward to normalize relations between our countries:

*re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies;
*facilitating greater travel and commerce;
*connecting more Americans and Cubans; and
*promoting the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba.

We are advancing our shared interests and working together on complex issues that for too long defined-and divided-us.

Meanwhile, the United States is in a stronger position to engage the people and governments of our hemisphere. Congress can support a better life for the Cuban people by LIFTING AN EMBARGO THAT IS A LEGACY OF A FAILED POLICY [my emphasis].

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Travels of Gulliver, Jr.

The Travels of Gulliver, Jr.
By Alexander A. Ricardo
(Translation by El Yuma)
Tribuna de La Habana, October 24, 2015

Thanks to his father, Gulliver, Jr. travels quite frequently. He appears as a giant enjoying himself on the Mediterranean coast, or as a dwarf adventuring through life without any problem, thanks to his visa.

He sets sail to compare whether the skies of other lands are as intensely blue as those of his own. Sailing in daddy's fleet is a hereditary privilege. While he sails through calm seas, back at home other mariners can only watch as seagulls sail past them. He has powerful "ghost ships." Few are able to see them as they pass by.

Hundreds of scrolls narrate the exploits of this favorite son. Tranquil nights on the margins of Aomori. Open casks of wine on Hawaiian beaches. Afternoons spent fishing in Sidney Bay.

The firstborn son has a collection of travel books; and he plants nautical roses at the end of each of his travels.

But once he returns home he keeps quiet. He fools his countrymen with tales of shipwrecks. He describes enormous waves, unending storms, sea monsters, and singing sirens; then he grabs his sack and hides the loot. The dockworkers call him a "mar-tyr."

Whoever fashioned his compass knows nothing of new horizons. He seems resigned to keep following a single path. The hands of some tie up the sails of others.

He lifts his anchor once again, this time heading north, where the cold of the climate has kept him away for a long time. He is bundled up and surrounded by his followers. He opens his map and points out his destination. He looks to the stars in search of good omens, because when he was a child he never learned to swim.

Original Spanish at:

See article and commentary by Nora Gámez Torres in the Nuevo Herald (Español) the Miami Herald (English).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Danilo es libre - Un escrito de David D'Omni

Danilo es libre

He tenido la suerte de ver, respirar y sentir con mi alma y mi carne en suelos de Suramérica, Norteamérica, el Caribe y Europa, compartiendo con disímiles culturas, sistemas políticos y razas; algo me ha quedado claro, no hay paz o libertad si no es sentida y convertida en hecho, no hay cambios sociales si el corazón y la mente no cambian primero, los pueblos soportan, los pueblos se cansan, y todo nace en la mente y el corazón; unos accionan y otros reaccionan, unos mueven los hilos bañando a la sociedad con proyectos innovadores, proponen y siembran en su presente lo que ha de ser realidad futura (Para bien o para mal), otros observan, escuchan y luego dan apoyo o disienten, tomando partido en la realidad.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lincoln, King, Day, & Merton

"A nation can be considered great, when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to dream of full rights for all their brothers and sisters as Martin Luther King sought to do, when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton."

Friday, August 14, 2015

John Kerry in Havana

John Kerry in Havana
Secretary of State
U.S. Embassy
Havana, Cuba
Remarks at Flag Raising Ceremony
August 14, 2015

SECRETARY KERRY: Please be seated, everybody. Thank you very, very much. Muchas gracias. Buenos dias. I'm so sorry that we are a little bit late today, but what a beautiful ride in and how wonderful to be here. And I thank you for leaving my future transportation out here in back of me. I love it. (Laughter.)

Distinguished members of the Cuban delegation – Josefina, thank you for your leadership and for all your work of your delegation; excellencies from the diplomatic corps; my colleagues from Washington, past and present; Ambassador DeLaurentis and all of the embassy staff; and friends watching around the world, thank you for joining us at this truly historic moment as we prepare to raise the United States flag here at our embassy in Havana, symbolizing the re-establishment of diplomatic relations after 54 years. This is also the first time that a United States Secretary of State has been to Cuba since 1945. (Applause.)

John Kerry en La Habana

John Kerry en La Habana
Agosto 14, 2015

Por favor, tomen asiento. Muchas, muchas gracias. [En español:] Muchas gracias. Buenos días. Siento que hayamos llegado un poquito tarde, pero que hermoso viaje y que maravilloso estar aquí. Y gracias por dejar mi futuro vehículo aquí, detrás de mí [tres almendrones estacionados en el Malecón]. Me encanta. [Risas.]

Distinguidos miembros de la delegación cubana –Josefina, gracias por su liderazgo y por todo el trabajo de su delegación–; excelencias del cuerpo diplomático; mis colegas del pasado y actuales de Washington; embajador DeLaurentis y todo el personal de la embajada; y amigos que nos están viendo en todo el mundo, gracias por acompañarnos en este momento verdaderamente histórico, mientras nos preparamos para izar la bandera de Estados Unidos en nuestra embajada en La Habana, que simboliza el restablecimiento de las relaciones diplomáticas después de 54 años. Esta es también la primera vez que un Secretario de Estado de los Estados Unidos visita Cuba desde 1945. [Aplausos.]

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