Monday, March 8, 2010

Let a Thousand Bloggers Bloom: The Genesis and Evolution of Generacion Y (Part 2)

When considering the phenomenon blogging in Cuba (i.e., the Cuban "blogosphere") and especially the most prominent blogging portal (DesdeCuba.com) and figure (Yoani Sanchez @ her blog Generacion Y), critical-minded observers often question just how independent and influential she is within Cuba. These critics also wonder how representative she is of the larger Cuban blogging universe, and how deep and broad the blogging phenomenon actually is throughout Cuba.

To my mind, these are all important and quite legitimate concerns.

In a number of my previous posts (here, here, and here), I addressed the issues of independence and influence as they related to Sanchez at some length. Now, in my ongoing, multi-part series, "Let a Thousand Bloggers Bloom" (go here for the first installment), I want to begin looking at the issues of representativeness, depth, and breadth. In other words, as la blogosfera cubana grows and attracts more domestic and international attention, it will be helpful to have a basic idea of its diversity, character, and influence in a decidedly polarized and politicized media context.

In order to capture some of this diversity, future posts in this series will highlight aspects of four different blogger projects or groups that have developed in Cuba over the past 3-5 years.  These are:

The original DesdeCuba.com portal (launched in December, 2004), associated with Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar among others, which has transformed over time into the blog portal VocesCubanas.com.
    The Havana Times site, inagurated in November 2008, which is edited and hosted abroad but written by a large and diverse group of Cubans living on the island.

      The Bloggers Cuba group, which formed in the fall of 2008 in Havana.

      A large group of "Revolutionary" blogs (often written by official Cuban journalists) hosted at different portals (blogcip, CRyC, etc.) that share the aim of defending the revolution against its critics and attacking those deemed to be its enemies. 


      Indeed, this is the self description posted at blogcip.cu:

      "This platform constitutes a means of contributing to the displacement of distorted and erroneous information about Cuba, and to let people know from within the island how Cubans think, live, struggle, and work, living in a country under constant threat by those who attempt to stop 11 million people from freely and sovereignly deciding their destiny."

      This post will be focused on the DesdeCuba.com group and begin by describing the genesis and evolution of Generacion Y.  That is, it will briefly chronicle the genesis of Generacion Y (December, 2004 - March, 2007) and its sequential stages of development over the past 3 years (April, 2007 - March, 2010), giving special attention to its dual transformation from an exercise in personal catharsis to a wider group movement of mutual solidarily and support while simultaneously moving a debate that began largely restricted to cyberspace into one that has begun to challenge the state monopoly on occupying public space

      In a subsequent post, I will show how this gradual process of evloutionary transformation produced a series joint web projects all of which are linked together by Generacion Y: DesdeCuba.com, Consenso/ConTodos, Itinereario Blogger, Una Isla Virtual, Voces Cubanas, and Translating Cuba (aka, Hemos Oido).

      The Genesis of Generacion Y: Consenso desde Cuba and La Polemica Intelectual
      While Sanchez and her blog Generacion Y have become quite famous internationally since she won the Ortega y Gassett journalism award in May, 2008 (only a year after launching the blog), few people realize that the blog grew out of the longer, larger, and deeply collaborative project of publishing the independent digital magazine Consenso, in Cuba starting in December 2004, more than two years prior to the blog's appearance in April 2007.

      In fact, during most of 2005 and 2006, Sanchez's main role in producing the magazine was not as an editor, journalist, or sharp-eyed chronicler of Cuban daily life we know her to be today, but as its webmaster, given her specialized computer skills. In fact, in our interview she told me that though she is officially “laboralmente disvinculada,” she proudly considers herself to be a cross between a linguist and a hacker, having built her first computer from spare parts back in the early 1990s at the height of Cuba’s special period.

      Hosted from the start at the site DesdeCuba.com, the digital magazine Consenso was run collaboratively by (from left to right in the photo) Marta Cortízas, Eugenio Leal, Yoani Sánchez, Reinaldo Escobar, Miriam Celaya, and Dimas Castellanos, among a few others who made up its editorial board. 

      From its inception, "Consenso desde Cuba" saw itself as a web portal for the development of citizen journalism, giving visibility to opinions not found in Cuba's official media nor any other publications conditioned by political requirements.  The digital magazine also consciously sought to stake out a moderate, progressive tone distinguishing itself from hardliners on both the left and right (in Havana, Miami, and Washington, D.C.). Indeed, its definition of itself as published at the top of each page of the digital magazine is: "Espacio de reflexión y debate del pensameinto progresista cubano" (A space of reflection and debate for Cuban progressive thinking).  Initially accused of constituting an "authorized opposition," the editors of Consenso insisted that they were indeed independent but insisted that "being independent does not necessarily make us dissidents" (ser independientes no nos hace opositores).

      Additionally, in its inaugural editorial of December 2004, the magazine called for a pluralistic, respectful, and serious tone and rejected the use of insults and personal attacks.  Its motto was "Let's come together, with respect for our differences" (ponernos de acuerdo, desde la diferencia), and it called on Cubans of all political stripes (and in all places) to renounce verbal violence and begin to learn to debate one another with civility.  Two questions would drive all subsequent editions of the publication: "What country do we want for ourselves and our children?  What do we have to do to achieve it?"

      Consenso published its last issue in December 2007 at which time both its name and format were changed. Now called Contodos, the newly christened webmag increasingly resembled a blog in format (and in fact had already begun hosting a growing number of individual blogs during 2007) as it shed the old media habit of publishing monthly "editions" (similar to the innovative Huffington Post).  A year and a half later, the final editorial of Contodos appeared.  Entitled, "We Continue to Evolve" (June 2009), the editorial went on to explain:
      "Desdecuba.com now enters a new phase. Soon we will have a new design that will permit a better interaction between our readers and us.  We have definitively adopted a citizen journalism approach, which rests basically on a portal composed of blogs.

      "The traditional concept of a magazine ... fits neither with our goals nor with our limitations.  The dynamism demanded both by technological changes and within the Cuban context, reflected first in Consenso (2004-2006) and later in Contodos (2007-2009), has led to the need for a new leap forward. ... However, renouncing verbal violence and respecting those who think differently continue being the qualities with which we wish to be identified."
      Both Consenso and Contodos continue to be hosted at the web portal DesdeCuba.com (where all back issues are still archived and freely available).  Between December 2008 and June 2009, the DesdeCuba.com project morphed again into the four related blogging ventures mentioned above (Itinerario Blogger, Una Isla Virtual, Voces Cubanas, and Translating Cuba), helping transform what began as an exercise in indiviudal carthasis into one of group solidarity.
      While this long period of gestation certainly contributed to the quality and incisiveness we would come to appreciate in Generación Y, the spark that led Sánchez to begin blogging in earnest in April 2007 was the bitter aftertaste left by the polémica intelectual in January-February, 2007 (described here, here, and again here by Sánchez herself). 

      Perhaps the most salient fact for us about this “polemic,” besides the fact that it occurred at all, was that it took place almost entirely ON-LINE via a long series of e-mails back and forth between Cuban artists and intellectuals at home and abroad. Sánchez herself participated in this “guerra emáilica” (war of e-mails) but winded up with the bitter aftertaste of another lost opportunity and deepened frustration at being largely shut out of the debate. That bitter frustration led directly to the appearance of her blog two months later.

      The Evolution of Generacion Y
      Since it was launched in April 2007, Generación Y has been constantly transformed in a dynamic interaction with its readers, collaborators, and critics.  The blog began quite modestly as what Sánchez herself has described as a "personal exorcism," an "individual catharsis," and an "exercise in cowardice," where she could say on-line what she was then not brave (or stupid) enough to say in public (April - September, 2007).  During that period (and lasting until December 2007), it was not possible for readers to post comments on her blog as she wrote it entirely in html.  Still, the e-mails of her readers did reach her and had an important impact on how she conceived of what she was doing.

      During a second stage starting in October 2007 and continuing through March 2008, Sánchez began to react to reader feedback (see #8 here for example) as she realized that her personal exorcism had morphed into an international cyber-dialogue about Cuba with readers who could identify with the world she described in her posts.  Also, during this time a series of international media outlets (including Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, El Pais, and the New York Times) began to run profiles of the internet and blogs in Cuba, often featuring her audacity and wit. 

      This was followed by a third stage between March and July 2008 where she and her blog began to receive the first of a series of campaigns of criticism and repression.  The Cuban government began to block her blog from internal access in Cuba forcing her to send her new posts to friends outside the island via e-mail and turning her into a "blind blogger."  Soon thereafter she was denied permission to travel abroad to Spain to receive the Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism followed by a swipe at her by none other than Fidel Castro himself in the prologue to a book about Bolivia only weeks later.

      A fourth stage in the blog's evolution began in August 2008 when Sanchez took the concerns braoched in her blog to Havana's streets for the first time.  Moving from cyberspace to public space, Sanchez and a number of her friends led a public protest against the arrest of Gorki Aguila, Cuban punk rocker and lead man for the group Porno para Ricardo - a protest that seems to have influenced the decision to release him after only a few days.  Emboldened by the experience, Sanchez and her fellow bloggers would only continue to engage in these episodes of guerrilla theater in the future now often armed with a flipcam and a quick link to YouTube - transforming her blog once again into a medium for broadcasting embarassing episodes of state repression or audacious challenges to state power. 

      Future episodes of this new public space strategy would include her public challenge to Raul's daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, her participation in Tania Brugera's performance piece at the 2009 Havana Biennal, her and her husband Reinaldo's filming of a visit to the internet cafe at the Hotel Melia Cohiba to challenge restrictions against Cubans, and perhaps most provicatively her twin videos of her denial of an exit permit by Cuban immigration authorities and her disguised entry into an internet debate held by Temas magazine at the Fresa y Chocolate Cafe in the fall of 2009.

      This move from cyberspace to public space was accompanied by a fifth stage begun in December 2008 and continuing until today of leaving behind her individual carharsis to embrace group solidarity through a series of aforementioned group projects: Una Isla Virtual, Itinerario Blogger, Voces Cubnas, and Translating Cuba.

      In November 2009, a sixth stage began where Sanchez's increasingly audacious confrontations with state authority finally led to direct criticism and violent repression of her, her husband, and her associates.  She was detained and beaten by state security agents early in November 2009.  Two weeks later, a day following her surprise publication of an interview with President Obama, her husband was the victim of a mitin de repudio, an orchestrated mob attack against him in a public place.  Then, in late November and early December, the Cuban press, which had thus far refused to mention her by name, attacked her as a lackey of foreign interests in a long article in Granma International.  This attack occurred in tendem with an explotion of official on-line blogs which began a vicious campaign of inuendo, defamation, and character assassination.

      Today, March 8, 2010, just three weeks shy of the third anniversary of the birth of Generación Y, we are witnessing a new drama where the age-old tactic of the hunger-strike (a classic protest weapon of the weak) is being highlighted through blogs, with both the Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death and Coco Farnias' struggle chronicled there.

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