Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: "Buena Vista Social Blog: Internet y libertad de expressión en Cuba"


Below is Alexander Lamazares' review of the new book, Buena Vista Social Blog: El Internet y la Libertad de Expresion en Cuba (Aduana Vieja, 2010). The book was edited by Beatriz Calvo Peña. The presentation was given as part of the Bildner Center's "Cuba Futures" Symposium on Saturday, April 2, 2011, in New York City.  

Book Review:
Buena Vista Social Blog:
Internet y libertad de expressión en Cuba
Beatriz Calvo-Peña, ed.

By Alexander Lamazares, PhD
Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese
Portuguese Language Coordinator
Department of Modern Languages
Bronx Community College of the City University of New York

Buena Vista Social Blog: Internet y libertad de expression en Cuba is a compelling collection of blogs and critical essays that focuses on the contentious debate in Cuba over Internet use and blogging. Since the internet was introduced on the Island in the late 90s, a growing number of bloggers have decried censorship and insist on personal freedom in accessing the web, while the centrally managed system benefits the government in circumventing U.S. sanctions against the country and in controlling what limited capacity exists.

Buena Vista Social Blog assess how conflicts over internet access play out in their both liberating and repressive potential, by showcasing the vibrant blogosphere in Cuba, as well the networks of Diasporic communities connected by the Web. Drawing on extensive scholarship and blog posts, Beatriz Calvo-Pena et al. question myths of how Internet use necessarily fosters global democracy and reveals the impact of new technologies on the country's governance and culture.

The blogging phenomenon has exploded in the past few years with the creation of hundreds of blogs inside and outside the Island. It has become an authentic proof of how participatory, citizen journalism can undoubtedly change the world. Cuban bloggers have created a tightly-knit virtual community, or an ―isla virtual as Yoani Sanchez puts it. They read each other’s posts daily, they have coined new icons to demand Internet access for Cubans in the Island (the ―blogoestroika). Some of the key points of research posed by Beatriz Calvo-Pena, Ted Henken, and others demonstrate how Cuban bloggers are connected inside and outside the Island, how the Cuban digital diaspora has been shaped, the main problems that bloggers in the Island have to face on a daily basis, the creation of a new Cuban identity through blogs, how networked blogging is shaping communications and politics in Cuba, and finally, the answer of the Cuban government to the digital threat of bloggers.

This volume is an intensive and extensive look at blogging by citizen journalists. It offers a thorough look at both current practice and the principles behind them. It shows how bloggging has had more of an effect on "traditional" journalism, than the other way around. Sections of the book are divided into themes, and each section has both a collection of scholarly and analytical essays on the subject, as well as blog posts by many of the most important bloggers in Cuba today. The book places the ethics of blogging in perspective, the role of media in democratic society, and the question of just who is a "journalist" in the Internet era? Buena Vista Social Blog also focuses on issues of privacy, free speech, and intellectual property and copyright.

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 focuses on the the principal characteristics of blogging in Cuba, such as the tools that influence the creation of a personal and/or community based identity in blogging; Part 2 gives a brief introduction of some of the most representative blogs inside Cuba, and abroad: such as Generación Y, Potro Salvaje, Sin Evasión, Generación Asere, Desarraigos provocados; and Part 3 is an analysis of a virtual community online as well as those that create a ―virtual island vis-à-vis blogging. The book ties together much of what has gone before into a larger-and transcendentally important-context. It shines a spotlight on the topics of the burgeoning increase in blogging, what is behind all the hype, the problem of access, the implications of the digital infrastructure, the specifics of cable mergers and open access, broadband architecture and discriminatory routing (another aspect of the "digital divide"), the economics of Internet news, and citizen journalism and its implications.

The collection is an interesting combination of blog posts by the most prolific bloggers like Yoani Sánchez, Miriam Celaya, Mario Lopez, Dagmar Monett, and scholars like Ted Henken, Alejandro Barranquero. In them, the collection is a reflection on the myriad of obstacles and vicissitudes affecting Cuban bloggers: the precariousness and meagerness of the rationed food system; the absurd hardship of earning a salary in one currency while having to buy stuff and necessities in another; the invigilated and highly restricted state of the Internet, access to which remains prohibitively exorbitant; the infantilizing prohibition on free expression and association; and the impossibility of leaving the country without first obtaining the State’s permission, to name some of the most salient issues.

Those who take the time to read the collection of blogs will be delighted to find that the most praiseworthy thing about Cuban bloggers, however, is not the open manner in which they have voiced their daily lives, nor the uncompromising content of their criticism –courageous though both are — but rather their literary skill, their ability to evoke arresting images and situations. In a 2009 blog post entitled ―Incredulous Grandchildren, by Yoani Sánchez for example, she imagines the joy of taking a walk with her hypothetical grandson in a free Cuba of the distant future. Picturing the expression of boredom and bemusement with which he might meet her stories of a Cuba under Castro, Sánchez imagines that she might make the following reflection:

This boy doesn’t know that the premonition of his existence allowed me to maintain my sanity forty years back. Anticipating him — with his expression of disbelief sitting on a park bench in the Havana of the future — kept me from taking the way of the sea, pretending, or silence.

Political criticism aside, the bloggers represented and analyzed in Buena Vista Social Blog are communicating a longing to see a Cuban posterity so completely emancipated that the trials of her own day are unintelligible to them. In imagining her grandson as belonging to this emancipated generation, however, she is also conveying a sober assessment of the Cuban State’s stubbornness. Sánchez could have made both these points without having to resort to imagery and speculation, but then she could not have made them so compellingly. Images and metaphors are essential to her writing because she wishes to convey more than mere information in a given country; she wishes to convey the feelings — such as helplessness, trepidation, and fear — that such feelings elicit in the pubic sphere.

The bloggers never stray far from levity, however, and are occasionally playful and humorous in their criticism, something characteristically very Cuban. When the Cuban government published its economic growth figures in late 2007, Sánchez pretends not to notice that such figures are self-evident fabrications: ―I, particularly, have looked in my wallet, in the kitchen, and especially in the refrigerator, yet economic progress does not appear to be evident there. The reason I highlight the quality of Yoani’s writing and others is because I believe it is intimately related to their integrity as a witness. They expound on this crucial relationship between a lack of clarity in language and a lack of soundness in politics. In a 2007 post, Sánchez insists that Cubans ―should not let academics and bureaucrats name what we live. We should not allow them to cover over our day-to-day with incomprehensible technical terms. Her point is that by reclaiming the proper names of things, Cubans edge closer to forming a proper judgment of them. In this vein, Sánchez’s blog could be seen as a modest attempt to inoculate Cubans against deceptive language by showing them the perpetual, comical, and obvious difference between government propaganda and the plain reality it purports to describe.

The Internet, which Sánchez refers to in a post as a virtual raft, is her inexorable ally in this worthy project, the sine qua non of her resistance. In a 2008 post, she describes the Web, which remains effectively out of reach to most Cubans, as ―the tapestry wherein we attempt to weave the shreds of our civil society.
In expressing hope that the Internet and related technologies will enable Cubans to associate and, through a collective effort, effectively impugn the authority of the island’s political class, bloggers reveal their deepest political faith. They wholeheartedly believe in the dissemination of and access to information — a process made exponentially faster and more democratic by the Internet and other modern technologies. Those who have wholeheartedly endorsed recent developments in the digital era regarding Cuba, those who reject them, would all benefit from considering the situations and concepts detailed in Buena Vista Social Blog.

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