Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Trabajo Voluntario: Gone fishin' en La Nueva Orleans, Luisiana!

El Yuma will be silent for the next week or so as I am currently leading a group of 28 students down "Lusiana" way spending our spring break doing some good old fashioned trabajo voluntario in and around N'walins (trans. New Orleans, Louisiana).

We call it service learning and in our case it realy is voluntary!

As readers of El Yuma will remember, this semester I am teaching a course that compares the histories and musical cultures of New York, New Orleans, and Havana.  This student trip to New Orleans is an outgrowth of that course.  You can see my previous post for more info in the course (and esp. on the books by my co-teacher, ethnomusicologist Ned Sublette).  And while Ned is the guru of tracing the historical and musical connections between New Orleans and Havana, I'm going to include a number of pictures below that I've taken in the past few days that show that these links are alive and well despite decades of mutual isolation.

Our trip began with a tour of the cultural geography of New Orleans (given by Tulane geographer Rich Campanella) and a second tour of the infamous levee system (led by Tulane geologist Steve Nelson). 

This past weekend, we experienced "Super Sunday" (normally celebrated on St. Joseph's Day - two weeks ago), which features a number of African-American neighborhood parades known as "second-lines" organized by one of New Orleans' many Social Pleasure and Aid Clubs - in the tradition of African-American fraternal organizations.  These second-lines also sometimes feature appearances by the Mardi Gras Indians.  See Ned's books for info on these two African-American traditions, which bear a striking resemblance to the Congas that I participated in when I visited Santiago de Cuba back in 2003.  Incidentally, the SP&A Club that sponsored this partucular second-line is called "Revolution."

On Sunday, we also visited the gravesite of the famed Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau located just off North Rampart Street adjacent to the plaza alternately known as Louis Armstrong Park and "Congo Square" - likely the only place in the United States where slaves and free people of color were permitted to gather freely on Sundays and sing their songs, beat their drums, and dance their dances. Palo Monte anyone?

This week we began our trabajo voluntario in earnest - working on the home of a retired nurse's aid in the famed Tremé neighborhood - the oldest still existing African-American neighborhood in the U.S. and the subject of the upcoming HBO series of the same name which will debut on April 11.  (Indeed, tomorrow we plan to catch the cast and crew of Tremé as they shoot a future episode on Frenchman Street in the Fauborg Marginy).

On Good Friday we will travel out to Barataria (from the Spanish word barato, meaning cheap) Nature Preserve to check on the aligators and cypress forests in the swamps and bayous, followed by a visit to Destrahan Plantation, the oldest and one of the largest former sugar plantations, located on north shore of the Mississippi just behind the looming mound of dirt locals call a levee.   
Finally, before taking part in an Easter Sunday parade and wolfing down a steaming pile of crawfish, we will head out to Eunice, Lousisana, deep in Cajun country on Saturday for food and music - located far southeast of N'awlins in de bayou.

More on the trip in my next post...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Requiem for La Guarida: "Adiós Compañero Rocco" - Jorge Perugorría & Juan Carlos Tabío (4/5)

El choteo.

Historically saddled with unrepresentative governments and authority figures unresponsive to their demands, Cubans have developed a unique sense of humor that mocks authority and pokes fun at both "officialdom" (their putative leaders) and "officialese" (those leaders' often meaningless and impenatrable doscourse).  This habit is known as el choteo.

Perhaps my favorite example of el choteo in everyday Cuban speech is the more common name that Cubans have given to the "Tribuna Abierta Anti-Imperialista José Martí" (the elongated plaza directly adjacent to the U.S. Interest Section on the Malecon in Havana).  Mocking the government's use of it as a political space constantly used to protest U.S. policy and defend the revolution, Cubans have taken to referring to the plaza simply as el protestódromo (the protest-o-drome).

A few years ago, while in Havana I came across an art show that was to me a textbook study in el choteo.  This reflection on that show will serve as part four in my five-part series on the (in)famous Cuban paladar, "Requiem for La Guarida."

The Cuban government was then engaged in the first stages of its vaunted revolución energética and had let it be known that the old, reliable, but supposedly ineffecient American refrigerators would be replaced by newer, more energy-efficient models.  In response, a wide array of Cuban artists obtained some of these now "retired" refrigerators and turnned them into a commentary on politics, history, and society.
Above and below are photos of some of my favorite artistic transformations of these refrigerators, as well as a translation of the deeply ironic and inventive text that accompanied "Rocco's" burrial.  Rocco, you'll remember, is the name Diego (the homosexual character played expertly by Jorge Perugorría in the film Fresa y Chocolate) gave to his own cherished blue American refrigerator.

I leave you with that text to ponder along with a number of useful links to stories covering the original art show.  (NYT, "The secret love of Cubans: the imperialist refrigerator" and "The World: In Cuba, a Politically Incorrect Love of the Frigidaire."  See also, here, here, here, and especially here the art magazine Heterogénesis (2006, no. 55-56) for the original Spanish text that went with the Rocco exhibit.

Adiós Compañero Rocco
(Goodbye Comrade Rocco)
Jorge Perugorría & Juan Carlos Tabío


Here he lies, against his will, comrade Rocco.  He was born in Detroit in August of 1952, in the General Motors factory.  In his earliest days he witnessed the confrontations of the trade unions and the racial tensions that shook the city of his birth, thus forging his unvanquished fighting spirit.

Being still very young, together with his 250 brothers, he was forced to board the overcrowded General Custer - a cousin of General Motors - steamboat arriving at the bay of Havana in January of 1953.  Here in Havana he was purchased, like ordinary merchandise, at the store “El Encanto” by the Orozco family, adopting as of that moment a bourgeois life of abundance during which he chilled the most exquisite delicacies and liquors. 

It was not until five years later, in 1958, when little Joaquin, the youngest child of the Orozco’s, at the time a Law student at the University of Havana, begins to hide among champagnes and lobsters subversive proclamations of the 26th of July Movement, which caused comrade Rocco to regain his consciousness and enter the revolutionary struggle, going as far as to welcome in the deep of its entrails a comrade of little Joaquin persecuted by the Tigers of Masferrer.

By 1960, the Survivors of the Orozco family, (including little Joaquin) left the country, and the Orozco mansion (and, of course, comrade Rocco himself), become property of the State.

Actively connected to the high-voltage currents of all the processes of revolutionary transformations, comrade Rocco participated in the Literacy Campaign, the Cuban Missle Crisis, and the Harvest of the 10 Million Tons (working in this more than 365 days per year).  During all these years comrade Rocco, far from longing for the fillets and caviars of his youth, dedicated himself, with laudable perseverance, to the task of cooling cookies, pastries, cosmonaut croquets (of the kind that stick to the “roof of the mouth”), refreshments known as “brake liquid,” and water – plenty of water that quenched the thirst of our students and militia men.

At the beginning of the 70s, upon the arrival of his Soviet compatriots, comrade Rocco was confined to an honorable "plan pijama," forgotten in a dark warehouse throughout five grey years, until the “inventive” administrator of the warehouse bartered him, in an “under the table” manoeuvre, for a set of twelve chairs to a humble proletarian family, among whose members, and with his customary disinterested effort and the joy of feeling useful again, comrade Rocco prepared himself to freeze delicious “durofríos,” thus becoming the provider of the family and thereby gaining the affection of all the children of the district.

The 80s were years in which comrade Rocco could live off the fruits of its work. With the earnings from the sale of those "durofríos," comrade Rocco was rewarded with small cream cheeses, plastic ham, garden-style chicken, Bulgarian wines and an occasional chocolate cake (of the kind that cost 10 Cuban Pesos ), getting even to cool a small piece of pork and a beer during the holidays. And of course, the ever present eggs.

At the beginning of the 90s, and as a result of the “Special Period,” comrade Rocco was put under the aggravating system of blackouts that put him on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Those blackouts turned out to be so prolonged that when the electrical current briefly recovered, comrade Rocco came to think that he was being subject to “electrical shocks.”

It was at those difficult moments that the humble dwelling of the family who welcomed comrade Rocco as an ordinary member, was chosen by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) as the main location for the shooting of the film “Fresa y Chocolate” in which comrade Rocco, despite his deteriorated physical and mental health, played the protagonist's role, with the unanimous acclamation of the public and the critics as (by far) the best actor of the film.

Far from getting swollen by such an ecumenical triumph, comrade Rocco undertook with renewed determination the perspective offered by a new horizon of success: Head of Refrigerators of the Paladar “La Guarida,” because a paladar is what his house was transformed into as soon as the shooting of the above mentioned film was over.

Now, comrade Rocco is again cooling the forgotten delicacies and liquors of his youth. In this “paladar,” the charismatic presence of comrade Rocco was the focus of attention of all the clients, getting even to converse with the Queen of Spain, for whom he produced from his frozen entrails a local sweet potato that received the encomiums of Her Majesty.

Thus passed the placid old days of comrade Rocco, hoping that, as in a dream, natural death would arrive with that peace of spirit of that which has fulfilled with good conscience any task ever entrusted to him.

But no, the death of comrade Rocco arrived in a tragic and sudden way, as he was publicly declared an “Energy Engulfer.”

His relays and voltage regulators could not stand the shame, and comrade Rocco exploded in a flaming and fatal short circuit that sounded in the entire district like a fateful PLAFF!

Comrade Rocco, wherever you are now, let our gratefulness and our deepest condolences reach out to you for all your sleepless nights so that once and for all you rest in peace.

Goodbye comrade, Goodbye Rocco
From your comrades at the ROCINANTE Creative Group

Jorge Perugorría & Juan Carlos Tabío

Monday, March 22, 2010

Is It Easier to Ask Forgiveness than Permission? - Introducing EthnoCuba

Friends and colleagues both, Ariana Hernandez-Reguant and Paul Ryer, host a year-old blog EthnoCuba ( that I just discovered.  As the name indicates, Ariana and Paul, both anthropologists/ ethnographers who have done sustained research in Cuba, have built thier blog around current research and conferences focusing on all things ethnographic, "ethnic," and "racial" - braodly defined.

It is now on the El Yuma blogroll.

One of Ariana's recent posts responds (in part) to my letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education.  While she generally agrees with me that (a) doing "real" research is indeed possilbe in Cuba and (b) the Obama administration should further open up academic exchange with the island, she makes a detailed, nuanced, and quite well-informed caveat that is worth reading. 

Essentially, she agrees that while it is indeed easier to ask forgiveness than permission, it is best (and often essential) to ask for and receive permission (and get some form of institutional support and/or collaboration) to do proper and sustained ethnographic research in Cuba.

Here's a sample of her point:

While I agree with Ted and with the spirit of the Chronicle’s letter on the need for a radical change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, I would also like a situation in which research would be facilitated also on the Cuban end. A tourist visa is not enough. Not all research projects are created equal. Some of them are impossible to carry out without explicit on-site permission and facilitation. [...] 
Without a proper research affiliation in Cuba, there are archives, survey populations and marine reefs, among many other possibilities, that are off limits. [...]
Furthermore, ethnographic research (which is after all the inspiration for this blog project) requires a lengthy stay. I am of the old fashioned opinion that proper ethnographic fieldwork cannot be bypassed and substituted by a few short trips; much less if such research is the basis of a dissertation-type project. [...]
Henken seems to be advocating complete freedom of research, and I do agree in principle with that position, but in a world of international states and borders it is unfortunately a utopia. In the end it comes down to whether the ends justify the means. For as long as a specific research or student visa is required by the Cuban government as a prerequisite to conduct bona fide academic research on the island, as responsible university professors we cannot advocate the breaking of that country’s laws. I, for one, would very much like to see U.S. roadblocks disappear, and subsequently, I would also like to see the parallel Cuban bureaucratic process eased. [...]

Friday, March 19, 2010

ASCE Student Paper Award Competition

Earlier this week I posted a letter to the editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding student exchange and research in Cuba.

I just received the announcement for this year's student paper award competition from the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) that I mentioned in that letter and thought I'd share with readers of El Yuma.

The Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) is a nonpolitical, professional international
association dedicated to the study of the Cuban economy in its broader political, social, and cultural context.

The Jorge Pérez-López Student Award Competition

The ASCE Student Award Committee is accepting nominations for the 2010 Jorge Pérez-López Student
Award Competition. Anyone can nominate original papers authored by undergraduate or graduate students in good standing. The papers should address topics related to Cuba's domestic issues, its foreign relations, or Cuba in comparative perspective. Papers cannot be coauthored with an instructor. At a minimum, all papers must outline a thesis statement, present evidence or data supporting it, be no more than 5,000 words (double-spaced), and follow one of the standard academic writing and citation styles. Self-nominations are also welcomed.

All correspondence must be accompanied by a letter stating the name, school affiliation, mailing address, phone number, and email of the nominee as well as a brief statement describing the
merits of the nomination.

Graduate Awards
First prize $600, up to $400 travel,
and publication in Cuba in Transition.
Second prize $300

Undergraduate Awards
First prize $300, up to $400 travel, and publication in Cuba in Transition.
Second prize $200.

All students who enter the competition will receive a one year complimentary membership in ASCE, which will entitle them to receive our publications and newsletter. If they wish to attend the annual meeting in Miami, they will also receive a complimentary conference and key speaker luncheon invitation (but no travel allowance, except to the first prize winners).

Papers received or postdated by May 20, 2010 will be considered. The winner of the competition will
be announced in June.

Basis for Award
A panel of scholars on the basis of relevance,originality, quality, contribution, and clarity of presentation will judge papers. The 5,000 words limit for the essay will be STRICTLY ENFORCED.

Submission and Information
Please send a hard copy of the manuscript via regular mail and an electronic MS Word attachment of the paper to:

Dr. Enrique S. Pumar
Chair Student Award Committee
The Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy
P.O. Box 28267
Washington, DC 20038-8267 <>
Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Arsenio Rodríguez is in Da Bronx! (March 18-20)

For those of you who live in or near New York City, there are three consecutive events this weekend (Thurs., Fri., & Sat.) all hosted by the Hostos Center for the Arts in the Bronx, each celebrating the musical genius of Cuban son innovator and tresero Arsenio Rodríguez.

Here's the line up...

La Gente del Bronx: Arsenio Rodríguez, a "People's Musician"
Thursday, March 18, 5:30 p.m.
Art Gallery, 450 Grand Concourse

This seminar takes its name and theme from one of Arsenio Rodríguez's most beloved tunes which is an ode to the community - the South Bronx - where Arsenio performed in working-class social clubs during the 40's and the 50's for audience that rarely frequented downtown establishments. It will focus on the típico and Afro-centric nature of Arsenio's music which contrasted with the music of such contemporaries as Títo Puente and Títo Rodríguez.  PARTICIPANTS: David R. García, Author of Arsenio Rodríguez and the Transitional Flows of Latin Popular Music; René López, Musicologist; and Ned Sublette, Moderator

Bembe, Salon y Calle
by Areytos Performance Works
Friday March 19, 2010 @ 7:30PM
Admission: $15/Student ID $ 12
Box Office & info: 718-518-4455
Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture
Repertory Theater
450 Grand Concourse at 149th Street Bronx, NY 10451

Areyto presents a dynamic evening of dance, live music and visual art featuring Afro-Cuban Orishas, Rumba, Salsa, Cha-cha-chá and contemporary dance theater. Joined by master percussionists Román Díaz & Pedrito Martínez, the performance celebrates tradition and innovation- both the legacy and present impact of Cuban dance and music in NYC.  Artistic Director: Sita Frederick; Executive Producer: Leticia Peguero; Guest Choreographers: Rebecca Bliss, Rodney López; and Visual Artists: Carlos Mateu, Jóse Ortíz

Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino
A Gala Concert
Saturday March 20, 2010 @ 7:30PM
Admission: $35, $25
Box Office & info: 718-518-4455
Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture
Main Theater
450 Grand Concourse at 149th Street Bronx, NY 10451

By popular demand, Grupo Folklórico y Experimental Nuevayorquino, the ground-breaking 1970's orchestra which presaged many developments in Latin music, returns to the Hostos Center with a program of the greatest hits composed by the legendary Arsenio Rodríguez who is credited as the creator of son montuno, mambo and salsa. Co-produced by Rene López, Andy Kaufman and the Hostos Center for the Arts & Culture, ths concert pays homage to a true musical genius who is considered by many musicologists as being the greatest composer/musician of Afro-Cuban music of the 20th century.

The legendary Latin music alliance performing the music of:
Andy González, bass, leader
Jerry Gonzalez, trumpet, percussion
Gene Golden, percussion
Nelson González, tres
Oscar Hernandez, piano
Eddy Zervigón, wooden flute
Jorge Luis Maldonado, volcal
Pedrito Martínez, vocals, percussion
Reynaldo Jorge, Trombone
Eddy Venegas, Violin, Trombone
Abraham Rodríguez, vocal, percussion
Tony Rosa, percussion
Guido González, timbales, bongo, percussion

Special Guests:
Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros, trumpet
Sergio "Armandito" Armenteros, trumpet
Israel Berrios, vocals, guitar
Alfredito Valdéz, Piano
René López, Percussion

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

I Beg to Differ: Academic Exchange with Cuba

Dear Cuba Watchers,

I wanted to call your attention to two news stories about academic exchange in Cuba that appeared this week. The first is "Push for Student Exchanges With Cuba Hits Obstacles, Both Political and Academic" by Paul Basken from The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 9, 2010). The other, "Piden a Obama que levante las restricciones para viajes de académicos a Cuba," is from El Nuevo Herald.

I just submitted the following letter to the editor of The Chronicle and thought I'd share it with readers of El Yuma.

"La isla que soñaba con ser un continente" - Sandra Ramos

Dear Editor,

Re: "Push for Student Exchanges With Cuba Hits Obstacles, Both Political and Academic" by Paul Basken from The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 9, 2010).

Having done the bulk of my dissertation research in Cuba between 1997 and 2001 (though not through an affiliation with any official Cuban government or academic organization), my experience is that it is indeed possible to do "real" research in Cuba. However, as with any research it is the scholar's responsibility to remain clear sighted about the particular constraints and opportunities of any research context.

The key word in understanding the Cuban research and academic context is indeed government control. The Cuban government has a long record of controlling access to the island in order to keep unflattering data and analysis, especially from social scientists, to a minimum. It also arrogantly and unjustifiably gives itself the right to determine which of its own scholars can travel abroad to do research or participate in international conferences. However, these condemnable practices should not be used as a justification for continuing our own failed policy of isolation. Nor do they make fruitful research, collaboration with Cuban scholars, or student learning impossible. On the contrarly, Cuba's closed, insular environment often makes the island a richer and more vital learning and research environment for younger students and scholars coming from abroad.

In fact, from my experience doing research in Cuba (both in my past research on Cuba's underground economy and in my current research on its emergent blogosphere) and from helping to operate past academic (at Tulane University's Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute) and cultural exchange programs (with the CubaNola Arts Collective) in Cuba, I would argue that academic travel to Cuba by U.S. undergraduates and graduate students is among the very best and most intellectually challenging and stimulating experiences students can have.

It is also a quiet but very effective way to achieve one of President Obama's chief foreign policy goals vis-a-vis Cuba - to increase people-to-people contacts between the citizens of each country and contribute to breaking the Cuban government's own "blockade" - its monopoly on information and careful screening of outside contacts.

Finally, I reject Jorge Sanguinetty's insinuation quoted in the article that scholars or students aim to go to Cuba to simply lie on the beach, "under the guise of research." And I am frankly insulted by his categorical dismissal that, "You cannot do real research in Cuba."

In fact, the organization of which he is the current president, the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, awarded me its highest student prize in 2002 when I was a graduate student for research I did entirely in Cuba ("A Taste of Capitalism: The Rise and Fall of Havana’s Private Paladar Restaurants”). Indeed, after earning my Ph.D., I was elected to two terms on ASCE's Board of Directors (2004-2006 and 2006-2008) and have been a past member of the ASCE committee that seeks to recruit graduate and undergraduate students to submit their own papers (the vast majority of which are based on research done in Cuba) for that same annual prize awarded at the organization's annual conference in Miami.

While Sanguinetty beleives that there's a "tremendous amount of hypocrisy by the educational system in the United States" regarding the potential for authentic academic research and exchange with Cuba, I respectfully offer that it is perhaps himself who is the one being hypocritical when his own organization encourages and awards prizes to young scholars like me who do just that.

Ted Henken, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Acting Chair
Department of Black and Hispanic Studies
Baruch College, City University of New York

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Ciberchancleteo en Venezuela?

This just in from the News Blog (Español/Portugués) of the Knight Center for JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS at the University of Texas at Austin.

Chávez calls for Internet regulation in Venezuela - President Hugo Chávez, who has complained that social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook are used to spread unfounded rumors, called for regulation of the Internet this weekend and singled out a site that he said had falsely reported the death of one of his ministers, Reuters reports.

Related: Venezuela denies plans to censor Internet - CARACAS - Venezuela is not planning to censor the web or to shut down social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook, officials said on Monday, after President Hugo Chavez called for regulation of the Internet.

The Knight Center also features a digital library with the following useful publications:

Herramientas Digitales para Periodistas / Ferramentas Digitais para Jornalistas
(Digital Tools for Journalists)
By Sandra Crucianelli (Spanish & Portuguese Editions)
Click here to download

Cómo escribir para la Web / Como escrever para a Web
Bases para la discusión y construcción de manuales de redacción ‘online’ / Bases para discussão e construção de manuais para redações online
(How to write for the Web--basis for discussion and construction of style books for online newsrooms)
By Guillermo Franco (Spanish & Portuguese Editions)
Click here to download

Journalism 2.0: How to Survive and Thrive
A digital literacy guide for the information age
By Mark Briggs (English, Spanish & Portuguese Editions)
Click here to download

Press Freedom Monitoring and Advocacy in Latin America and the Caribbean
Knight Center, Open Society Institute Hold Conference About Press Freedom in Latin America.
Conference report available in English and Spanish here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Generacion Han Han: Heartthrob's Blog Challenges China's Leaders (NYT)

Great article in today's NYT about China's very own Yoani Sanchez and his Gen Y. His name is Han Han.

I first heard about Han Han back in October of last year when NPR profiled him, along with two other guerrilla bloggers, one from Mumbai, India and another from London, England.  For that story, go here: "Across Globe, Blogging Brings Change."  For the article in the NYT, read on or click here .

The NYT article is full of great quotes and anecdotes, but here's my favorite:
The Internet, he says, will eventually prod China toward greater openness. No army of censors can completely constrain free expression. "I think the government really regrets the Internet," he said, pausing for effect. "Originally, they thought it would be like the newspaper or the television - just another way to get their view out to the people. What they didn't realize is that people can type and talk back. This is giving them a really big headache."

Heartthrob's Blog Challenges China's Leaders

"The government wants China to become a great cultural nation, but our leaders are so uncultured." Han Han

By ANDREW JACOBS, March 13, 2010

SHANGHAI.  IT'S not so easy being Han Han, the heartthrob race car driver and pop novelist who just happens to be China's most widely read blogger.

Traveling incognito is all but impossible. Local officials frequently vie for his endorsement of their latest architectural boondoggles. (He politely declines.) And love-lorn young women often approach him after races with letters bearing his name. (He says the women have been duped by impostors who have assumed his identity.)

But Mr. Han's most vexing challenge comes from a more formidable nemesis: the unseen censors who delete blog posts they deem objectionable and the publishing police who have held up the release of his new magazine, "A Chorus of Solos," a provocative collection of essays and photographs. "The government wants China to become a great cultural nation, but our leaders are so uncultured," he said with a shrug, offering his characteristic Cheshire-cat grin.

"If things continue like this, China will only be known for tea and pandas."

Since he began blogging in 2006, Mr. Han has been delivering increasingly caustic attacks on China's leadership and the policies he contends are creating misery for those unlucky enough to lack a powerful government post. With more than 300 million hits to his blog, he may be the most popular living writer in the world.

In a recent interview at his office in Shanghai, he described party officials as "useless" and prone to spouting nonsense, although he used more delicate language to dismiss their relevance. "Their lives are nothing like ours," he said. "The only thing they have in common with young people is that like us, they too have girlfriends in their 20s, although theirs are on the side."

Mr. Han has enjoyed widespread fame since he published his first novel at 19, but his popularity has ballooned in recent months through blog posts that seem to capture the zeitgeist of his peers, the so-called post-80s generation born after the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping.

Theirs is a generation of only children, the result of China's one-child policy, and one that has known only uninterrupted growth. Whether true or not, it is also a demographic with a reputation for being spoiled, impatient and less accepting of the storyline fed to them by government-run media.

If Mr. Han's tongue is sharp, he is careful to deliver his barbs through sarcasm and humorous anecdotes that obliquely take on corruption, censorship and everyday injusticeIn one recent post about redevelopment projects that often end in violence and forced evictions, he suggested that the government build public housing in the form of prisons. The benefits would be twofold, he explained: Tenants could make no claim on the apartments and those who make a fuss could simply be locked up in their homes.

His current gambit is a wryly subversive competition that will award $730 to the person who comes up with new lyrics to a song-and-dance routine that was broadcast last month during the reliably soporific Chinese New Year television gala.

The performance, staged by China's national broadcaster and viewed by an estimated 400 million people, featured merry members of the Uighur minority belting out praise for Communist Party policies.
These were not the policies that many Uighurs bemoan as oppressive - and which may or may not have provoked the deadly riots in the western region of Xinjiang last summer - but ones that supposedly reduced taxes, increased health benefits and according to the singing farmer Maimaiti, filled his donkey sack with cash.

ALTHOUGH his posts are sometimes "harmonized" - a popular euphemism for censorship -his blog, published by one of China's most popular Web portals, has so far been allowed to continue. Ran Yunfei, a writer and blogger in Sichuan Province, says that Mr. Han is partly insulated by his celebrity, but also by his avoidance of the most politically charged topics.

"He uses humor and wit to laugh at the injustices he sees," said Mr. Ran, whose own blog is blocked in China and available only to those with the technical means to hop over the Great Firewall. "Perhaps the reason he's tolerated is because he does not name names directly and he doesn't go after the heart of the problem, which is China's one-party dictatorship.

"His other trump card is his financial independence. With 14 books to his name and a successful career as a race car driver, he is not susceptible to pressures that constrain other critics, many of them academics or journalists whose jobs tend to evaporate when their public musings cross an invisible line.

But the government has lately found a way to pique him by holding up the release of his magazine. Mr. Han said the main objection appears to be an article that details the blacklisting of actors who have angered the authorities. Asked what he will do if his endeavor is thwarted, or if one day his blog is banned entirely, Mr. Han smiles and offers trademark sarcasm, delivered deadpan. "I'll just become a better driver," he said.

MR. Han has been reinventing himself since he dropped out of high school and promptly went on to become one of China's best known writers. His first novel, "Triple Door," plumbed the adolescent angst of those withering under the pressures of family and school. With two million copies in print, it is the best-selling book of the last 20 years.

The protagonists in that novel and several that followed were young men like himself, raised in small rural townships and disdaining authority, especially teachers, whom Mr. Han sometimes likens to prostitutes.

Growing up, Mr. Han says he was given wide latitude by his parents. His father was the front-page editor of a local party newspaper and his mother worked for a social service bureau helping the needy. "My mom gave me an appreciation for the underdog," he said.

His family's home was packed with literature, he said, and his father made sure to put the good stuff - books published before the Communist revolution - low enough for an 8-year-old to reach. "He put all the poorly written books published after the founding of the People's Republic of China high enough so I couldn't reach it," Mr. Han said.

When his anti-establishment writings began to affect his parents' state-run jobs, Mr. Han encouraged them to retire early, offering to support them financially.

Once viewed by critics as petulant and self-consciously rebellious, Mr. Han has moved beyond ad hominem attacks on poets, pop stars and fellow bloggers. These days his attention is largely drawn to society's deeper problems: a surge in nationalism; the lackluster quality of contemporary culture; and the albatross of sky-high real-estate prices that keep China's nascent middle-class in a constant state of anxiety.

He blames the high prices on local officials, who sell off land to the highest bidder in an effort to finance public works and pump up the double-digit economic growth figures that keep Beijing happy. High property values, he adds, also pay for all those dinners and fancy gifts that seem to be the birthright of officialdom.

The grim result is a country of young professionals so overworked and distracted by mortgage payments that they have no time to care about what ails China. "The government is happy to see prices go up, people are forced to buy property they can't afford and they end up living in fear." Then he smiles and adds, "It's a perfect situation, right?"

Despite the sarcasm and griping, Mr. Han is an optimist at heart. The Internet, he says, will eventually prod China toward greater openness. No army of censors can completely constrain free expression. "I think the government really regrets the Internet," he said, pausing for effect. "Originally, they thought it would be like the newspaper or the television - just another way to get their view out to the people. What they didn't realize is that people can type and talk back. This is giving them a really big headache."

Li Bibo contributed research.

Friday, March 12, 2010

World Day Against Cyber Censorship: Blogging, the Internet, and Democracy

Head's up from Penultimos Días about the report, "Enemies of the Internet: Countries Under Surveillance," out today from Reporters Without Borders.  It includes profiles of 23 countries considered to be "Internet enemies," including China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Australia, Russia, South Korea, and Turkey.

If this report interests you, you might also find the following four reports from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Univeristy enlighting reading.

1. The Internet and Democracy: Global Catalyst or Democratic Dud? (Download PDF)
Michael Best and Keegan W. Wade, September 30, 2005
This study explores the global effect of the Internet on democracy over the period of 1992 to 2002 by observing the relationships between measures related to democracy and Internet prevalence. Results show a significant correlation between Internet penetration (measured as the estimated number of Internet users per 1,000 people) and a common indicator of a nation’s level of democratization provided by Freedom House.

2. Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent (Download PDF)
Bruce Etling, John Kelly, Rob Faris, and John Palfrey, Internet and Democracy, June 17, 2009
This case study is part of a series produced by the Internet and Democracy project. It analyzes the composition of the Arabic blogosphere and its possible impact on political and democratic processes.

3. Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere (Download PDF)
John Kelly and Bruce Etling, Internet and Democracy, April 6, 2008
This case study analyzes the composition of the Iranian blogosphere and its possible impact on political and democratic processes.

4. Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility: Battleground and Common Ground (Download PDF)
Rebecca MacKinnon, February 1, 2005
This is a conference reoprt from an event held in late January 2005 at Harvard, at which a group of 50 journalists, bloggers, news executives, media scholars, and librarians sat down to try and make sense of the new emerging media environment.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

J'accuse by Yoani Sánchez

March 11, 2010

Translated from Penultimos Días, "Una denuncia de Yoani Sánchez." 

With a brief snippet at the end from Sánchez's latest post.

"Today on Twitter Yoani Sánchez tells us that she has presented a formal complaint to a number of Cuban official institutions denouncing the illegal detention and mistreatment she and her sister received on February 24 when they attempted to attend the funeral and sign the book of condolences at the burial of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

"Until now, Sánchez had not called attention to her illegal arrest and mistreatment. I understand her reticience: at that time the focus needed to be on expressing grief for Zapata's passing with all media coverage necessarily concentrated on his lamentable death.

"But now there is an official complaint, which should also be presented to international institutions that monitor the human rights situation in Cuba.

"And along with the complaint, Sánchez provided proof.

"Before they were taken into custody Sánchez and her sister had their cellphones confiscated.  However, the police did not realize that she had intentionally left her phone on in order to record the entire illegal arrest, the beatings, their confinement, and the later conversations among the guards. 

"All this was there on the chip when their cellphones were returned to them and the testimony is revealing. 

"It not only gives us a window into the political motivation of the police crackdown on dissidents, journalists, and bloggers between February 23 and 25, but it also contains the names of many of the officials in charge of the operation. 

"We await Sánchez's release of the recording very soon."
And here is Sánchez's oblique hint about the recording at the end of her latest post, "Glass House."
"...Unfortunately for the crude producers of this kind of reality show, the technology in the hands of citizens has started to make the walls around their lives transparent as well. Having been so long observed, we now see that there is hole we can look through to the other side of the fence."

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 ( 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 portal (launched in December, 2004), associated with Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar among others, which has transformed over time into the blog portal
    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

      "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 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:, 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, 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:
      " 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 (where all back issues are still archived and freely available).  Between December 2008 and June 2009, the 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.