Politics and fashion make odd, mostly hypocritical, bedfellows. Having a T-shirt with Chairman Mao’s face on it is cool, even though he was arguably responsible for the deaths of 70 million people. But to do the same with Hitler is sick. And the Kate Moss of politics, the figure who is still at the top of his game despite years of controversy, is Fidel Castro. Yes, he may have overseen an estimated 12,000 executions and the incarceration, torture and political “re-education” of thousands of homo-sexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and dissidents BUT he’s got a beard and a snappy military outfit and he hates Americans.
So if it’s cool to like the Castro regime, but it’s also cool for ordinary, oppressed people to challenge seemingly entrenched leaders via the blogosphere, then what are we to think when the two clash? Castro sympathisers may want to reconsider their support for the old rogue when they see how a man of the people deals with a particularly effective voice of the people.
But the burden of the blogs has actually fallen upon Raúl, Fidel’s brother, a previous Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (among other titles), who took over the presidency of Cuba from his ailing brother in February 2008. In his acceptance speech, Raúl hinted that “within weeks” certain restrictions on Cubans’ everyday lives would be lifted, including a ban on the purchase of computers, DVD players and microwaves — there would even be the possibility of electric toasters being introduced in 2010.
As blogs began to appear, commentators claimed that Raúl was prepared to tolerate more debate than his brother did. A foreign diplomat was quoted in the Economist as saying: “I think the leadership now recognises that when it comes to the internet, the genie is out of the bottle and they have to live with it.” Generación Y, a blog written by a young woman called Yoani Sánchez about the hardships of everyday life in Cuba — of food shortages, monthly wages of £20 and restrictions on freedom that might shock those Western tourists who return from carefully managed visits to the island praising the simple joys of Cuban life — gets about one million hits a month and Sánchez was named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
If it wasn’t Raúl’s greater tolerance of debate that was paving the way for freedom of expression via blogs, then maybe it was a simple case of old-fashioned technophobia: of an ageing leadership (Fidel and Raúl are 83 and 78 respectively) failing to understand the new technology and the way it allows people to express themselves without government regulation. As Sánchez herself said: “This breath of fresh air has dishevelled the hair of bureaucrats and censors. Anyone with a bit of computer skills knows how to get around them.”
So when the Cuban leadership decided to block access to Generación Y in March 2008, Sánchez was able to continue by using an indirect route. “There is no censorship that can stop people who are determined to access the internet,” she said.
Unfortunately governments, no matter how out of touch or threatened they are by new ways to oppose their rule, can always resort to a final form of censorship: violence. Last November, Sánchez was forced into an unmarked car, beaten, threatened and dumped on the street. A Human Rights Watch report published in the same month claimed that Cuban repression, far from ceasing under Raúl, had actually increased. He has become creative with the criminal code, among other things, extending a law which allows the state to punish people before they commit a crime if they seem likely to do so.
Sánchez, who continues to blog, found herself again in the limelight recently when President Obama responded to a list of questions submitted by her, saying that he would not rule out a visit to Cuba but was not interested “in talking for the sake of talking”.
Brave dissidents like Sánchez will continue to blog until they are physically forced to stop. They may have a greater audience now that the US has lifted a block on the Cubans having an underwater fibre-optic cable from the United States, which should allow more Cubans to get online (fewer than two per cent have internet access at the moment). But a Twitter revolution still seems like a distant prospect.