Teaching Twitter in Havana
As an educational institution, Cuba‚Äôs Blogger Academy suffers from a few notable deficiencies. Its six-month course doesn‚Äôt grant an accredited degree, and its single, cramped classroom ‚ÄĒ the living room of founder Yoani Sanchez ‚ÄĒ isn‚Äôt even hooked up to the internet.
Then there‚Äôs the possibility that the next knock on the door might be the police. They haven‚Äôt shut down the Blogger Academy yet, but on this web-starved island ‚ÄĒ the least-connected country in the hemisphere ‚ÄĒ this classroom is a place where the digital revolution really feels like one.
At least the 30-odd students squeezed onto benches and chairs in Sanchez‚Äôs 14th-floor Havana apartment see it that way. They‚Äôre taking a risk to come here twice a week to learn how to use Twitter, or write code in WordPress for their own blogs. That‚Äôs not because those software programs are illegal in Cuba, but because Sanchez, 34, is considered dangerous company.
Sanchez remains largely unknown on the island, where her award-winning blog, Generation Y, is blocked. But she has a huge following among Cubans living abroad, and she has used her literary talents and the power of the internet to become a potent symbol of opposition to a one-party socialist system run by men in their 70s and 80s. With the Blogger Academy, where the instructors are volunteers and tuition is free, Sanchez is drafting others to the digital cause.
‚ÄúToday we’re going to talk about Twitter,‚ÄĚ Sanchez began on a recent afternoon, quieting the room. The students ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. One‚Äôs man late father had been a leader of the Cuban Revolution. Given the Castro government‚Äôs record of infiltrating opposition groups, it was also likely a few of the students were there to take notes on their classmates, not their coursework.
No one seemed too worried about that, though, and the atmosphere was friendly, almost festive. Sanchez used a projector to cast an image of her laptop screen onto the wall, displaying web pages she‚Äôd saved from the last time she was able to use the internet. Like most Cubans, she isn‚Äôt allowed to have an internet connection at home but can pay to go online at hotels and cyber cafes. ‚ÄúWho can tell me the difference between tags and categories?‚ÄĚ she asked the class.
There were other classes that day on journalism ethics, photography, and Wikipedia. A nearby table was stacked with photocopied handouts of articles with titles like ‚ÄúCan Journalism be Participatory?‚ÄĚ and a Twitter manifesto called ‚ÄúThe revolution in 140 characters.‚ÄĚ Students huddled to share the room‚Äôs few laptop computers.
At most journalism schools, it would be ordinary subject matter. But on an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less than 1 percent of the population has an internet connection, it seemed like the first tremors¬†of a paradigm shift.
Cuban authorities, meanwhile, see it as little more than a new phase of an old fight. They view Sanchez‚Äôs rapid rise to international fame as part of the broader U.S.-funded campaign to foment anti-Castro activity on the island. Sanchez insists she funds the academy and supports other bloggers with the money she‚Äôs earned by publishing articles and a book abroad.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not trying to challenge or subvert the government,‚ÄĚ Sanchez said in an interview. ‚ÄúThis isn‚Äôt a political party. There‚Äôs no boss here, and no director. No one is telling us what to write, or what type of criticisms we can make. We‚Äôre just trying to create a virtual world that reflects the variety of views that Cubans really have ‚ÄĒ but are now suffocated and hidden by government controls.‚ÄĚ
Rosa Miriam Elizalde, the editor of the pro-government website Cubadebate, said she views Sanchez as a figure who has been hyped up for a specific political purpose ‚ÄĒ to attack Cuba. Elizalde said there was nothing wrong with the material taught at the Blogger Academy, but she said Sanchez‚Äôs goals were hardly apolitical.
‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt criticize learning,‚ÄĚ Elizalde said. ‚ÄúBut you can criticize the intention behind her efforts, which are taking place in a framework of a U.S. policy of subversion and aggression.‚ÄĚ
Elizalde also questions the international support Sanchez receives to run her blog, which is translated into 18 languages. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not talking about some blogger in Sweden,‚ÄĚ Elizalde said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre talking about a blogger in Cuba, which the United States has been waging economic and political warfare against for the past 50 years. And this is just the latest form of that warfare.‚ÄĚ
Several of the academy‚Äôs students say they‚Äôve faced more than criticism in recent months, receiving threats and other forms of harassment from the government. A few said their computers and cell phones had been confiscated by state police.
‚ÄúThere are people who think I‚Äôm doing something wrong by coming here, but I don‚Äôt think so,‚ÄĚ said Regina Coyula, 53, a housewife and former Cuban state security agent who now writes a blog, Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting), launched with Sanchez‚Äôs help.
‚ÄúI think I‚Äôm giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do, whose views aren‚Äôt reflected in the official media,‚ÄĚ said Coyula. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre people who want change, and we want the current government to be an instrument of change.‚ÄĚ
Sanchez said the academy’s graduates are developing the skills to shape Cuba‚Äôs future media organizations. Blogger Orlando Luis Pardo described their one-room school with a quote from famous Cuban novelist Jose Lezama Lima, likening it to ‚Äúbuilding a cathedral in the air.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúSomehow this is the image that I have,‚ÄĚ Pardo said. ‚ÄúSomething very big and very beautiful that we are trying to build, and very fragile also, that could crumble to the ground at any time.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWe hope not,‚ÄĚ he said, ‚Äúbut it‚Äôs something very fragile.‚ÄĚ
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