Teaching Twitter in Havana

By Nick Miroff
April 2, 2010

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This article by Nick Miroff originally appeared in GlobalPost.

As an educational institution, Cuba’s Blogger Academy suffers from a few notable deficiencies. Its six-month course doesn’t grant an accredited degree, and its single, cramped classroom — the living room of founder Yoani Sanchez — isn’t even hooked up to the internet.

Then there’s the possibility that the next knock on the door might be the police. They haven’t shut down the Blogger Academy yet, but on this web-starved island — the least-connected country in the hemisphere — 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’s 14th-floor Havana apartment see it that way. They’re 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’s 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.

“Today we’re going to talk about Twitter,” Sanchez began on a recent afternoon, quieting the room. The students ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s. One’s man late father had been a leader of the Cuban Revolution. Given the Castro government’s 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’d saved from the last time she was able to use the internet. Like most Cubans, she isn’t allowed to have an internet connection at home but can pay to go online at hotels and cyber cafes. “Who can tell me the difference between tags and categories?” 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 “Can Journalism be Participatory?” and a Twitter manifesto called “The revolution in 140 characters.” Students huddled to share the room’s 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’s 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’s earned by publishing articles and a book abroad.

“We’re not trying to challenge or subvert the government,” Sanchez said in an interview. “This isn’t a political party. There’s no boss here, and no director. No one is telling us what to write, or what type of criticisms we can make. We’re just trying to create a virtual world that reflects the variety of views that Cubans really have — but are now suffocated and hidden by government controls.”

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 — to attack Cuba. Elizalde said there was nothing wrong with the material taught at the Blogger Academy, but she said Sanchez’s goals were hardly apolitical.

“You can’t criticize learning,” Elizalde said. “But you can criticize the intention behind her efforts, which are taking place in a framework of a U.S. policy of subversion and aggression.”

Elizalde also questions the international support Sanchez receives to run her blog, which is translated into 18 languages. “We’re not talking about some blogger in Sweden,” Elizalde said. “We’re 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.”

Several of the academy’s students say they’ve 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.

“There are people who think I’m doing something wrong by coming here, but I don’t think so,” said Regina Coyula, 53, a housewife and former Cuban state security agent who now writes a blog, Mala Letra (Bad Handwriting), launched with Sanchez’s help.

“I think I’m giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do, whose views aren’t reflected in the official media,” said Coyula. “We’re people who want change, and we want the current government to be an instrument of change.”

Sanchez said the academy’s graduates are developing the skills to shape Cuba’s 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 “building a cathedral in the air.”

“Somehow this is the image that I have,” Pardo said. “Something very big and very beautiful that we are trying to build, and very fragile also, that could crumble to the ground at any time.”

“We hope not,” he said, “but it’s something very fragile.”

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