Yaoni Sanchez on Teaching Internet on the Island of the Disconnected

By David Knight |

As a journalist, I’m always surprised to hear how biased I am against so many different things – but, in Germany at least, a strongly-worded email is usually the worst I can expect when I write an article others disagree with. That’s not so much the case in Cuba.

In November 2009, Yoani Sanchez was walking down the street in Havana with two other bloggers. Renowned for their anti-government stance, what happened next was not entirely unexpected. In fact, one of the group had, as a precaution, pre-written an SMS stating that they had been arrested by the state security forces. When the unmared cars duly pulled up and forced Yoani and her companions inside, the woman had just enough time to press send.

Only the SMS didn’t merely go to one other person. Texting is how Cubans, so lacking in access to the Internet, post to Twitter, where millions around the world follow what the dissidents have to say about the oppressive Communist regime in which they live.

In the car, Yoani found herself being held down with a knee pressing against her chest so hard that she was having trouble breathing. But then the driver received a phone call. He turned to the man who was holding her and said: “Don’t press too much because everybody already knows.”

And that was how one tweet saved Yoani from what was potentially a very serious situation.

She is internationally renowned for her blog, Generation Y (currently unavailable), which she started in April 2007, and her story is well known. But it was still fascinating to hear her speak in person – albeit through a translator/interviewer – at re:publica in Berlin on Monday.

Mincemeat Without Meat

Yoani wasn’t there just to talk about her past, however. She is currently on a global tour to try and build support for her efforts in increasing online access for her fellow Cubans. In a country where home Internet is banned for all but a trusted few Party officials, and public access such as in hotels is prohibitively expensive, such efforts require a great deal of ingenuity.

It has become a case of how to explain the Internet without the Internet – a concept which, strangely enough, Cuba is already familiar with. Yoani explained to the audience that in the 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR and the ensuing end to its financial support for the Caribbean nation, Cuba went through dramatic economic troubles. There were blackouts, transport failures and even food shortages. The last issue led to resourceful Cubans coming up with some innovative new recipes.

One of the most interesting, according to Yoani, was for mincemeat without meat, whereby the cook would take a certain kind of plant, scrape and peel all its fibres away and then add tomato, onions and other ingredients to make it the same kind of shape and consistency as actually mincemeat.

If the Cubans were ingenious enough to create mincemeat without meat, Yoani said, then they could also do the Internet without Internet.

To that end, she spends her time teaching others the tricks of being online in Cuba. The aforementioned Twitter services are vitally important – you just send a series of SMS messages with instructions, your handle and your password, and then the tweet is published. There are various platforms that offer this service including one in Germany. It actually harks back to the origins of Twitter, whose 140 character limit was influenced by how long a singe SMS is (160 characters, leaving space for your username).

Raising a Monument to the USB Stick

Other tips include writing a bunch of blog posts and then uploading them in one go, either to WordPress and then scheduling them for gradual publication over a period of time, or by emailing them to friends outside the country.

Either way, the flash USB drive is key. “The day that we will have a democratic transition in Cuba,” Yoanis said*, “we will have to raise a monument to the USB flash stick.”

She teaches this kind of knowledge in her own home on what she dubs the “island of the disconnected”, as well as travelling to more remote parts of Cuba. Through her efforts, she has built up a community of around 200 bloggers – a drop in the ocean compared to other similarly-sized countries but big enough to have had a significant impact in Cuba. “We have broken through that wall of censorship with very limited means.”

At times, they have forced the authorities to admit an incident or emergency after the fact by blogging and tweeting about it. It’s a process Yoani sees as chipping away at a wall – and the significance of the city where she was speaking was not lost on her.

“This morning I was walking along the remaining fragments of the Berlin Wall. It was made out of cement and concrete but it was also a wall of control. The Cuban wall is one of silence and censorship. Imagine a citizenry that have mallets and hammers in their hands. Imagine the mallets being tools that have 140 characters. And this is what is happening now. They are cracking the wall.”

She ended with a plea to any people in the crowd who might travel to Cuba to take with them any technology they could – a flash drive, other hard drives, an old phone or laptop – and just give them to any ordinary Cuban: “I assembled my first computer in 1984 with pieces from the black market. And that computer changed my life, turned me into the person I am today.”

Arbitrary and Targeted Censorship

It was a fascinating take on life in a country where the Internet is controlled – and it inspired me to walk across the cavernous Station Berlin and sit on in a workshop looking at the equivalent censorship in Iran. Dubbed ‘403 Forbidden: A Hands on Experience of the Iranian Internet’, it was run by Bronwen Robertson and Mara Pourkazemi from Small Media and CNN’s Stina Backer. The session was an interactive introduction into the “arbitrary and targeted” Internet filtering and censorship in the pariah Gulf state. I didn’t cover myself in glory in the quiz, but it was interesting to hear how much more severe the control was in a country where Internet access, while not comprehensive, is still much wider than in Cuba.

The regime in Tehran, it appears, have decided to assume control of cyberspace themselves and use it to their own good, rather than the suspicious, resistant-to-change attitude of the Cuban authorities. This includes cracking down on protestors following the controversial 2009 elections but also, rather comically, the failure to realise that they are not actually that good at the self-promotion aspect – I recognised all of the Photoshops in the ‘fact or fiction’ round.

In the cause of balance, it’s important to note that I have never been to Cuba or to Iran and we don’t really now what it is like to be a blogger or Internet user in these countries; we only have the side of the story from people like Yoani Sanchez and the Small Media team. Yet that surely is enough to be thankful of where and when we live.

*Yaoni Sanchez was speaking on stage through a translator who, while doing a very good job, didn’t always repeat what she had said word for word (e.g. by changing from first person to third person). The quotes attributed to Yaoni in this article are as accurate as possible.