As Hurricane Sandy devastates Cuba, bloggers rise to the challenge

October 29, 2012

Residents pick through destroyed homes in Holguin province, Cuba. (Stringer -- AFP/Getty Images)

Cuban bloggers are showing surprising initiative in responding to Hurricane Sandy, which has killed 11 and caused significant damage since making landfall there on Thursday. It's still not clear how costly the storm will be for Cuba, but 2005's Hurricane Dennis caused $2.4 billion in damage, about 6 percent of GDP. This week's hurricane crisis is allowing bloggers to assert their value in a country that does not always welcome them.

It's not easy to be a blogger in Cuba. According the annual Freedom House report on Internet freedom, released last month, Cuban Web freedom is the second worst in the world, after Iran, out of the 47 nations surveyed. Bloggers can face "extralegal detentions, intimidation, and occasional beatings." The report adds, "An estimated 1,000 bloggers recruited by the government have disseminated damaging rumors about the personal lives of the island’s influential independent bloggers." Only about 5 percent of Cubans have intermittent access to the Internet, as opposed to the state-run intranet.

Even the small community of Cuban bloggers has been at times divided by infighting. In May, what was supposed to be a national meeting of bloggers devolved into controversy over two admittedly difficult questions: should the pro-government "within-system" bloggers invite more critical "dissident" bloggers, and, as one blogger asked, "how can one be critical in Cuba without being considered a dissident?"

The past week, though, has seen Cuba's bloggers spearheading coverage of Hurricane Sandy's impact. Leading the charge has been Havana Times, an independent blog that says it represents "the voice of Cuban youth." It has expanded on official damage assessments and reported damage to 17,000 homes in a single northeastern province, where reconstruction work from a 2008 hurricane is still "pending," meaning that homes were especially susceptible. In an impassioned Sunday post, a Havana Times blogger praised the volunteers and government workers poring over the "trail of destruction," but bemoaned the blocked roads, still-down electric and telephone services, and shortage of drinking water. "The sight of women, elderly individuals and children sifting through debris to salvage whatever was left of their belongings was simply heartbreaking," he wrote. The post concluded by asking for help with collecting and transporting donations. 

Cuban diaspora blogger Marc Masferrer is aggregating social media from within the eastern town of Santiago de Cuba, including tweets from the ground and powerful photos of the devastation. 

Havana-based blogger Yoani Sánchez (via Global Voices) used the storm to call attention to the challenges already facing the economically depressed regions of eastern Cuba. Emphasis is mine:

Thursday morning will never be forgotten by thousands of people in Eastern Cuba. The wind, flying roofs, heavy rains and trees falling on streets and houses, will remain as permanent memories of Hurricane Sandy. Nor will they be able to get out of their heads that first night after the disaster in which, from their battered beds or rickety sofas, they found nothing separating their faces from the starry night sky.  

Some people lost everything, which was not much. People from whom the gale took the modest possessions they’d accumulated over their whole lives. A human drama extended over this area already affected beforehand by material shortages, constant migration westward, and the outbreaks of diseases like dengue fever and cholera. For the victims it rains and it pours, literally and metaphorically. Nature intensifies the economic collapse and social problems of this region of the country.

She concluded by calling for action from the government and "solidarity" from citizens to push for post-Sandy reforms that would help protect from the next storm. Her proposals are strikingly free market-oriented, including reduced custom duties for food imports, reduced taxes on small businesses, and allowing privately run relief organizations to supplement government efforts. It's hard to foresee Havana allowing any of these, but maybe this is the point, as Sánchez's criticisms implicitly highlight the central government's weaknesses and inability to follow through on its revolutionary promises. 

Still, even as the hurricane made landfall last week, bloggers seemed more preoccupied with the country's loosening visa laws, which will allow easier foreign travel, and with esoteric intra-activist squabbles. It's easy to see why these would be topics of particular concern for the young, Web-savvy, and often government-abused bloggers. But it's a reminder of the degree to which activist-blogger communities -- including those in, say, Egypt -- can end up talking mostly to one another rather than to their countries' larger, less Web-focused majorities.

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Max Fisher · October 29, 2012