APRIL 18, 2014
“CUBA has two kinds of people,” writes Emily Parker. “There are the independent bloggers and other liberated individuals, who glide confidently through the streets, willing to tell pretty much anyone what they think. Then there’s everyone else.”
It’s a difficult assertion to overcome. It is (of course) wrong, but Parker is hardly alone in making such an oversimplification about Cuba.
Since the 1959 revolution, countless artists, intellectuals, journalists, celebrities, and others — frequently non-Spanish speakers — have parachuted in for a few quick (and, in the case of left-leaning visitors, usually state-supervised) days or weeks in Havana, on the basis of which they have produced a steady flow of fervent if facile treatises on Cuban politics, society, and culture. Their commentaries and writings on the nature of Cuba’s enduring socialist regime, when taken as a whole, have failed to shed much light on a complex historical reality. What they reveal instead is how embarrassingly little most American observers actually know about the island — in spite of the close and longstanding historical relationship, what historian Louis Pérez calls “ties of singular intimacy,” between the two nations. In fact, most American analyses of Cuba tell us more about our own fears, fantasies, and desires — and especially about the persistent links between our collective self-esteem and a childlike faith in the United States as a global force for good — than it does about Cuba itself.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
In Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, Parker aims to show that, in varied but also overlapping and broadly parallel ways, Chinese, Cuban, and Russian “netizens,” or citizens of the web, have begun to make use of the internet to challenge the authoritarian regimes that govern their nations. The second part of the book, entitled “Cuba (Fear),” focuses on the recent upsurge, however modest, of “independent” blogging in the island country. Parker sees it as not simply political, but rather as a cultural, psychological, and even spiritual practice. She opens the section by introducing us to Laritza Diversent, a 30-something Afrocuban lawyer, legal activist, and blogger who has taken to the internet to educate Cubans about the legal rights ostensibly guaranteed by the island’s socialist constitution. We learn that Diversent’s initial motivation for joining the small community of Cuban bloggers, although it emerged from the psychological dissonance produced by the constant stifling of her desire for self-expression in a repressive and highly politicized society, was not explicitly “counterrevolutionary.” Rather, feeling “suffocated” by the daily fare of lies, spin, and hypocrisy in Cuba’s official media, Diversent began to write, longing to put into words her country as she and other Cubans experienced it on a daily basis.
Blogging has had a transformative effect on Diversent’s psyche. Pre-internet, she was constantly depressed, cried easily, and sometimes longed for death. Similarly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to share their ideas and the inability to make profitable use of their professional skills, a growing number of highly educated young Cubans have felt driven to commit suicide over the past few decades. But blogging has given Diversent inner peace, even, Parker writes, “spiritual tranquility.” Although her actions increasingly expose her to personal intimidation and harassment by the island’s internal security agents, for the first time in her life, Diversent feels “free.”
In her interview with Reinaldo Escobar, dissident journalist and long-term partner of internationally celebrated pro-democracy blogger Yoani Sánchez, Parker continues this nuanced exploration of the multiple motivations behind Cuban online activity. In Cuba, Escobar tells her, blogging helps people to find their own voice, which allows them to know themselves better and like themselves more. The section’s strongest parts are segments like these, which trace how blogging has become, for the tiny Cuban elite that enjoys access to the internet, a medium for fulfilling the fundamental human need of self-expression. Claiming the rights to speak and be heard are undoubtedly a political acts, but Parker’s interviews with Cuban netizens reveal that they are not always overtly dissident ones. To the author’s credit, she acknowledges the complexity of bloggers’ quests for self-expression and the personal benefits they receive from their online activities.
But this is not the main thrust of her argument. The book falters when Parker attempts to analyze the political meaning of Cuban internet dissent. She portrays the island’s small community of bloggers as uniquely courageous political pioneers, responsible for launching the psychological transformation that she feels is a necessary precursor to a meaningful pro-democracy movement. Inspired by bloggers like Escobar and Diversent, she suggests, more and more people are performing “small acts of defiance.” However, her claim that informal resistance to the Castro regime originates with or is attributable to the activities of dissenting bloggers lacks a historical foundation. Parker appears unaware that an ongoing process of disengagement from the official Revolution and a growing culture of nonparticipation, non-conformity, and, yes, even dissent, actually date back to the failure of the island’s 1970 sugar harvest. It continued throughout the 1980s after the stifling of widely hoped-for reforms at the 1980 Communist Party Congress and after the 1989 trial and execution of the Cuban Armed Forces hero General Arnaldo Ochoa. It reached a peak in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of extreme economic hardship during the Special Period prompted large numbers of Cubans to take to the streets (and to the seas, in haphazardly constructed rafts) to protest power outages, food shortages, and heightened levels of repression.
Parker makes no mention of the thousands of Cubans who have never posted an online blog and never never heard of Twitter, but who have nonetheless been challenging their nation’s authoritarian regime for decades: refusing to perform “voluntary” labor in the countryside, buying and selling on the black market, committing theft or vandalism, writing political graffiti, telling anti-Castro jokes, openly practicing forbidden Afro-Cuban religions, and joining Catholic and Protestant churches — all acts of defiance, small and large, that were at one time and in many cases continue to be against the law. She also fails to mention the more than 11,000 Cubans who signed the Varela Project petition in 1998, calling on the Castro government to initiate a process of democratic reform and to guarantee citizens the right to freedom of assembly, expression, and religion. In 2003, many of the movement’s organizers were jailed; some remain incarcerated today. Glossing over this history of pre-internet dissent, rather than locating today’s bloggers within a continuum of ongoing resistance to the island’s authoritarian regime, makes it difficult for me to take Parker’s book seriously as a contribution to understanding the pro-democracy movement in Cuba.
Equally problematic is her failure to probe deeply the issue of bloggers’ “independence,” and especially their relationship to anti-Castro actors in the United States. She acknowledges that many bloggers post their work on Miami-based websites and that — since less than five percent of Cubans have access to the internet — their main audiences are in the diasporic Cuban communities in the United States, Spain, and Mexico. She also notes that bloggers sometimes access the internet at the US Interests Section in Havana and that some of them are paid — she doesn’t specify by whom — to write for overseas websites. Given the history of Washington’s covert involvement, dating back to at least 1960, in funding anti-Castro media messages in the United States and Latin America, and revelations like last week’s in The Guardian (which outed US AID for creating ZunZuneo, a Cuban microblogging site that they intended to use to create dissent on the island), many island residents view today’s “independent” journalists and bloggers with suspicion, seeing them as potential mercenaries or US-allied counterrevolutionaries. Parker dismisses these widespread Cuban doubts — which are not confined to the regime’s apologists — by stating that her interviewees “emphatically claimed that they did not accept money from any foreign government.” This perfunctory denial comes across as at best naive, and at worst — especially given that Parker is a former State Department employee — as disingenuous. In skirting the history of American interference in the island’s domestic politics, Parker does the many Cuban netizens whom I would hazard to guess are speaking from a position of individual conviction and integrity a disservice.
Most off-putting of all to me, though, was the author’s tendency to insert herself into the narrative in a manner too suggestive of John le Carré. We get vignettes of freedom fighters, international espionage, and what she melodramatically calls “secondhand terror.” As an explanation for the presumed failure of Cubans to take to the streets to overthrow their socialist oppressors, Parker tells us: “Cubans are afraid of one another. A long tradition of citizen informers has broken down the social fabric. […] You never know whom to fear, so you fear everyone.” She describes at some length how she herself fell victim to the fear that she claims pervades the island. While conceding that her paranoia was “not entirely rational,” she nonetheless feels the need to describe in harrowing terms a number of innocuous incidents that kept her on edge. She panics when the owner of her Havana pensión asks her what publication she writes for and why she has come to Cuba; she obsesses fearfully over the way her host’s husband “meticulously” records the details of her passport in the guesthouse ledger, a standard administrative procedure; she feels “almost sick with anxiety” when her host family asks to take a photograph with her; and so on. In her defense, Parker admits that the dread she felt at times may have been silly, but too many vignettes still come across as self-indulgent, detracting rather than adding to the book’s flow and argument. By focusing so much of her analysis of fear and repression in Cuba on herself, on the gap between her persecution fantasies and her embarrassingly mundane experiences, Parker manages to simultaneously understate and exaggerate the reality of fear in daily life on the island. Cubans are not afraid all the time. However, many of them are fearful, at different moments and to varying degrees, and sometimes with very good cause. And their fear is not one that a US-passport-wielding writer who has made a few short visits to the island should presume to share.
In a sense, it may be unfair to judge Now I Know Who My Comrades Are on the basis of its chapter on Cuba, since it is a scant 60 pages, whereas the other two case study countries get about 100 pages apiece — a disparity that gives the book, it must be said, an unbalanced feel. The brevity of Parker’s treatment of Cuban internet activism only serves to exacerbate its superficiality.
Knowing too little about Russia and China myself to judge the rest of the book, I was left wondering if there, too, she walks a fine line between insight and oversimplification, between astute observation and arrogant proclamations. So many comments on Cuba — including her blithe characterization of a rapidly evolving society as having “hardly changed from one trip to the next” — raised red flags for me, so it was hard to give her the benefit of the doubt when she turned her attention to Russia and China. She may, of course, know more about the former and certainly, based on her life story, knows the latter best of all.
There is a fascinating story to be told of the internet’s role in Cuba, but it needs to be woven into a broader tale of processes of political disenchantment, accommodation, and resistance, of which her bloggers are but the most recent manifestation. This is not what Parker gives us. If only she had not seen a country with more than just “two kinds of people” and crafted a tale that, for once, revealed less about simple American fantasies than it did complex Cuban realities.