A still from the video for Cuban rap group Krudas Cubensi's song "Los Medios."
When I came to the United States from Argentina in 2005, I lived in the South. I remember going to Goodwill and finding a vintage poster from the 1950's that said, "Cuba: Holiday Isle of the Tropics." I bought it for 25 cents and hung it near my bed. Besides my touristic poster, and the music from Buena Vista Social Club, the little information I got about Cuba from the United States came from official Cuban websites in Spanish. Most of these outlets were regulated by the Communist party and didn’t mention much about anything besides official agenda news.
But things have changed. Raúl Castro took over for his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2006 and while the Internet is still slow on the island, it’s now more accessible and censorship has lessened. Fusion Net recently reported that in the past 10 years, the percentage of Cubans using the Internet has raised from about four percent to 25 percent. Journalist Victoria Burnett wrote for the New York Times in December, “In recent years, especially in Havana, Cubans have begun talking more openly about the economy, the political leadership and the restrictions they resent.”
Most Internet content considered “anti-revolutionary” is filtered and blocked, but even the limited access to personal blogs and social media has allowed Cubans to enrich the virtual environment with a diversity of online voices. While the Cuban government denies that discrimination based on race, gender, or sexual orientation is a problem in the country, online Cubans are finally able to make public their experiences dealing with sexism, racism, afro-Latina invisibility, and homophobia.
Currently, independent sites such as Bloggers Cuba and La Joven Cuba feature reform-minded bloggers. Some write in favor of the Communist party, others remain critical or think it needs to change, yet all offer their individual perspectives about today’s Cuba. "As they taste new freedoms and, increasingly, discuss their problems online, they are pushing the boundary between what can and cannot be said,” writes Burnett. Although access to blogs is legal to those who can afford Internet, there are limits as to what can be said online. Most independent bloggers and activists avoid direct repression and censorship by claiming a “critical leftist” position and, to some extent, working with the official institutions. So, although they get no support from the government, they are tolerated. “The critical left in Cuba proclaims itself revolutionary […] they resist to call themselves opposition because they identify more with a socialist project than with dissidence,” wrote journalist June Hernandez for website Frontera D—their autonomy “puts them in an uncertain position.”
CUBAN AFRO-LATINA VISIBILITY ONLINE
Recently, I interviewed Sandra Abd'Allah-Alvarez Ramírez (pictured below), a Cuban journalist who studied psychology and gender studies in the University of Havana and who has written about politics, race, and feminism on her personal blog since 2006. The goal of her blog is to explore issues based on her own experience of being a black Caribbean woman. The title of her blog Negra Cubana Tenía Que Ser (“It had to be a black woman”) is a re-appropriation of a negative cultural stereotype.
“‘It had to be a black person’ [is] applied to situations when a black person acts according to what society biasedly expects from them,” Alvarez Ramirez explained in an interview with Cuba Information. “I wanted to use this term precisely because I am a black Cuban woman conscious of race relations. I wanted to cover topics such as black feminism, racism in Cuba, HIV, and my interest in film and literature.”
Anthropologist and author Fari Nzinga offered a similar perspective on Women'sNews.org: “Black Cubans have long been told by Cuban authorities that they do not need places to express the problems of race and class because there are no such problems: they have all been solved by the Revolution. Nevertheless, black Cubans do face all manner of discrimination in contemporary Cuba.”
On her blog, Alvarez Ramirez calls out a “sophisticated” form of racism in Cuba were people deny it is even a problem. Over e-mail, she expressed to me that the country’s 2012 National Census tracked neither race nor sexual orientation—as if these realities were not worth accounting for (the United States’ Census tracks race, but not sexual orientation). Similarly, although it had been announced that LGBTQ households would be counted, an employee told Alvarez Ramirez that at the last minute “someone erased the consideration.”
Ms. Alvarez Ramirez also contributes to the blog AfroCubanas, which cultural critic and writer Ines Maria Martiatu founded to promote the intellectual and creative projects of Cuban women of color who are invisible in official textbooks or historical accounts. The work of that blog led in 2012 to the publication of the first book in Cuba about Afro-Cuban women's legacy, Afrocubanas.
Cuba guarantees rights such as abortion and made headlines in 2013 for having a transgender elected official but there are constant paradoxes. “We behave like if those rights didn’t cost our ancestors their lives,” Alvarez Ramirez says. While censorship has lessened, aspects of the traditional patriarchal environment persist in ignoring feminism and negating racism. In March of 2012, Cuban journalist Ana María Dominguez Cruz wrote on the news site Juventud Revelde (Rebellious Youth), “A centenary of feminism in Cuba has passed unnoticed, despite how it could have been a card of triumph for a more just, equal, and less traumatic society.”
Being an independent writer and activist in Cuba comes with the fear of repression and censorship, but Alvarez Ramirez told me, “I fear ignorance the most.” This past month, on International Women’s Day, Alvarez Ramirez blogged about socialism needing to go further: “We have yet to achieve that black women stop being considered the hottest in bed, or that Cuban structural racism sends them to sell jabitas in stores, or sends their daughters to school without breakfast.” Under this context, Alvarez Ramirez told me in an e-mail exchange that regardless the government, socialism or capitalism, black women suffer the most marginalization. Regarding racial issues, Alvarez Ramirez stated, “I fear that ignorance will join sophisticated and pseudo-scientific levels of racism, and that this sum will make it much more difficult to fight for racial equality.”
I asked Alvarez Ramirez about feminism in Cuba, and the possibility of organizing a movement, she did not sound very hopeful. “There are voices of feminist women, but not a feminist movement,” she said. “There is a lot of ignorance around the word ‘feminism’… Even women who defend women’s rights, or discuss gender relationships in their work tend to say ‘I am not a feminist’ nor would they talk about a movement.” Alvarez Ramirez shared an anecdote about attending a concert where a young Cuban artist rapped about gender roles and female subordination, but later clarified, “It’s not like I’m a feminist.”
One group of rappers who do advocate for feminism and anti-racism in Cuba are the Krudas Cubensi (at left) who have lived in the United States since 2006, but go back to Cuba regularly with the purpose of advocating for feminism and against patriarchy and trans-phobia. Feminist and queer activist Logbona Olukonee described the artists on a Cuban blog as “leading the new Cuban afro-feminism" and added "although they live in the diaspora, their songs, community workshops, presentations, and conferences in Cuba are impacting many young women, specially inside hip hop culture.”
LGBTQ ACTIVISM GAINS GROUND THANKS TO SOCIAL MEDIA
That points to another major aspect of Cuban activism on social media: the various efforts to gain LGBTQ equality. Yasmin Silvia Portales Machado (pictured at right) is a journalist, activist, and multi-faceted blogger who updates Proyecto Arco Iris (Project Rainbow), the first independent Cuban site for LGBTQ bloggers.
Arco Iris was born from the underground of Cuban social media and is a space for bloggers whose opinions don’t adhere to the official political agenda. There is an official institution focused on promoting LGBT rights in Cuba—the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX)—yet, like all Cuban official institutions, it seems to expect all activists to align with its politics. For example, CENESEX does not celebrate international Gay Pride Day because it considers the event a capitalist and imperialistic celebration. But Arco Iris thinks it’s important to align with the international LGBTQ community and has staged public celebrations on Stonewall’s anniversary.
In 2011, Portales Machado shared her dissatisfaction with the official institutions on her blog:
What are we, the LGBTQ and feminists of the anti-capitalist left, to do? We are to open the ideological frames from where sexual discrimination and gender identity are debated. We must introduce our own demands and propose other ways. This is politics, who is afraid to say it?
In June of 2012, around 46 people who identified as LGBTQ gathered together for the first pride event in Cuba organized entirely through unofficial outlets and social media: a Kiss In for Diversity and Equality in Havana. Since use of cellphones was legalized in 2008, several entities had been doing cellular advertising in Cuba through text messaging. But Arco Iris used social media, blogs, and text messaging for emancipatory purposes, without state support. "I believe that we created a turning point with our coordinated use of several electronic communications resources—telephones and mobile phones and Internet social media," Portales Machado said in an interview for Global Voices. While it is common for LGBTQ people to get harassed by the police for kissing in public, Portales Machado asserted that the Kiss In had no incidents.
Fighting against racial and sexual discrimination in Cuba feels like “taking one step forward, and another step backwards” as Alvarez Ramirez expressed in Spain's feminist blog Pikara. Small battles are won, but “la luchita” (the “small struggle”) is not enough for some Cubans who also want political freedom.
Writer Yoani Sanchez has received international recognition through her blog Generation Y, where she expresses her perspective against Castro’s regime. In her book Havana Real, Sanchez writes, “I can’t understand how we can invoke a tolerance that is parceled out and unfinished… How can we be on the cutting-edge of gay marriage reform and not be allowed, on the other hand, to ‘marry’ another political view or social doctrine?”
This March, when CENESEX used an image picturing both gay and heterosexual parents in a campaign about families, LGBT activists felt like a small battle was won. But a few days later, another official media outlet, Adelante Cuba, published a homophobic opinion column about the image, writing, “There has to be a fight against homophobia, but also against other demons, such as the large stimuli of homosexuality.” Cuba's future utopia and social justice movements are still under construction, and the future progress of independent bloggers and activists is uncertain. But the "luchita" is clearly ongoing.