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Cuba, bloggers and the internet wars: a review of Antony Loewenstein’s `The Blogging Revolution'

By Tim Anderson

Antony Loewenstein is confused. Flushed with the success of his first book, My Israel Question, he has ventured into the wider world of global politics and has stumbled.

His first book presented the perspective of a young Australian Jew, reflecting critically on Israel. His second book, The Blogging Revolution, attempts a wider analysis of the cyber-media and democracy, by reference to six countries: Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China.

For those of us who sense that we live in a propaganda age, linked to war and ideological domination, this choice of countries should ring warning bells. China remains the subject of a broad US strategy of ``containment’’ and the US State Department maintains Cuba, Iran and Syria are ``state sponsors of terrorism’’.[1] All six countries are amongst the fifteen listed by the US government funded group Reporters without Borders (RSF) as ``enemies of the internet’’.

The Bush administration, in turn, has trumpeted these RSF ``findings’’ in support of its campaigns to de-legitimise regimes and, at the right moment, overthrow them. In its efforts to create a ``new American century’’ the US administration has focused heavily on domination of communications systems and the ``embedding’’ of mass media, in attempts to attach moral legitimacy to their appalling interventions.

In 2005, US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld said that the Pentagon was going to use the internet “as if it were a weapon of war”.[2] A recent minor war in Lebanon revolved around the US-backed Lebanese government efforts to seize Hezbollah’s communications centres.[3] US concern for absolute surveillance of the internet has seen it develop Operation Echelon which, for two decades, has intercepted most telephonic and digital communications in the world.[4] And having blocked Cuba’s internet fibre-optic cable access for many years, the US now criticises it for denying widespread internet access.[5]

There is little hint of such geopolitics in Antony’s book which, on the contrary, shadows RSF’s ``Enemies of the Internet’’ campaign, and their Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents, and adopts much of that ideological baggage. His focus is on the heroic individual blogger, as a force of participatory democracy to change the world.

This is a ``third way’’ approach to cyber-media and democracy, with many of the contradictions of other such ``third’’ ways. On the one hand, he reviles the media monopolies and says he wants to “challenge the western-centric perspectives of the mainstream media and its elite” (p. 211). On the other hand, he admires the “reach” and diversity of the US media and argues “our role should be to engage individuals from across the political spectrum who believe in open debate”. His ``blogging revolution’’ thus seeks to “unite” otherwise marginalised and repressed individual voices, as beacons of hope. No mention of the differing interests and politics of these bloggers. No mention of organised resistance. The perspective is standard Western individualism, tagged as cross-cultural “revolution”.

As if to highlight the dilemma, Antony opens his book with an admission that he was “transfixed” by the rhetoric of US President George W. Bush on media freedom. While he considers himself of the ``left’’, he found Bush “perversely enjoyable … Bush’s words resonated with me” (pp. 1-2). And so he resolves to venture out (with an advance from his publisher) in search of solidarity with bloggers in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China.

Putting aside the political perspective, could this not be an interesting exercise in journalistic tourism? What about the simple experiences of bloggers in different cultures? But Antony claims a lot more than this, and his method is not up to it.

The principal basis for his assertions on the internet and general politics of each country is that he spent a week or two in each of these six countries. Yet it seems he barely speaks a word of any of the relevant languages (Persian, Arabic, Spanish and Chinese). He reads the English press in each country, speaks to a few English-speaking bloggers and select contacts, complains about some government officials’ lack of English (p.143), then relies on English-language (mostly US) journalistic sources.

I will comment more on his chapter on Cuba, as it is the only one of these countries I know, having travelled there five times in the past decade, using the internet on each occasion. I maintain email contact with about forty people in Cuba.

Antony begins his Cuba chapter with the assertion that famous novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, because they have expressed strong admiration for Fidel Castro, are “either deluding themselves or lying” (p. 141). No evidence precedes this striking judgement. In the following two pages his references are to President George Bush, a remark by a UN official (who appears not to have visited Cuba) and his own experience with Cuban officials. This direct contact with the ``repressive regime’’ is the one light moment in a chapter that relies mostly on encounters with a few of the famous Cuban ``dissidents’’.

Having been informed by a US journalist that the Cubans had “tightened the screws on gaining information from sources”, Antony finds himself interrogated “in a windowless room” at his hotel by immigration officials. In the event they “seem[ed] friendly enough”, he says he is just a tourist, and they leave (p. 143).

The background to this official scrutiny is not made clear, but the chapter helps explain it. Antony was in the country not as a tourist but as a journalist.[6] Further, he was in Cuba to interview a group of self-titled ``independent journalists’’, who do not work as journalists in Cuba but are paid by Miami-based groups. In 2003, several of these people were charged and convicted of collaborating with the US to overthrow the Cuban constitution.

Antony notes that several had been jailed but does not explain the charges. It is not clear if he does not know or does not care. However Elizardo Sanchez had been closely linked to the late Jorge Mas Canosa[7] and had received payments from Miami organisations funded under US government programs set up to overthrow the Cuban constitution.[8] Similarly, Oscar Espinosa Chepe had been jailed (and released after 18 months) for receiving payments from the US. He was arrested with $13,000, but receipts proved $7000 in payments over 2002-03 from those same Miami-based organisations.[9]

Antony was not alone in ignoring such details, and accepting the ``dissidents’’ denials at face value. The US-based Human Rights Watch and Amnesty USA (whose members are banned under US law from visiting Cuba) also supported the jailed ``dissidents’’. However this is an example of the ``western-centric perspective’’ Antony purports to reject. Certainly the US and Australia would arrest any person paid by organisations which specifically aimed to overthrow their constitution.

What of the internet in Cuba? This was supposedly the subject of the chapter. Well on my anecdotal experience, since the year 2000, internet access is slow and expensive, except in workplaces where it is slow and free. The satellite connections have sped it up a little, between 2000 and 2008, but not by much. Home computer and internet usage rates are very low, but almost all professionals and all the university students I have spoken to in recent years have internet access at work or at college.

As Antony correctly notes, the US economic blockade of Cuba is the main bottleneck on access and bandwidth. The debate is really over how much more the government might be restricting access, or blocking sites. Antony produces no evidence on this, just hearsay assertion. I have not personally experienced any limits, either from hotel internet, public internet cafes or when using a computer at a workplace, and I have looked up the US State Department and the Miami-based groups, from many Havana-based computers. My first port of call on a computer is always Google and Google News, and I have had no problems in accessing these sites.

My experience does not mean no restrictions exist but, where they exist, we need to consider whether these are for reasons of bandwidth or of censorship. Indeed, in Australia, there is a wide range of internet restrictions in workplaces, to stop such practices as music downloading and Facebook timewasters clogging up the lines. Students in Cuba do not seem to be able to access YouTube, but this seems to be bandwidth problem.

Any serious analyst (as opposed to a lazy journalist) must look beyond anecdotes and hearsay to the broader evidence. What is the available evidence? On the UN figures, which Antony quotes, internet usage in Cuba seems very low – around 2% by the 2007-08 Human Development Report. However the UNDP acknowledges that these figures “can be misleading owing to multiple prepaid internet accounts, free internet access accounts or public internet access such as internet cafes”.[10] That is, what has been measured is personal access.

However, Cuba is a socialist country, shared facilities are given priority, and measures which relate to individual benefits do not always fit. There are more than ten times the number of computers in workplaces (79,636 in 2006) than in private houses (7402 in 2006) and there are youth centres with free computer access (600 in 2006).[11] Internet café costs range from $1 to $6 per hour but a number of libraries also provide free internet access.[12] About one third of people have some access to computers (34% in rural areas and 37% in urban areas)[13] -- mainly through workplaces, schools and colleges -- and an increasing number of these are being connected to the internet. Most professionals seem to have access and Cuba has five times Latin America’s rate of professionals. Cuba estimated the number of people with access to email as 360,000 in 2002, 790,00 in 2004 and 990,000 in 2006.[14] That would put over 10% of the Cuban population on email today.

Based on this data, I would estimate that, while only around 2% of Cubans have personal or home access, those with access through schools, libraries and workplaces seems to be about five times this. The notion, then, put out by the US government and echoed by Antony, that the Cuban government is denying internet access to Cubans (the most highly educated population in Latin America) to shield them from the world is simply baseless. The central problem is bandwidth or capacity and, given the US blockade, this will not be solved until the fibre-optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba is laid, in late 2009 or early 2010.[15]

Antony incorrectly attributes the use of an intranet in Cuba to measures of censorship. In fact it is a bandwidth measure. To take pressure off satellite internet capacity, those accessing Cuban sites (including the excellent health site at can do so by intranet as well as by internet. A few years ago there was also a cheaper email service with no web access, but this too was a bandwidth measure.

None of this is to say that there is no censorship in Cuba. But journalists should cite proper evidence to back their claims. The most obvious and visible forms of censorship come from the US, and one of these receives brief attention in Antony’s chapter. He notes that Google Earth has been “made inaccessible by Google itself and apparently not by the [Cuban] authorities” (160). Indeed, access to Google Earth is not just blocked to Cubans; US law blocks access to residents of Syria, Iran and other countries.[16]

Further, a number of US-based companies, including McAffee, under US law, block browsers from Cuban-identified servers. The US government has even closed down third-party websites which advertise travel to Cuba. Steve Marshall, a British resident in Spain and with no operations in the US, complained that his travel agency sites have been blacklisted by the US Treasury for their commercial links with Cuba.[17]

Antony’s ignorance of Cuba is extensive. There would be little wrong with this if he did not pretend to know so much. For example he adopts the US media line that Raul Castro is less ``dogmatic’’ than his older brother, because Cuban state television showed “the acclaimed [US] gay cowboy film Brokeback Mountain” in 2008. He seems to have missed the fact that the Cuban state funded the famous Cuban gay film Strawberries and Chocolate in 1992.

He repeats recent US media claims that Cubans are ``finally’’ able to stay in Cuba’s tourist hotels. Not so. They are now able to pay in hard currency for this privilege. For several years Cuban companies and workplaces have been sending their workers to tourist hotels, in the off season, when they are not filled with tourists. The Cubans pay nothing, or much lower rates. It is a fringe benefit of employment. A three-star hotel I stayed in at Varadero in 2005 was half full of Cubans, on such a plan.

Antony’s assertions on Cuba, if they are read, will add reassuringly to the cloud of misinformation actively promoted, in corporate media monopolies, which oppose any system which rejects privatisation. This is hardly subversion of the ``western-centric’’ view of the world, as he claims.

He quotes the anti-Cuban ``dissidents’’ and Miami-linked bloggers. Yet for good critical yet pro-socialist blogs on Cuba the reader is advised visit Circles Robinson’s site [18] or/and the I Am My Own Reporter website, set up by Glen Roberts.[19] The latter, a self-confessed ``political tourist’’, speaks Spanish and has been visiting Cuba for 20 years. Glen has some pertinent advice:

“I don't advise you to go to Cuba at all if you don't speak Spanish, haven't seen enough of the horrors of the Third World to realize you're not seeing them in Cuba, and haven't got enough sense to know when you're being conned by a hustler who tells you what he thinks Americans want to hear hoping you'll adopt him for a week.”

Discerning readers will recognise that analysis of any of these countries by one brief visit and compilation of mainly US media reports has some limitations. When Antony speaks of ``self-determination’’ and rejecting ``western-centric’’ views he has got some of the lyrics right; but with the baggage he brings to the exercise he isn’t ``singing the song’’.

[1] US Dept of State (2008) State Sponsors of Terrorism, -- The main complaint against Cuba here was that it “actively continued to oppose prosecution of the global war on terror and has publicly condemned it”.

[2] NotiCen (2006) ‘Cuba criticised for limiting internet access, but US denies hookup’, All Business, 22 June,

[3] Robert Fox (2008) ‘Hezbollah takes West Beirut: what now?’, The First Post, May 9,,opinion,hezbollah-takes-west-beirut-what-now

[4] See European Parliament (2001) ‘Report on the existence of a global system for the interception of private and commercial communications (ECHELON interception system)’, 11 July, A5-0264/2001

[5] Dan Fisk (2008) ‘Ask the White House’, May 22,

[6] Had he been working in the US on a tourist visa he would have been deported, like Australian journalists Molly Meldrum and Sue Smethurst.

[7] Jorge Mas Canos was one of the principal US government-backed, Miami-based terrorists who had strongly supported the infamous bomber Luis Posada Carriles and in turn linked to the bombings of Havana and of tourist hotels in Cuba in the mid-1990s.

[8] Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luis Baez (2003) Los Dissidentes, Editora Política, La Habana, pp.204-5

[9] Fox News/Associated Press (2003) ``U.S. Aid to Cuban Dissidents May Do More Harm Than Good’’, April 13,,2933,84057,00.html; see also MINREX (2003) ``Cuba and its defence of all human rights for all’’,

[10] UNDP (2003) ``Indicators for Monitoring the MDGs’’, United Nations, New York, p.92

[11] Oficina Nacional de Estadísticas (2006) ``Tecnologias de la Información y las Comunicaciones: series'',

[12] Personal observations and interviews with university students, most recently November 2007

[13] ONE (2007) ``Tecnologias de la Información y las Comunicaciones: Uso y Acceso en Cuba’’, marzo,

[14] ONE (2006) ``Tecnologias de la Información y las Comunicaciones: Indicadores Fisicos de las TIC’’, Anuario Estadistico de Cuba 2006, XVII.4

[15] Prensa Latina (2008) ``Venezuela-Cuba underwater cable;’, June 9,{C447663B-8F29-472E-8B50-882796C0DA24})&language=EN  

[16] Amaury E. del Valle (2008) ``Los dos caras de Google’’, Juventud Rebelde, 26 de junio

[17] Granma (2008) ``USA Government closes down European web sites promoting tourism to Cuba’’, May 12,

[Tim Anderson is a senior lecturer in political economy at Sydney University. He recently made Doctors of Tomorrow, a film about Cuba's assistance to train doctors in Timor Leste.]

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See also:

Cuba, the internet and Reporters without Borders

By Salim Lamrani

Friends of Cuba (Australia)

Granma International (news from Cuba)

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