Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez recently completed a multi-city tour of the United States, speaking at major universities and even visiting the White House. Sánchez, who became internationally celebrated through her Generación Y blog, which won her a place on the Time magazine list of 100 most influential people in 2008, Sánchez was awarded the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department in 2011.
Yet despite being hailed overseas for her dissident activities in the blogosphere, Sánchez has little impact inside Cuba, probably because of the difficulties most Cubans still have in accessing the Internet. Instead, the overzealous western media attention to a few prominent dissidents like Sánchez tends to obscure the highly critical culture that has developed within Cuba over the last ten to 15 years.
Much of the media coverage of Sánchez presents her as a lone critical voice in a climate where the Cuban state does not tolerate dissent and where—as Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos claimed in the Time magazine piece—journalists and others cannot practice freedom of speech. While it is true that there is censorship in Cuba, and journalism has always been under the supervision of the Communist Party-controlled Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR), there is a vigorous culture of criticism and internal debate in Cuba. But often, because many artists, journalists, and activists are not calling for the downfall of the government, they tend to go ignored or sidelined within western media coverage.
Digital filmmaking has been one way for young Cuban filmmakers to develop a new skills in investigative journalism, often outside the structures of the state film industry and government-controlled media. Ariagna Fajardo’s 2009 independent film “Where Are We Going?” looked at the massive exodus of farmers from the Sierra Maestra mountains due to an absence of opportunities for them to making a living. Armando Capo explored the resignation to daily life in his film “Inertia,” released in 2008.
At the Young Directors festival held in Havana earlier this month, Marcelo Martín premiered his new film, “Elena,” about the collapsing old residential buildings in Central Havana. Martín conducted interviews with workers and residents who show him their deteriorated homes—plagued by leaks and contaminated with raw sewerage from broken pipes. One older resident walked on blocks throughout his house to avoid stepping in sewerage, and after undergoing major surgery he slept on a park bench while recuperating.
The brigades sent to repair the homes left their work unfinished. The filmmaker calls the vice president of Popular Power to ask when the homes will be fixed, and she lies and tells him the work will resume on Monday. He closes the film with a snapshot: nearly half of the housing stock in Central Havana is in bad shape, and two hundred and thirty buildings in the neighborhood collapse every year.
This kind of investigative journalism–exposing official lies publicly and presenting the realities of people’s lives–has found fertile ground among young documentary filmmakers, but it often runs up against the problem of financing and dissemination. Crowdsourcing abroad has been one solution for funding. The US non-profit organization Americas Media Initiative has been crucial in selling the films in the US and organizing university tours for the filmmakers. Films are also copied onto flashdrives and then passed hand to hand.
Afro-Cuban activists form another key critical movement within Cuba focusing on racial discrimination. The issue became hotly debated after Casa de las Americas publishing house editor Roberto Zurbano was demoted for including the institution in his byline for a recent New York Times op-ed piece on racism in Cuba that was given a controversial title by the editors: “For Blacks in Cuba, The Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” (Zurbano says that his original title read: “Not Yet Finished.”)
Among the flurry of articles from the United States and Cuba about the article and its outcomes, the newly-created Havana-based organization Regional Afro-Descendent Articulation of Latin America (ARAC) defended Zurbano’s critique of racism in Cuba, saying that the black population suffers overwhelmingly from poverty and a lack of social mobility.
In response to those who objected to his talking about racism in Cuba, Zurbano affirmed the “emerging and heterogenous spaces of people, organizations, and alternative media that are taking on the present and future of the country.” The media culture at large should follow Zurbano’s example.
Sujatha Fernandes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center and author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. She was a guest on “Melissa Harris-Perry” on April 14. See the video from that discussion below.