Cholera in Cuba
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As Hurricane Sandy devastates Cuba, bloggers rise to the challenge

As Hurricane Sandy devastates Cuba, bloggers rise to the challenge

Posted by Max Fisher on October 29, 2012 at 10:31 am

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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