Cholera in Cuba
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Cuba’s bloggers stir up storm

Cuba's bloggers stir up storm

November 4, 2012 – 4:15am

By The Economist The New York Times Syndicate

Six days after hurricane Sandy passed through, Santiago — Cuba's second

city, with a population of 500,000 — remained without power. Running

water was scarce in Santiago, where a cholera outbreak was reported

earlier this year, and there was a shortage of food.

More than 115,000 houses were damaged by the storm and 15,000 destroyed,

and around 30 per cent of Cuba's coffee crop was reported lost. Thanks

to a civil-defence policy that insists on evacuation, hurricanes rarely

cause large-scale loss of life in Cuba. This time 11 people died, though

that contrasted favourably with at least 52 in neighbouring Haiti.

Another difference with the past is that much of the information from

the scene came from independent, technically illegal Cuban journalists.

The first reports of serious damage and deaths came from text messages

in the city, long before state-controlled news announced the loss of

life at the end of an evening broadcast, almost 15 hours after the

hurricane struck.

Increasingly Cubans are able to gain access to such alternative news

sources, albeit indirectly. Since 2008, when President Raul Castro first

allowed Cubans to buy mobile telephones, their number has sextupled, to

1.8 million. Internet access from mobile telephones still is not

allowed, but users can broadcast text messages via Twitter. Internet

connections at home are generally banned, but resourceful Cubans get

around this by buying passwords from those, such as doctors and

academics, who are allowed access.

All this means that Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's best-known blogger, has come

to be seen by the authorities as the island's most problematic

dissident. A new law announced last month will scrap a hated requirement

for exit permits, but it also contains a clause allowing the government

to continue to deny permission to travel abroad to anyone who seeks to

undermine Cuba's communist political system. It is widely assumed to

have been drafted with Sanchez in mind.

Another recent reminder of the authorities' difficulty in controlling

information involved the health of Fidel Castro, Cuba's former leader,

who is 86 and had not been seen since March. Many outside commentators

were surprised when he did not send a message of congratulation to

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, his close friend and ally, on his

victory in Venezuela's election on Oct. 7. Twitter was flooded with

rumours that Castro was dead or dying.

Someone decided that Castro had to reappear. News was leaked to the

foreign press in Havana that he had visited the city's grandest hotel,

the Nacional, where he had been seen chatting with staff. The truth was

less impressive: Castro, alive but very frail, was driven to the hotel

in a wheelchair-friendly minibus, along with his wife and the visiting

former vice president of Venezuela, Elias Jaua. A photograph was

released of the group inside the vehicle, together with the hotel's

manager, a senior Communist Party member.

Two days later an article by the former president was published in state

media, ironically entitled "Fidel Castro Is Dying." In it he hit out at

the foreign press for the stories about his health and said that he felt

fine, but that Cubans would hear even less from him in the future: He

had decided that it was "definitely not my role" to take up media space

that should be devoted to more important tasks.

These presumably include combating the bloggers.

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