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Page last updated at 13:46 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 14:46 UK

Cuba bloggers test government limits

By George Ballantine
BBC Monitoring

Generacion Y homepage
Generacion Y homepage

Cuba's dynamic emerging blogging community has recently been testing the limits of free expression with posts ranging from vivid accounts of everyday life to sometimes risky calls for political change in the Communist-run state.

Bloggers - many of whom were born after the 1959 revolution - are trying to move debate away from the established official doctrine to exploring social and economic issues.

Most still avoid direct criticism of the government, for fear of provoking a crackdown on the country's growing internet.

However, the government's present tolerance could change, as an increasing number of bloggers are beginning to condemn the harassment of independent writers and are demanding structural reforms.

'New space'

The New-York based media watchdog Commitee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a report published in mid-September welcomed the "surprisingly vibrant blogosphere" that has recently sprung to life in Cuba.

"The bloggers, mainly young adults from a variety of professions, have opened a new space for free expression, while offering a fresh glimmer of hope for the rebirth of independent ideas in the country's closed system," the CPJ said.

Manuel Vazquez Portal, a Cuba-based award-winning journalist and dissident, says he can see a "strong connection and notable differences" between the independent press movement of his generation and the new blogging community.

"The emerging Cuban blogosphere has established itself as distinct from both the government and the dissident movement," Mr Portal told CPJ.

The emergence of independent bloggers is "evidence of a generation shift, a sign that even a country as isolated as Cuba is slowly moving into the 21st Century," Daniel Erikson, an expert at the Washington-based organisation Inter-American Dialogue said recently on US-based thedialogue.org.

Laritza Diversent, a lawyer from Havana, says she and her fellow bloggers were part of the post-revolutionary youth.

"We were brought up after the fall of Soviet socialism, a generation that is unbound by the political considerations of the past. For us, blogging is saying and writing what we think," she has said in her blog, which is written in Spanish, Las Leyes de Laritza (Laritza's Laws) .

Only about 2.1% of Cubans have regular access to the global internet and 11.5% to the Cuban intranet, according to the Washington-based democracy and human rights organisation Freedom House.

"Bloggers can go online at government-owned internet cafes, at universities and hotels," it says.

In recent weeks, the Cuban authorities have authorised the Post Office to install internet connections in its branches, BBC Mundo's Havana correspondent Fernando Ravsberg reports.

The cost of accessing the internet remains high for the majority of Cubans, he adds.

Defying control

The majority of bloggers do not openly criticise the government, believing this is the best way to avoid surveillance and persecution.

Yoani Sanchez, whose Spanish-language blog Generation Y was named one of the 25 best blogs in the world in 2009 by Time magazine, said that openness can disarm government efforts at harassment.

"My friends think I am taking a huge risk with my blog. But I think this is my way of pushing back against the system, if only a little bit," Ms Sanchez says.

But even using this strategy, Generation Y has been blocked on many occasions, and Ms Sanchez has been refused exit visas to both Germany and Spain to receive journalistic awards.

Over the last few months, the Cuban blogging community has become bolder in its attitude towards the state, demanding greater civil liberties and criticising government policies.

On the Octavo Cerco website, journalist Claudia Cadelo has been active in advocating radical political change, including the "resignation of the president of the Council of State and the entire National Assembly, multi-party elections and overhaul of the security forces".

And Miriam Celaya, author of the Sin Evasion blog , has called the Communist Party's Central Committee an "old machine" that cannot be fixed", and said Cubans were experiencing "ideology fatigue".

The Cuban government has shown little tolerance of critical opinion in the past. It still holds 22 people in prison for the "crime" of free expression.

So far however, the government has not clamped down on independent bloggers. Unlike China for example, Cuba has no sophisticated systems of internet control and censorship.

The reason for this, according to Daniel Erikson, is a lack of understanding of the blogging phenomenon.

"I suspect there is a generational disconnection between the activities of Raul Castro and Yoani Sanchez," Mr Erikson says.

Moreover, "independent Cuban blogs are not being used as tools to mobilise people for political action", he adds.

But with the country in the middle of an economic recession, writing about food shortages, healthcare or publishing critical political views could test the limits of government tolerance.

"If bloggers start opposing the government more directly, their risks will certainly increase," Mr Erikson predicts.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.



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