The United States used to transmit information to Cuban citizens via a red-lettered billboard. Passersby could see the billboard through the windows of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which was the closest thing America had to an embassy. Cuba can be a startlingly disconnected place, thanks in large part to its state-controlled media and limited access to the Internet. The billboard offered messages that ordinary Cubans might not otherwise see, from bits of news to political statements like, “In a free country you don’t need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?” The Cuban government was not amused. Havana tried to obscure the messages by planting dozens of black flags in front of the building. The resulting scene was both menacing and funereal.
In 2008, a Cuban friend and I were taking a walk. We tried to read the messages that were partially hidden by the flags. I thought I saw something about O. J. Simpson, who was sentenced that year. My Cuban friend, looking confused, asked me, “Who’s O. J. Simpson?”
Florida, only ninety miles from Cuba, felt light years away. I did see other Americans in Havana, despite the embargo. There were groups who came to learn about Cuban art and culture. I met a young woman who was visiting family. Other Americans would violate the embargo to seek beaches or adventure, sneaking back into the U.S. via Canada or Mexico. These American travelers, who provided much-needed revenue for hotels and restaurants, were welcome in Cuba, even given VIP treatment.
As an American writer, however, I felt uneasy in Havana. (I had served in government, but never traveled to Cuba during that time). I kept waiting for the ax to fall. This was largely because I was hanging out with Cubans who were under surveillance. My book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, profiles the Cuban bloggers who took great personal risks to tell stories that didn’t appear in the state-controlled media. A couple of them had spent time in jail. They talked to me because they wanted their stories to be heard by the world, as international visibility gave them some degree of protection.
I was an American journalist and researcher, and as such, my visits to Cuba were not prohibited by U.S. law. The worst that could have happened, in theory, would have been Cuban authorities telling me to leave and never come back. This fate had befallen Ted Henken, an academic who went to Havana to interview bloggers and entrepreneurs. Yet the embargo—and the five decades of mutual suspicion that surrounded it—added an additional layer of uncertainty. The larger danger was that Havana would mistake my book research for a far more subversive activity. Internet dissent and the spread of communication more generally were highly sensitive topics—a direct result of Cuban paranoia combined with actual U.S. attempts to penetrate Havana’s control over information. Exhibit A: The battle between the billboard and the flags. Exhibit B: the imprisonment of Alan Gross, a U.S. government contractor who was jailed for distributing communications equipment. And Exhibit C (which emerged later): the social network known as Zunzuneo, an ill-fated, U.S.-funded attempt to spread information in Cuba.
Now that U.S. and Cuba are re-establishing diplomatic relations, decades of mistrust will not evaporate overnight. Nor will this development necessarily lead to the free flow of information in Havana. The Internet is expensive and largely unavailable to many of Cubans. Up to now it has been easy for Cuban authorities to blame U.S. restrictions for its low Internet connectivity, but the Cuban government appears wary of the Internet’s potential to spread ideas not sanctioned by the state. The Web is also a powerful platform for ordinary citizens to voice their complaints and build networks around the world.
Hopefully the new diplomatic thaw will bring a more open Cuba whose leaders have less reason to worry about foreign attempts to challenge their control over information. Only then will Havana become a friendlier place for American writers.
Emily Parker is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground, which explores how citizens are using the Internet and social media to challenge authority in China, Cuba and Russia. Parker is the digital diplomacy advisor and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. She was previously a member of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning staff at the State Department, and is also a former editor at The New York Times and a writer at The Wall Street Journal.