On Friday, March 15th, CLACS hosted the opening session of The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba conference in conjunction with The New School. The three-day conference brought together leading bloggers, writers, artists and scholars from Cuba and the U.S. to examine the rise of communication technology and social media in Cuba, which have given voice to a changing social and political atmosphere. Despite the government’s control of media and the Internet, Cubans have found ways to embrace blogs, websites, Twitter and other forms of digital communication, forging a new space to correspond with one another and the international community. Organizers of the conference, Jill Lane, Director of CLACS and Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Latin American Studies at NYU, and Coco Fusco, Director of Intermedia Initiatives and Associate Professor of Fine Arts at The New School, opened the conference on Friday evening, introducing widely regarded leader of Cuba’s digital movement and keynote speaker, Yoani Sánchez.
Yoani began her talk with a powerful example of the impact of digital communication on physical life in Cuba. She explained that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy the eastern part of Cuba awoke devastated by the storm, so Cuban bloggers, writers and independent journalists solicited help through Twitter. Quickly thereafter, donations began arriving. Even without internet access Cubans received the message and hurried to help; one Cuban woman brought half of her monthly ration of rice. The virtual and the physical world had united, achieving a moment in which Yoani felt the force of their digital voices.
Yoani shared that technology will not bring democracy directly to Cuba, but asserted that it will prove essential in achieving it. Virtual communication impacts Cubans’ changing opinions and will lead to a more inclusive country because it allows them to hear a myriad of voices rather than just official propaganda. For example, Yoani expounded the way in which for decades it required loyalty to the regime to create a disc, a video or art, but now technology allows Cubans to do so in their homes, make copies and share through flash drives across the island.
Cuba still has only one official press as Yoani pointed out, but technology has fomented a changing environment in which she assured that now “an appetite for information exists.” Cubans have begun to seek out information and in the process are learning more about themselves. Technology increases solidarity on the island and improves international visibility, which means that Cubans digest the actions of the State alongside “thousands of eyes watching” worldwide. Thus according to Yoani, Cuba is changing. Not due to Raúl Castro’s reforms or the will of the Cuban government, but rather Cuba is changing because Cubans are changing and accepting more discourse against the State.
Yoani ended by explaining that change must ultimately come from within Cuba, which the cyber sphere has begun to facilitate. Technology and the help of the international community will ensure that change continues. Although Yoani claimed not to represent all of Cuba or provide the voice for all Cubans, she embraces the ability to speak against repression, interpret events and present the reality in her country. Understanding the great significance of Yoani’s work at the forefront of the digital movement in Cuba, I felt moved by her strong resolve to encourage a more inclusive environment for expression. Many audience members in the packed auditorium also seemed grateful for her commitment as they showered her with applause and questions. Invaluable voice of the social media movement, Yoani Sánchez proved charismatic, articulate and insightful as she offered an exciting kick-off to the conference.
Anna Hillary is an MA candidate in the International Education program at NYU, and is currently enrolled in the CLACS Interdisciplinary Seminar: “What’s Left of Cuba? Culture, Politics, and Civil Society.”