Cuba's Digital Millennials: Independent Digital Media and Civil Society on the Island of the Disconnected
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Cuba's Digital Millennials:
Independent Digital Media and Civil Society on the Island of the Disconnected

despite having one of the western hemisphere's lowest internet access rates, Cubans—with help from a diverse and extensive diaspora—have in recent years formed a rich variety of independent digital news, information, and entertainment projects, contributing to the expansion of the public sphere on the island. This effort, however, takes place in an asphyxiating climate of political polarization, where independent journalists must continue to struggle against the US embargo on the one hand and the Cuban government media monopoly on the other. Here I chronicle the efforts of a group of these autonomous digital media projects1 to establish and maintain their hard-won digital spaces and at times to convert them into more tangible, public spaces, and thereby to impact Cuban civil society.

Moreover, given that the digital sphere—much like the Cuban nation—is inherently transnational, I also include a number of diasporic media ventures as part of the same Cuban "indie" media phenomenon. While some of these projects began as personal blogs, many have consciously embraced the challenge of informing the Cuban public in a more systematic, coordinated, collaborative, and entrepreneurial way, targeting the demand for reliable and objective [End Page 429] reportage unmet by the propagandistic state media. Cuba's independent digital press has also been affected by the historic announcement in December 2014 that Cuba and the US would reestablish diplomatic relations and begin to "normalize" their acrimonious relationship.

Though distinct from one another in their politics and positioning vis-à-vis the Cuban Revolution and the US embargo, all media profiled here share a common multifront struggle to establish their legitimacy in Cuba's polarized and contested public sphere, maintain a degree of autonomy while preserving their access to the Internet, and become increasingly visible and accessible to the public while engaging in civil, productive debate over national issues. Given this context, I analyze the various branches of Cuba's independent media ecosystem based on the findings of my research, which included interviews with many leading Cuban bloggers and independent journalists, close readings of their articles and websites, and a questionnaire circulated among the directors of more than 30 of Cuba's most prominent digital media projects.2

EXPANDING INTERNET ACCESS AND CUBANS' INVENTOS DIGITALES

While political censorship, high costs, slow speeds, and limited access continue to characterize the Cuban Internet, in recent years Cuba has seen transformations both in public web access via cybercafés and Wi-Fi hotspots, and in the ever-inventive workarounds that Cubans themselves have designed to produce and distribute digital content. These developments began with an increase in the number and diversity of Cuba's independent bloggers starting in 2004, followed by the subsequent growth of collective projects of citizen journalism since 2008. These phenomena have been fueled by the opening of Cuba's first public-access Internet cafés in June 2013, the possibility of accessing e-mail via cell phone for the first time in 2014, the establishment of 35 public Wi-Fi hotspots across the island in the summer of 2015, and the simultaneous spread across the island of "el paquete" (the packet), an informal digital data distribution system (Del Valle 2013). [End Page 430] The continued expansion of the Wi-Fi hotspot plan, which reached 200 hotspots in September 2016, and the launch by Etecsa (the state telecom monopoly) of a pilot program to allow home Internet access for the first time to 2,000 customers in Old Havana in late-2016, along with its plans to offer Internet access via cellphone to paying customers for the first time in 2017, are bound to facilitate the growth and social impact of Cuba's independent media (Rodríguez Martinto 2016).

The most recent official Cuban statistics indicate that 34.8 percent of the island's population had access to the Internet in 2015 (ONE 2016). This is nearly 20 points higher than the 15.9 percent that the government's own statistics office reported for 2010. The jump is partly the result of a drop in hourly connection rates from $4.50 to $2...