Saturday, December 20, 2014

Do Cubans Really Want US-Style Internet Freedom?

Do Cubans Really Want U.S.-Style Internet Freedom?

The Cuban alternative to broadband Internet has created innovative networks for consuming and sharing information, standing in contrast to the U.S. corporate-driven Internet.
Sujatha Fernandes and Alexandra Halkin
"Computer studies is the science of the future," classroom in eastern Cuba (Paul Keller / Creative Commons)
"Computer studies is the science of the future," classroom in eastern Cuba (Paul Keller / Creative Commons)

This past Wednesday, President Barack Obama made a historic announcement about the normalization of relations with Cuba. Although there had been rumors floating around the streets of Havana, most people on both sides of the Florida Straits were taken by surprise at the new policy toward Cuba, which would reestablish diplomatic relations, review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, and increase travel and commerce between the countries.
There was jubilation and celebration from many who had long awaited this decision. There was condemnation by hard-liners in the government who saw the decision as a concession to the Castro government. And there was much speculation. Would this mean McDonalds, Walmarts, and unbridled capitalism for Cuba? What would be the fate of American political prisoners like Assata Shakur who are protected by the Cuban government? When would you be able to plan your next vacation to the island?
One of the issues that has been at the heart of these debates has been the use of the Internet by ordinary Cuban citizens. Currently, only those with government jobs enjoy legal access to the Internet. In his announcement, Obama pledged to increase telecommunications connections between the countries, and under the new regulations, American telecom providers are permitted to provide Internet infrastructure and services to Cuba. Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the American agency USAID who was released Wednesday on humanitarian grounds, had been arrested for bringing non-licensed equipment to set up WiFi Internet access on the island. And much has been made of the Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez who has been celebrated abroad for her clandestine use of social media to portray life in Cuba.
Open access to the Internet is generally equated with freedom. If more USAID contractors like Gross could be bringing the Internet to Cuba, the argument goes, then there would be greater individual freedoms. But do Cubans really want Internet freedoms if they are provided by the United States? Although Obama has pledged offers of Internet technology, Cubans are likely to be suspicious. Given the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the United States using the Internet to spy on its citizens, it is unlikely that Cubans will feel comfortable entrusting their everyday browsing with an Internet management infrastructure whose history demonstrates a complete disregard for privacy protections.
Others wonder if the Cuban government would allow its citizens to have such free access to information through social media and the web. What may be surprising to learn is that many already do. It’s not just through the informal market in underground Internet connectivity that Cubans are able to access a slow and unreliable Internet. But for the past year, through a phenomenon known as “El Paquete Semanal,” or “The Weekly Package,” Cubans have created an alternative to broadband Internet.    
The Package is one tera (or a thousand gigabytes) worth of material that is downloaded weekly by people with access to high-speed Internet. It is not known who they are or where they get this access, but some speculate that it must be under government radar or the whole production would have been shut down. The Package is distributed throughout the island via the informal economy, from the urban enclaves of Havana to the mountains of Guantánamo. The package is an eclectic collection of Hollywood films, Cuban films, Youtube clips, Spanish language news websites, illegal classified listings, computer technology websites, Japanese anime, instructional videos, music videos, and much more. Cubans are able to watch American television series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. The Package also includes advertisements for some of the new local Cuban businesses such as restaurants, English classes, and health spas. Most people don’t get the entire Package, but just request certain categories.
There is an entire new sphere of employment that has resulted from the Package, an informal sector network of neighborhood distributors, armed with large hard drives, who sell parts of the Package for as low as one convertible peso, equal to about one U.S. dollar. No one knows exactly how the Package got started and there are myths that it was one person who now has an entire network of tech workers in charge of preparing one of the sections each week. In an interview with the online magazine, Contemporánea Cubaone of the workers explains how he puts the music and video section together and the difficulty of getting Cuban material: “I get it here and there, you know, trying to get the greatest possible variety...It's hard, but I do it. So you see that we have videos and music from almost all of Cuba’s leading artists, salsa, electronic music, hip hop...Even Omara Portuondo!”
There is certainly a level of control exercised by those who make the selections. But there is also a strong feedback loop, with a built-in system for users to ask why certain items are not included, and to make requests for others. A local distributor in the suburb of Vedado said that TV series and soap operas are most popular along with music and the illegal classifieds. There are films from small and distant parts of the globe. One cultural critic writes that recently, independent films from the remote Polynesian island of Niue have become popular. People also seem to like the category “Interesting Variety,” which is a collection of all kinds of things from jokes to fashion tips to healthy recipes.
For all the talk about bringing Internet freedoms to Cuba, could it be that Cubans have themselves created an alternative to the corporate-driven World Wide Web by coming up with their own alternative networks for consuming and sharing information? In contrast torecent depictions of Cuba as a technological backwater, frozen in time, deprivation has yet again spurred Cubans to new creative heights. When considering the enormous opportunities that will be created by Obama’s announcement of historic policies, it will be important to keep in mind what Cubans want and need—and not what we think they do.

Sujatha Fernandes teaches Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of several books including Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, 2006), and, most recently, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation (Verso, 2011).
Alexandra Halkin is a documentary filmmaker and the Director of Americas Media Initiative (, a non-profit organization that works with Cuban filmmakers living in Cuba.  She is also a Guggenheim and Fulbright fellow and the producer of a number of award winning short documentaries made in Mexico.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why USAID Could Never Spark a Hip Hop Revolution in Cuba

Why USAID Could Never Spark a Hip Hop Revolution in Cuba

Any attempt to engineer a U.S.-affiliated movement from above is destined to be revealed for the farce that it is.
Sujatha Fernandes
Cuban Hip Hop group Los Aldeanos (Creative Commons/ Oriana Eliçabe)
Cuban Hip Hop group Los Aldeanos (Creative Commons/ Oriana Eliçabe

Between 2006 and 2007, I received numerous visits from two State Department officials at my home in Harlem, New York. I had just written a book on Cuban cultural production, with a large section on rap. I was never home when they came, so they left messages with my neighbors, telling them I should urgently contact them. When they finally found me at home one day, I agreed to meet with them at a nearby Starbucks. During the meeting, they wanted to know about my research on Cuban rap. One of the agents, a male, said that he enjoyed Cuban rap, he listened to it frequently and wanted to know what my favorite groups were. The other, a woman, pressed me for more details about my work in Cuba. I didn’t give out any information. I told them that anything I could say on the topic was already written in my book. After this meeting, the harassment continued. I finally sought out a human rights lawyer, Michael Smith. He informed me that it is never advisable to meet with an agent of the government alone, and that if an agent should try to make contact, one should have a lawyer write to the agent on one’s behalf. Smith then sent them a letter saying that I did not wish to speak to them anymore, and that if they had any questions, they could contact him directly. We didn’t hear from them again.
So last week, when the AP news story broke about USAID infiltrating Cuban rap groupsbetween 2009 and 2010, I was not surprised. Infiltration is something that Cuban rappers have been wary of for some time. Navigating the legions of foreign journalists, producers, researchers, and artists has always been a challenge for Cuban rappers, especially during the heyday of the movement in the early 2000s, and there was sometimes a suspicion of people who didn’t enter the scene through someone known to the community. But in the latter half of the 2000s, when many rappers were emigrating and foreign contacts and state support were drying up, Cuban rappers were more vulnerable to the likes of outside actors like USAID, who sought to infiltrate the movement and manipulate it to its own ends.
But the USAID mission to “spark” a “pro-democracy” movement of Cuban rappers was bound to fail for many reasons. Cubans already had a movement. Over the last several decades, Cuban hip hoppers have built a multi-faceted movement that raises issues of racism within Cuban society, provides a channel of expression for Afro-Cuban youth, makes connections with activists and celebrated artists around the globe, and has had a long-lasting impact on Cuban cultural production. It was an organic movement built from the ground up, from the streets and the housing projects. Cuban rap is hope, and anger, and poetry, and no U.S. agency could create that.
The Cuban hip hop movement was not trying to overthrow the Castro government. Artists found ways to work within the system, while making their criticisms in veiled ways, or even openly at times. The “Hip Hop Revolución” that they talk about is one that is in dialogue with the historic Cuban revolution, and youth have been putting pressure on their leaders to live up to the promises of that revolution. Even the younger, more confrontational artists like Los Aldeanos, one of the groups that USAID tried to infiltrate, didn’t see themselves as trying to topple the government. That was never part of their agenda.
Pro-democracy means something completely different to Cuban rappers than it does to USAID. For Cuban rappers, democracy has been about a more full sense of participation and recognition within their society. It has been about being able to influence policy and express their ideas about racism, inequality, and the contradictions that free market policies have brought to an increasingly dysfunctional bureaucratic socialism. It has been about trying to rethink what revolution might mean for the next generation and how they could see that in practice. For USAID, democracy promotion means overthrowing the Cuban government and ushering in a free market regime friendly to the United States. Those two goals have never been and could never be compatible.
The documents secured by the AP reveal a frightening level of manipulation of Cuban rappers by USAID. Like with ZunZuneo, the failed Cuban twitter project also engineered by USAID, the actions of this agency put Cubans at risk of state repression and threatened a closure of the critical spaces that rappers had already built and defended. USAID realizes the power of culture to provide a powerful political voice for young people. What it doesn’t realize is that in a society shaped by successive generations of revolutionary projects, any attempt to engineer a U.S.-affiliated movement from above is destined to be revealed for the farce that it is.

Sujatha Fernandes teaches Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of several books including Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, 2006), and, most recently, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation (Verso, 2011).

Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Op-ed on Music and Storytelling in the New York Times


The Day the Music Died in Mali

  • SAVE
  • E-MAIL

EVERYONE has heard of censored songs, like Billie Holiday’s “Love for Sale,” which was banned from ABC radio in 1956 because of its prostitution theme. Most are familiar with the censorship of artists, like the Dixie Chicks, who had their music blacklisted from country music stations across the country after they criticized President George W. Bush. But banning music in its entirety?
Opinion Twitter Logo.

It has been almost nine months since Islamic militants in northern Maliannounced that they were effectively banning all music. It’s hard to imagine, in a country that produced such internationally renowned music as Ali Farka Touré’s bluesRokia Traoré’s soulful vocals and the Afro-pop traditions of Salif Keita.
The armed militants sent death threats to local musicians; many were forced into exile. Live music venues were shut down, and militants set fire to guitars and drum kits. The world famous Festival in the Desert was moved to Burkina Faso, and then postponed because of the security risk.
While French and Malian forces largely swept the militants from Timbuktu and other northern towns early this year, the region is still a battleground. Cultural venues remain shuttered. Even more musicians in the north are now leaving the country because they fear vengeful acts by the Malian Army, whom they accuse of discriminating against northern peoples. The music has not returned to what it once was.
There are many theories for the reasons behind the music ban. Some point to religious fanaticism that sees music as a distraction from single-minded devotion. Others suggest that the ban was an attempt to sabotage the economy by gutting one of Mali’s primary export industries. Perhaps the militants, who cut off the hands of thieves and whip those who drink alcohol, just wanted to terrorize people.
Regardless, the ban — like banning the air we breathe, some Malians have said — can tell us something about the nature of music itself as the essence of our social bonds and a bulwark against unfettered use of power.
Musicians are present in many of the rituals of daily life in Mali. The traditional praise singers known as griots sing and play at weddings, birth ceremonies and funerals. But their role is not just to provide background entertainment. Yacouba Sissoko, a Malian griot known for his mastery of the ngoni, a stringed instrument, and the “talking drum,” which mimics human speech, told me that the griot is a “person who creates cohesion between people, a kind of cement in Malian society.” Music is a language that communicates what we cannot always say in words; it assures us of our interconnection.
A world without music is also a world without stories. The griots have functioned as storytellers and truth-tellers within West African society for centuries. In addition to mediating disputes and acting as advisers to early rulers, griots were oral historians. They knew regional legends and family histories, and through their music those stories were passed down from one generation to the next. Like the ancient manuscripts that militants tried to burn in a Timbuktu library in January, today’s griots are repositories of history. If they lose their social function as storytellers, society loses a critical link to its past.
This is especially true in Mali, where high rates of illiteracy mean that music — rather than newspapers or books — is a prime means of sharing information. Malian hip-hop artists in particular have tried to use their music to raise awareness about social issues. The Malian rapper Amkoullel addresses education in his song “Teaching, Studies,” rapping in both French and his local dialect, Bamanan. He rails against corruption in the school system: “A place to teach should not to be confused with a place to do business,” and inequality: “Private schools, so well equipped/Public education, neglected/The poor have no choice.”
Even before the militant takeover of the north last year, Amkoullel warned of the dire situation in the country in a song called S.O.S.: “The people rage /Their dreams are being killed /They no longer know in what to believe.” He formed an association called Plus Jamais Ça, or Never Again. Other musicians have also been coming together to call for an end to the conflict. In January, the singer Fatoumata Diawara brought together more than 40 musicians in Bamako, the capital, to record a peace song that showcased the extraordinary diversity and artistry of Malian music. Addressing themselves to military leaders and politicians, the musicians sing: “We must take care now, or our children will never know the real story of our country. We might lose it.”
One thing that the events in Mali have taught us is that music matters. And the potential loss of music as a means of social bonding, as a voice of conscience and as a mode of storytelling is not just a threat in an African country where Islamic militants made music a punishable offense. We would do well to appreciate music’s power, wherever we live.
Sujatha Fernandes is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of “Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation.”

See a response to my piece by anthropologist Paul Stoller in the Huffington Post

See my previous Op-eds in the New York Times:

January 29, 2012, The Mixtape of the Revolution

August 6, 2011, "Straight Outta Havana" (Featured in the Sunday Review)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Book on Global Hip Hop Music


Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

At its rhythmic, beating heart, Close to the Edge asks whether hip hop can change the world. Hip hop—rapping, beat-making,b-boying, deejaying, graffiti—captured the imagination of the teenage Sujatha Fernandes in the 1980s, inspiring her and politicizing her along the way. Years later, armed with mc-ing skills and an urge to immerse herself in global hip hop, she embarks on a journey into street culture around the world. From the south side of Chicago to the barrios of Caracas and Havana and the sprawling periphery of Sydney, she grapples with questions of global voices and local critiques, and the rage that underlies both. An engrossing read and an exhilarating travelogue, this punchy book also asks hard questions about dispossession, racism, poverty and the quest for change through a microphone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My articles on immigrant workers in American Prospect

A look into the life of female cab drivers in New York City, the last story in a three-part series.
Dolores Benitez
A look into the life of female cab drivers in New York City, the second in a three-part series.

A look into the life of Latino construction workers in New York City, the second in a three-part series.
Sujatha Fernandes
A look into the life of Latino construction workers in New York City, the first in a three-part series.

Tom D. Wu
It’s 11 a.m. on a brisk Friday morning. In the middle of a short block of 40th Road, just off Main Street in Queens, where colorful signs stand out against the densely packed four-story buildings, a handful of Chinese delivery workers dismount from their motorbikes. The dry pavement here is a welcome sight; much of the downtown area was buried under a foot of snow earlier in the week. The men, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and puffy jackets, gather in a circle at one of the few empty parking spots.

Monday, May 6, 2013

My piece on Cuban media culture and activism

  • BlogBanner_MelissaHarrisPerry_976x100

Cuban journalists exposing injustice merit more attention

Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez is famous worldwide, but there are many other journalists within Cuba making a difference, writes Queens College professor Sujatha Fernandes.
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez is famous worldwide, but there are many other journalists within Cuba making a difference, writes Queens College professor Sujatha Fernandes. (TIAGO QUEIROZ/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez recently completed a multi-city tour of the United States, speaking at major universities and even visiting the White House. Sánchez, who became internationally celebrated through her Generación Y blog, which won her a place on the Timemagazine list of 100 most influential people in 2008, Sánchez was awarded theInternational Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department in 2011.
Yet despite being hailed overseas for her dissident activities in the blogosphere, Sánchez has little impact inside Cuba, probably because of the difficulties most Cubans still have in accessing the Internet. Instead, the overzealous western media attention to a few prominent dissidents like Sánchez tends to obscure the highly critical culture that has developed within Cuba over the last ten to 15 years.
Much of the media coverage of Sánchez presents her as a lone critical voice in a climate where the Cuban state does not tolerate dissent and where—as Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos claimed in the Time magazine piece—journalists and others cannot practice freedom of speech. While it is true that there is censorship in Cuba, and journalism has always been under the supervision of the Communist Party-controlled Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR), there is a vigorous culture of criticism and internal debate in Cuba. But often, because many artists, journalists, and activists are not calling for the downfall of the government, they tend to go ignored or sidelined within western media coverage.
Digital filmmaking has been one way for young Cuban filmmakers to develop a new skills in investigative journalism, often outside the structures of the state film industry and government-controlled media. Ariagna Fajardo’s 2009 independent film “Where Are We Going?” looked at the massive exodus of farmers from the Sierra Maestra mountains due to an absence of opportunities for them to making a living. Armando Capo explored the resignation to daily life in his film “Inertia,” released in 2008.
At the Young Directors festival held in Havana earlier this month, Marcelo Martín premiered his new film, “Elena,” about the collapsing old residential buildings in Central Havana. Martín conducted interviews with workers and residents who show him their deteriorated homes—plagued by leaks and contaminated with raw sewerage from broken pipes. One older resident walked on blocks throughout his house to avoid stepping in sewerage, and after undergoing major surgery he slept on a park bench while recuperating.
The brigades sent to repair the homes left their work unfinished. The filmmaker calls the vice president of Popular Power to ask when the homes will be fixed, and she lies and tells him the work will resume on Monday. He closes the film with a snapshot: nearly half of the housing stock in Central Havana is in bad shape, and two hundred and thirty buildings in the neighborhood collapse every year.
This kind of investigative journalism–exposing official lies publicly and presenting the realities of people’s lives–has found fertile ground among young documentary filmmakers, but it often runs up against the problem of financing and dissemination. Crowdsourcing abroad has been one solution for funding. The US non-profit organization Americas Media Initiative has been crucial in selling the films in the US and organizing university tours for the filmmakers. Films are also copied onto flashdrives and then passed hand to hand.
Afro-Cuban activists form another key critical movement within Cuba focusing on racial discrimination. The issue became hotly debated after Casa de las Americas publishing house editor Roberto Zurbano was demoted for including the institution in his byline for a recent New York Times op-ed piece on racism in Cuba that was given a controversial title by the editors: “For Blacks in Cuba, The Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” (Zurbano says that his original title read:“Not Yet Finished.”)
Among the flurry of articles from the United States and Cuba about the article and its outcomes, the newly-created Havana-based organization Regional Afro-Descendent Articulation of Latin America (ARAC) defended Zurbano’s critique of racism in Cuba, saying that the black population suffers overwhelmingly from poverty and a lack of social mobility.
In response to those who objected to his talking about racism in Cuba, Zurbano affirmed the “emerging and heterogenous spaces of people, organizations, and alternative media that are taking on the present and future of the country.” The media culture at large should follow Zurbano’s example.
Sujatha Fernandes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center and author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. She was a guest on “Melissa Harris-Perry” on April 14. See the video from that discussion below.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My interview on MSNBC about the US embargo against Cuba

  • BlogBanner_MelissaHarrisPerry_976x100

Has the US embargo against Cuba failed?

It’s only about 100 miles from the U.S., but if you’re not Jay-Z and Beyonce, you’re probably not going to visit Cuba soon. The Communist regime remains in place after 50 years under “the choke-hold of economic sanctions,” and travel restrictions, and the embargo costs the U.S. $1.2 billion every year, but nearly half of Americans support leaving it in place. America does business with other nations with long track records of human rights violations and corruption; what about Cuba makes it so controversial, and will the sanctions ever end?
On Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry, the panel took a long look at the forces that keep the embargo in place, how Cubans themselves have adapted to life under these restrictions, and how the prison at Guantanamo Bay damages American credibility during arguments about Cuba’s political prisoners.
While the embargo may be a “vestige of the Cold War,” as professor Lisandro Perez said, nearly half of American still support it. Melissa Harris-Perry was joined by Perez, Michigan State University professor Lisa Cook, super PAC director Mauricio Claver-Carone, scholar Soffiyah Elijah, and CUNY professor Sujatha Fernandes for an occasionally contentious debate that ranged from homegrown Cuban hip-hop to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Watch the discussion here and tune in next weekend at 10 a.m.