Cuba, with the lowest Internet penetration in the western hemisphere, is hardly social networking’s next frontier. Despite the barriers, though, a new breed of dissidents is finding ways to speak out against the Castro regime online. Yoani Sánchez, one of the movement’s pioneers, blogs, tweets, and is on Facebook. Yet, like the vast majority of Cubans, she has no regular Internet access. “We’re inventing the Internet without Internet,” Sánchez says from her home in Havana. Since 2007, she has been blogging at Generación Y. Its slices of daily life in Cuba—a “prison,” she calls it, where people live under a “patronizing” state—are like essays, carefully crafted by the trained language scholar. The blog has become a roaring success, translated by volunteers into 17 different languages.
Sánchez relies on friends and readers to update her blog. She’ll dictate posts over the phone to someone with Web access, in Cuba or abroad, or send digital photos of the document through her phone. There is no such thing as home Internet for Cubans; the service is reserved for elite officials or foreign residents with deep pockets. Internet cafés are too public and expensive, but hotels are a good resource. “I write and accumulate eight or nine posts, and once I’ve saved enough money to go to a hotel, I program my posts to come out once a week,” says Sánchez. An hour online costs about $8, an astronomical sum for a Cuban whose monthly salary is close to $20.
When Sánchez was born in 1975, Fidel Castro had already been Cuba’s leader for a decade. She grew up in middle-class Centro Havana, near where she currently lives with her husband and teenaged son. Sánchez earned a degree in Hispanic philology from the Centre for the Arts and Letters in 2000, but academia frustrated her; she preferred speaking about “real problems,” she says. After working for two years as a freelance Spanish tutor for tourists, Sánchez emigrated to Switzerland in 2002. But family and her love of Cuba got the better of her; she returned in 2004, vowing to “never leave” again.
It was then that Sánchez discovered a passion for computers and journalism, and a deep distrust of the Castro regime. In 2004, with no formal training, she founded Desde Cuba, a Web portal for citizen journalists. Both Sánchez and her husband, Reinaldo, are now journalists, reporting for alternative media or freelancing for foreign outlets. Sánchez earns her income writing a biweekly column for the Spanish newspaper El País, though she only gets paycheques when someone travelling to Cuba can hand-deliver them—she doesn’t trust the postal service, and money transfer services don’t exist. Day-to-day life in Cuba is hardly easy.
Since taking over from his brother Fidel in April 2011, President Raúl Castro has promised more tolerance of dissidents. But the regime’s critics continue to be harassed. Hundreds remain in jail; many are tortured in detention centres. Civilian-clad police barge into demonstrations, beating women and men, detaining some for days without explanation. Sánchez, tired of feeling helpless, opened a Twitter account in 2008—she wanted to capture life under a dictatorship in real time. Through trial and error, she figured out how to tweet without going online: by using her cellphone. She pays $1 per tweet, 140-character messages like this: “Feel sorry for official journalists. 1 reports female soccer match with Canada and can’t say two players defected.” Some of @yoanisanchez’s more than 200,000 followers help by adding money to her cellphone account. Twitter has become the most important weapon of free speech for her and her fellow revolutionaries. They teach others how to use the Internet without Internet, offering free workshops in their living rooms. Luis Felipe Rojas, or @alambradas, has offered Internet tutorials in rural areas to at least 100 people in the last three months alone. He reports arrests, harassment and beatings of dissidents—including himself. “I know a tweet doesn’t save a life,” he says. “But it does make impunity of the state less likely.”
If not a real threat, Sánchez and her army have, at least, become a thorn in the regime’s side. Sánchez, listed as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in 2008, recently ridiculed Raúl Castro’s daughter after calling out her “double standards” on tolerance on Twitter. Mariela Castro, who travels the world defending gay rights, called Cuban dissidents “despicable parasites” in an exchange with Sánchez that made headlines around the world. She has won several democracy and journalism awards, but the government has so far denied all her requests to leave Cuba. She will try once more this month: Brazil announced it has granted a visa to Sánchez, who hopes to interview President Dilma Rousseff. Whether Castro allows her to travel to Brasilia remains to be seen.