Blogging a Revolution from Cuba

Imagine a world where you couldn’t get on the Internet, where you couldn’t access Facebook from your iPhone. Tweets, what are that? A Google search? A Yelp review?

Fiction writer, photographer, journalist and revolutionary Cuban blogger, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, also known simply as OLPL, visited UC Irvine for a Thursday event hosted by the Literary Journalism Program, the School of Humanities and the Latin American Studies Program as an installment of the Conversations on Writing and Public Life Series.

Born in communist Cuba and educated as a biochemist at The University of Havana, where he was employed as a molecular biologist, Lazo began to pursue writing and photography and, most famously, blogging under the gaze of the hyper-restrictive Cuban regime.

In a country where Internet access is restricted to everyone but students, universities and state workers, ordinary citizens like Lazo are unable to obtain Internet access, even if they are able and willing to pay for the service.

The Cuban digital revolution began around 2007, when independent, alternative bloggers began creating sites and publishing material about the lives of ordinary Cuban citizens, giving international readers a window through which they could observe this secretive state. Over 1,000 blogs have been created within the past six years, giving international readers a wide array of voices, images and firsthand accounts of life in Cuba.

Now a New York City resident, Lazo blogged from Havana hotel rooms where Internet access was available to guests for $10-12 an hour or from international embassies that provided free Internet access to Cubans. In order to obtain Internet access from Sweden, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the United States, Cuban citizens must put their name on a list and wait around two weeks before they are called and granted access to the embassy.

Equipped with his laptop inside various Havana hotels and embassies, and the occasional post published by a friend with regular Internet access, Lazo writes freely under his own name.

“I live with the impression that I will not be here the next day, I am hiding nothing,” he reflected.

Lazo’s most well-noted blogs include “Boring Home Utopics,” his photoblog and “Lunes de Post-Revolución.” Readers of “Boring Home Utopics” are often exiled Cubans who send photo requests to the blogger, asking him to photograph the people and places they left behind. From photos of Regla, a town where a man grew up but left behind, to photos of a brother-in-law in Cuba that they wanted to share with their two-year-old daughter who would never be able to meet him in person, “Boring Home Utopics” offers a connection to a lost world.

With just two percent of the Cuban population equipped with regular Internet access, inhabitants of Cuba have no access to news from outlets other than the official Cuban press, which the government manages and maintains.

The Cuban clone of Wikipedia, hosted at Ecured.cu, doesn’t allow edits to be made, so information that is posted on a profile is limited and regulated by the Cuban government. RedSocial, the Cuban equivalent of Facebook, recently launched to much international criticism since the site only allows Cubans to connect with other Cubans, rather than the entire international social media community.

While 80 percent of the United States population is equipped with Internet access, according to the 2010 United States Census, Cubans remain shut off from the rest of the world and what little Internet they have, censorship is rampant.

Prior to Pope Benedict XVI’s arrival in March of 2012, Lazo was imprisoned with no explanation as to why or how long he would be there. His mother thought he was dead. Four days later, after the pope had come and gone, the blogger was released with no documents that proved his imprisonment.

Although most of his blogs are in Spanish, Lazo shared “Translating Cuba,” a website that asks users to translate popular Cuban blogs to English, further expanding the spread of these revolutionary voices.

With an impassioned and, at times, defeated voice, Lazo spoke of the love he had for his country, and the frustration that came along with living in such a restricted state.

“The Internet is a revolutionary tool, a tool to defend what has already been established,” Lazo said.

Whether or not Cuba, North Korea or China will one day have free and unrestricted Internet access remains to be seen, but for now, the voices coming from Cuba give readers a glimpse into the vibrant but secluded Communist country that sits less than a hundred miles from the United States, where the world is accessible from one’s keyboard.