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Cuba’s Clandestine Press Thumb Their Noses at Street Censorship

By: Belén Marty - @belenmarty - May 22, 2015, 5:20 pm
UNPACU anti-censorship activists gather for an assembly in January in Cuba.
UNPACU activists gather for an assembly in Cuba this January. (Cubaenvivo.net)

EspañolOn Thursday, May 21, the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU) — an illegal opposition party created in 2011 — uploaded a YouTube video of activists in the southern city of Palma Soriano sharing DVDs filled with news and other hard-to-access information with the public.

UNPACU representatives tell the PanAm Post that attitudes on the island toward their activism have shifted over the years. These days, few reject their unauthorized DVDs.

The group explain that while they have been producing this content for over two years, they still are not able to deliver it on the streets as often as they would like.

The largest dissident organization in Cuba has 20 members in charge of selecting, producing, and burning the videos and articles onto each four-gigabyte disc. Their priority, they say, is video and audio content.

UNPACU Executive Secretary José Daniel Ferrer says Cubans are increasingly open to receiving the information they provide, even activists within the Communist Party: “There’s a huge thirst for information, and a growing loss of fear.”

According to Ferrer, most Cubans still never find out about the abuses committed against their fellow islanders: “Except for when someone personally tells them about it, the people from one province have no idea about the crimes that occur in another. The national media don’t cover it.”

His group is committed to using their DVD strategy to counter the official media and censorship: “[The government] has full control over the information they want, and how they want it.” So UNPACU members pack as much information as possible onto each disc, compressing articles and videos to the “smallest possible file size” without compromising quality.

Ferrer says Cubans as of late have been most interested in finding out what happened in Panama during the Summit of the Americas in April.

José Ferrer: behind the censorship cloud, Cubans desperately wanted to know what was going on during the Panama Summit of the Americas in April. (<a href="http://babalublog.com/2013/04/14/jose-daniel-ferrer-fight-for-freedom-is-inside-cuba/" target="_blank">Bubalublog</a>)
José Ferrer: behind the censorship cloud, Cubans desperately wanted to know what was going on during the Panama Summit of the Americas in April. (Bubalublog)

“During the Summit, we had to ask our whole team to download footage and news uploaded to YouTube by TV channels such as NTN24, AméricaTV, and TV Martí.”

The UNPACU leader says people on the island constantly asked about the Panama Summit, because they “didn’t believe the information broadcast by Cuba’s communist television stations, nor the way it was being presented by Telesur.”

Castro’s Fears Realized

Luis Enrique Ferrer, an UNPACU international representative, says alternative media on the island is essentially nonexistent.

“Everything is under government control: what people read, and the literature available for purchase, is what the government wants people to read, listen to, or watch.”

Under these conditions, he says, it is impossible to reach a massive audience, but what little they can do is still having an effect: “It becomes a chain reaction. Many people who get the disc, they might go watch it alone or with their families, but others pass it on to friends.”

While the group has faced its share of aggression from government agents and paramilitary, he says they’ve managed to remain somewhat under the state’s radar. Ferrer explains that it’s much more difficult for the Cuban regime to control a dispersed group of activists than to crack down on a public demonstration of hundreds.

“Fifteen years ago or so, in Cuba, when someone was delivered a cassette or a VHS tape, people used to reject them out of fear. Most would still reject them even if they didn’t like the system, because they feared getting into trouble, or they didn’t trust the person handing it out or their reason for doing so.”

Ferrer says one of the Cuban government’s greatest fears is to lose control of “the streets,” because according to the regime’s propaganda, “the streets are for revolutionaries” and not Cuban dissidents.

“So much has changed; if the average Cuban could gain access to a free press, no one would listen to the government.”

Samizdat 2.0

Samizdat is how it was known in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 70s, the system that residents used to avoid communist censorship.

Forbidden literature and the clandestine press were transmitted with handmade books — many of them handwritten — with covers that would not attract the attention of the intelligence agency. It became the symbol of the rebel spirit of Soviet dissidents, when reading Western literature was an act of civil disobedience.

This phenomenon became a key tactic to disseminate ideas and extended to other aspects of daily life, such as distributing audio cassettes of famous songs by Western rock bands, or speeches by dissident activists.

In the final years of the Soviet Union, Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachov authorized the Samizdat press, leading to a more open media that would ultimately contribute to the fall of the Soviet bloc.

Translated by Daniel Duarte and Adam Dubove.

Belén Marty Belén Marty

Belén Marty is the Libertarian Latina, a journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She has lived in Guatemala, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States and is a former candidate for local office with Argentina's Libertarian Party. Follow @BelenMarty.