Transitions

Sharing the Pain: A Cuban and a Venezuelan Compare Notes

I first met Yoani Sánchez, Cuba's most famous blogger (and occasional FP contributor), at an event hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. When I mentioned that I write for a Venezuelan newspaper, she smiled: "I never quite know what to say to Venezuelans. We're like two hospital patients, suffering the same affliction, who pass in the hospital corridor and feel compelled to compare symptoms." With this in mind, we agreed to meet a few days later and do just that.

Yoani is just one member of a budding generation of independent Cuban opinion-makers and media -- but she has undeniably become that movement's most visible figure in the eyes of the international community. From her Havana home, which like most Cuban domiciles lacks Internet access (she relies on pen drives a great deal), the 38-year-old has been instrumental in introducing the world to an "unofficial" Cuba. Her efforts have garnered her considerable acclaim abroad even as they've been actively suppressed by the Castro regime at home.

We meet in an empty office at the council's stately Michigan Avenue headquarters. During a brief swap of national "clinical histories," Yoani agrees with me that Venezuela and Cuba do share a number of common problems: "state censorship, the self-censorship it breeds, the cults of personality, and the easy invocations of class warfare and subversive foreign plots as a way of silencing dissent and explaining away problems." The symptoms are similar, even if there is considerable variation in scope and severity.

In the immediate aftermath of seizing power in Havana on New Year's Day, 1959, Fidel Castro wasted little time in silencing unofficial Cuban media, commandeering all means of informational production and exiling erstwhile owners and journalists. By the early 1960s, nongovernmental news, let alone critical editorial lines, was very much a thing of the past. Even individual critics, working independently through self-produced pamphlets, speeches, or even private conversation, could find themselves receiving harsh penalties through onerous provisions in the Cuban legal code that criminalized the disseminating of "Enemy Propaganda" or even "unauthorized news."

In Yoani's view, the Venezuelan authorities, while seeking similar control, have taken far longer on the road to achieving it -- gradually chipping away at media freedoms rather than dismantling them outright. In Venezuela, she tells me, there remain people who, despite the dangers and the censorship, "will still try to show the world on the other side of the coin." In Cuba, that voice was lost for many years, and only now is slowly being regained.

Recent years have seen Cuba take some tentative steps towards liberalization. Internet access, while limited, remains on the rise, as does cellphone ownership. Opposition voices, such as Yoani's own blog (and a recently announced online newspaper), are increasing, even if the government allows them only begrudgingly. Indeed, her very presence in Chicago would have been impossible a few years ago. Yoani says she feels indebted to those independent voices that paved the way for her, often ending up in prison, exile, or worse.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ward, Venezuela's condition is deteriorating. While still well shy of Castro-level social controls, there is a strong sense that the worst may lie ahead. On June 12, popular Venezuelan comedian Luis Chataing -- whose hit late-night show blended Colbert-style political parody with more quotidian comedy based on local events -- was taken off the air by Televen, a private television network. Chataing has claimed that the unexpected cancellation stemmed from "official pressure" following a skit poking fun at President Nicolás Maduro's long-announced, but as yet unseen, "evidence" of U.S. plots to assassinate him.

Chataing thus joins the ever-lengthening list of independent media casualties in Venezuela -- including its principal television stations, news programs, and popular radio. Those unwilling to compromise their editorial lines have been expropriated or otherwise shuttered, leaving the country's media landscape all but bled white. The government has denied century-old newspapers the foreign currency needed to import paper, and a climate of self-censorship and fear is pervasive: Over a year ago, my editors at El Universal started bouncing my columns back to me, asking me to soften the language in various paragraphs; today, they just go ahead and cut chunks out.

The result, I tell Yoani, is a ubiquitous and unchallenged state media apparatus that deliberately keeps the citizenry woefully uninformed. As someone who grew up in a context where there was no alternative to state media, however, Yoani sees it all in more nuanced terms.

"We always think of government media in terms of what it leaves out, but it is likewise important in terms of what it puts in," Yoani says. "For example, consider the laudatory content that ends up becoming the norm towards the cult of personality of the leader." Often it is in this latter portion, she tells me, that one can learn to read between the lines. Official media can become informative despite itself.  

She continues: "Official media, when referring to Fidel Castro, will normally write something along the lines of 'Our Dear Commander in Chief' or 'Our Invincible Comandante.'"

I nod. This all sounds very familiar.

"But when someone doesn't refer to him that way, if they only say 'Fidel Castro' or 'the Former President,' that is a way of criticizing the regime." She tells of friends who work in official journalism and who sometimes come to her excitedly to brag about some particularly "brave" publication they've gotten away with. "They'll tell me to look at paragraph four, line two, words four through six...." Suddenly, my editor's reluctance to allow me to compare Maduro to Caligula's horse in my own column (he eventually came around, even if it was only ever run online), didn't seem so bad.

While Cuba's censors have traditionally given no quarter to individuals who dared spread critical or unsanctioned information, Venezuela's "revolution" has sought to secure communicational hegemony primarily by limiting the reach of critical speech rather than banning content. Until recently, the Caracas regime rarely arrested journalists. Instead it targeted their outlets, buying, seizing, or otherwise hamstringing those with the broadest popular reach. Yet the government still allowed some places -- particularly online -- in which committed opponents might bounce complaints off one another, ostensibly in a closed loop. But lately, as more and more dissidents take to social media to express their frustrations, and as their sometimes hyperbolic opinions garner attention abroad, there are signs that officialdom is preparing a crackdown.

Indeed, such attempts raise an interesting question. Cuba is often characterized as a nation "frozen in time" -- the regime, the embargo -- almost as if history had forgotten it. Venezuelan leaders, by contrast, will essentially have to go back in time in order to reach similar levels of social control. Having long maintained a relatively free press and open borders (at least until recently), Venezuelans are globalized, consumerist, and Internet-savvy. Can any government, regardless of how ruthless or well-financed it may be, ever reverse this completely?

Yoani thinks not. "When I saw the news being tweeted by Venezuelans during the recent protests," she explains, "I was amazed by the fact that it was the students who took the most active role. These were people who largely came of age during Chavismo and would have been duly indoctrinated by the glorious myths, similar to Cuba's, of the people's revolution against oppression. But here they were taking snapshots of working-class police beating working-class students."

Only towards the end of our conversation did it dawn on me that Yoani smiles a great deal. Among Cubans (and, increasingly, Venezuelans), a smile can serve as armor. Appreciating the ridiculousness of life in authoritarianism has a way of letting one move forward in spite of the many frustrations. And yet, despite the regime abuse she has personally experienced during her rise to prominence in Cuba's nascent independent media -- including physical assaults, arrests, and intimidation against her and her family -- her smile retains a particular earnestness. Absent is the cynicism, the gallows humor, that I increasingly find on Venezuelan faces, including my own. There's something very hopeful in that.

With this in mind, I ask Yoani what advice she might give the Venezuelans of today, those who are disheartened by the opposition's failure to capitalize on the recent crisis to produce palpable change.

"The struggle will be long," she tells me, adding quickly, "but I don't mean it will have to be 55 years like ours. One can't let oneself feel defeated. This isn't a sprint; it's a marathon."

In her view, it is vital for opponents of the regime to maintain their unity. The Venezuelan opposition, under the now-struggling leadership of the M.U.D., a coordinating coalition of opposition parties, has been something that Yoani says "has given great hope to Cubans," where the opposition has struggled to overcome rivalries among various factions. She sincerely hopes that unity can be regained.

"The Venezuelan students prove that the light of liberty is not something that can just be turned off. People are funny that way. And I know that Venezuelans will someday be free -- and, when they are, we will be as well."

For someone who "never quite knows what to say to Venezuelans," that last part sure came out well.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images

Transitions

Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, June 30, 2014

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