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Harold Cárdenas Lema from Havanna is 30 years old. He is in the process of writing his doctoral thesis. Together with a handful of likeminded friends he wants to reform Cuba. Here is a conversation about blogging, about Barack Obama and about the future of Cuba.
Internet Access is a Luxury
In Cuba the internet is still in its infancy. Until recently the only available access was via the universities and other institutions of higher learning. But now Cubans are allowed to have smartphones. If you want to get an app, you have to go to a physical app store and have the app uploaded onto your phone from the store’s hard disc. The latest innovation is WiFi in selected public spaces and in front of hotels. It can be accessed through a phone card (1hr costs 2 Cuban Convertible Pesos, or $2)
Harold is one of the blogging pioneers in Cuba. As a young teacher he was privileged in that he could access the internet through the university. Today he pays for his access from his savings. 20 minutes per day, that’s all he can afford at a Cuban’s wages. The highest income is about $30.00 per month.
Life in Cuba
Life is hard in Cuba. There is still food rationing: Per month you get a bag full of rice, some fruits and vegetables, a bottle of rum. The food will last for 5 or 6 days, the rest is improvisation. Cuba is also a very rich country with a high level of education and excellent health care.
What many of us in the West don’t know: Contrary to their former socialist brethren in East Germany Cubans are allowed to travel, if they can afford it. A lot of Cubans have left the country and now live in the US. Others have tried their luck by running a small business on the side or by chauffeuring tourists around in their carefully kept-up vintage Cadillacs.
In spite of everything, Harold has decided to stay in Havanna. He says he wants to reform his country from within. His most important tool to do that: His blog which he uses to conduct a kind of unofficial dialogue with the government.
Harold, when did you start blogging?
That was 5 or 6 years ago. A few friends and I got together and started a blog. We didn’t particularly want to start a blog. We wanted to participate. Participate in shaping our own future here in Cuba. We were looking for a way, a tool, that would enable us to take our fate into our own hands.
So blogging was just a means to an end?
I started blogging because I was frustrated. I had tried to place comments on other pages, but they were never posted. So I got together with my friends and we decided to write our own blog. We didn’t care whether anybody would read it or not. Much to our surprise, a lot of people read us. We were pleased with that, of course.
Were you ever in trouble with the government because of your blog?
We never felt any pressure, no. We know very well that there are people who certainly don’t like what we write. But on the other hand there were always people in the government who were fine with what we did. It all depends on their affiliation. What really makes me proud is that a few highly educated and future-oriented people are supporting us here in Cuba. I try not to think about the rest.
In your blog you refer to your own generation as “the forgotten ones”. Why?
I have many friends who travel a lot and who know what’s going on in the rest of the world outside of our island. They have made a conscious decision – just like myself – to stay here. I call them “the forgotten ones” because everybody talks about the Cuban diaspora or about those who cannot leave the country. Hardly anyone talks about those of us who have decided to stay here in order to do something for our country.
There has been a huge influx of US tourists since last year. What do you think about the gringos?
Oh, let them come. I don’t just say that because they bring dollars. There are so many myths about our country. I want the Americans to have a good look at everything, not just the touristy sights. The best way to understand us is to come here and see for yourself what Cuba is like.
In spite of all the diplomacy – the US-embargo is still in place. What do you think about that?
I don’t think John F. Kennedy would have signed that embargo into law had he known that 50 years on it would be people like me who suffer most from it. My generation is still paying the price for decisions that were made decades ago and that we had no influence on.
What’s your take on the US President’s visit to Cuba?
We have to support the Obama administration in its mission to improve US-Cuban relations. I don’t know if we can ever have anything like normalcy. I mean, what’s normal after all? What I believe in is that our countries should have more respect for one another. Washington shouldn’t forget ordinary Cubans, and we in Cuba should acknowledge American values. It is up to our generation to bring the two sides back together again. It would make me very proud if I could tell my children that it was us who did that.