What It’s like to Launch an Independent News Outlet in Cuba

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Elaine Díaz, the first Cuban journalist to receive a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, returned home earlier this year and resigned from the University of Havana, where she taught for seven years. Last weekend, she launched a news startup, Periodismo de Barrio, or Community Journalism. I asked her about her plans, the new era in relations between the United States and Cuba and her impressions of the United States.

You recently quit your job to launch an independent news site in a country with no press freedom laws, no independent printing presses and extremely limited Internet access. What were you thinking?

I believe in journalism as a force that can improve societies. I also believe that there are problems in local areas in Cuba that need to be addressed. A process as complex as the economic and social reforms that are taking place in my country at this moment, in the midst of broadening ties with the United States, needs as many voices as you can get to illuminate the Cuba that is emerging.

Describe the types of censorship in Cuba today.

To properly describe censorship in Cuba I would have needed to have worked at a state-run media outlet and I never did. My taste of censorship on the island stems from pieces I published on my blog, La Polémica Digital, the Digital Controversy.

How were you censored?

There were occasional reprimands from my bosses at the University of Havana, a state-run institution, for critical posts. I have friends who were punished or removed from their jobs as a result of articles they posted online. Interestingly, there are people within state media who are eager to spread news that they couldn’t publish. I once wrote an article exposing corruption at a boarding school. The former deputy director of the state-run Cuban News Agency printed the post and left it in the office of the Ministry of Education. They launched an investigation and the director was fired and faced legal charges.

What subjects will your team focus on?

Do you know how long a person can wait in Cuba to rebuild a home after a hurricane? Seven years, ten years, fifteen years, a lifetime. Periodismo de Barrio is a non-profit outlet that will report stories about local communities affected by natural disasters and those that are vulnerable to hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, landslides and man-made calamities. We want to tell the stories of those people. With a little luck and good work, we hope to find solutions to their problems.

How will you pay the bills?

In Cuba, journalists employed by state media outlets make between $25 to $30 a month. For that reason, many moonlight at other outlets, including international news organizations. We are currently paying journalists $100 per month. It’s not much. But it is what I can afford with the money I saved during my fellowship. Going forward, we may consider working with non-government organizations that support international journalism and crowd-funding.

How will you reach readers?

Besides our website, we intend to publish on Reflejos.cu, a site within Cuba’s intranet that hosts blogs and is accessible to Cubans who have government-provided Internet connections at work and at home. We hope our content will be included in el paquete, multimedia packages that are distributed weekly to Cuban homes in hard drives that people use to download movies and reading material on personal laptops. We also will distribute articles to community leaders and government officials using flash drives, and occasionally printouts.

Is it problematic to take money from American organizations?

It depends on where the money comes from. Several universities and organizations in the United States have been supporting initiatives in Cuba for years and are well known. There are also groups that get money from the American government for “democracy promotion.” We want nothing to do with the latter.

Independent journalists in Cuba are often branded as “dissidents.” What does that word mean to you and are you worried about being labeled as one?

If a dissident is someone who expresses dissent, then I’m one of them. If a dissident is someone who belongs to the political opposition, then I’m not one. I’m not worried about being labeled a dissident. I’m not worried about labels at all. People usually label others with little or no information about them in Cuba. I can live with that.

Does the new era in American relations with Cuba make it easier for you and other journalists who want to do independent work?

It has created a more relaxed atmosphere, an environment in which thinking differently is no longer interpreted as “giving ammunition to the enemy,” because “the enemy” is now a government with which my president sits down to discuss our differences. We would like to work with organizations that are located in the United States and support journalism projects around the world, and with those who have done serious work in Cuba in recent years. New regulations implemented by the Treasury Department make that possible.

How easy is it to get interviews with government officials or official information that is not in the public domain?

So far, we have gotten many interviews. Some people have turned us down. In each case, we have explained what Periodismo de Barrio is, who we are, where we have worked before. People ask if we belong to media outlets associated with the political opposition. We answer truthfully: no. People tend to trust us or at least they give us the benefit of the doubt.

Will you write about politics?

In Cuba, everything is related to politics.

Do you expect you will have to self-censor to some extent?

I hope not.

During your time in the United States you befriended many American journalists and visited several newsrooms. What did you come to see as the biggest strength and biggest weakness of the American press?

Journalists in the United States have a robust legal framework that protects the exercise of our work. The biggest weakness? I worry that overhauling traditional business models has eroded the vocation of public service that must be at the heart of journalism.

How did your year in Boston change your perceptions of America and Americans? What were the most pleasant and unwelcome surprises?

I realized American journalists suffer from many of the same kind of issues I faced in Cuba. I commiserated with them and realized the scope of the financial crisis our industry is struggling to overcome. The hardest thing was getting sick, and realizing that the deductible of my insurance policy was incredibly high. Once, I sent a photo of a rash on my hands to a Cuban doctor in Sierra Leone so he could diagnose it. I have never felt so afraid of getting sick as I did during those 10 months in the United States.

HeyCuba Organization Creates Platform for Access to the Internet

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YOU ARE INVITED TO OUR PRESENTATIONS AT 4pM Sunday Come see the solutions that the Miami Tech community has built for Cuba.

HeyCuba.org has created a platform called Apretaste that allows web browsing using email service. The platform provides round-about Internet access in a nation where the majority of people have limited or no access. An upcoming hackathon seeks help from other technology enthusiasts to expand services on the island.

Salvi Pascual, who immigrated from Cuba just five years ago, is well aware of the difficulties Cubans on the island face to connect with the outside world.

So he devised a round-about way for those without service to access the Internet.

“In Cuba, Internet access is minimal,” said the 30-year-old entrepreneur and founder of HeyCuba.org. “However, more than 2.6 million Cubans have an email account.”

Those figures prompted Pascual to ​​create an email service that allows people on the island to obtain information available online via email. The result: Apretaste, an innovative platform that allows web browsing using email service.

How Apretaste works

Any email user on the island can send a message to apretaste@gmail.com. The user instantly receives a response from Apretaste, like this:

From that point, the user can access the services offered by the system by just typing in the email subject line what it is they want to know. For example, someone who wants to consult Wikipedia should type in “Wikipedia” followed by keywords on the subject matter they are researching.

So far, the platform offers 30 services, including results from Google Translate and Google Maps, a SMS messaging system to anywhere in the world and even a social platform called Cupid, which “helps you in the arduous search for your soulmate.”

Pascual, who works as a professor of Computer Science at Keiser University in Fort Lauderdale, said Apretaste receives more than 1,000 emails a day from nearly 40,000 users.

Although the system is automatic, Pacual said HeyCuba.org is seeking help from other technology enthusiasts to expand its services. That’s the purpose of a hackathon that took place last month..

The hackathon

The hackathon was held at Florida Tech Vocational Institute School in Miami. The event attracted programmers to collaborate on the project.

The hackaton was beginner-friendly for those who are just learning to code. Plus mentors were on hand, so the event was also a learning experience, Pascual said.

“Anyone with knowledge of PHP programming participated, ” he said.

So far, Cuban network administrators have blocked two Apretaste domains. But Pascual doesn’t believe that the Cuban government has been directly behind the interventions.

“I think they get scared when they see a lot of emails coming from the same domain, so they block it,” he said.

Pascual hasn’t been able to promote the service on the island. Users learn about it through family and friends, and then recommend it to others, Pascual said.

Sprint To Begin Roaming Service in Cuba

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Sprint signed a roaming agreement with Cuba’s telecommunications company Monday, becoming the second U.S. company able to provide roaming service on the island.

As the commercial relationship between the United States and Cuba progresses and with more U.S. travelers to the island expected, “We want to make sure any Sprint customer traveling to Cuba can use their phone the same way as they do in the United States,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint chief executive.

Claure made the announcement at a signing ceremony in Havana on a trip to Cuba with a delegation from the U.S.-Cuba Business Council. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed the advocacy group in September as part of its commitment to building a strategic commercial relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Sprint said rates and a start date for the service will be announced soon. The direct arrangement includes a direct roaming agreement and a direct long-distance interconnection between Sprint, the nation’s fourth largest carrier, and Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA), Cuba’s government telecom company.

In September, Verizon Wireless became the first U.S. wireless company to offer roaming in Cuba. Customers with a world device who sign up for the company’s Pay-As-You-Go International Travel option can make and receive calls while traveling in Cuba. Verizon charges $2.99 per minute for voice calls and $2.05 per megabyte for data.

Verizon’s roaming arrangement is with a third-party company, and it does not have a direct agreement with ETECSA, said Chuck Hamby, a company spokesman. “The feedback we’ve had so far [on the carrier’s roaming in Cuba] has been great. Our customers tell us they like the convenience of being able to use their own phones on the island.”

Even though the U.S. trade embargo remains in effect, as part of the rapprochement with Cuba that began Dec. 17 last year, U.S. companies are allowed to sell personal communications equipment and telecom services in Cuba and to enter into agreements to improve Cuba’s Internet and telecom infrastructure. A set of U.S. regulations released in September went even further, allowing telecom companies to have a presence on the island through subsidiaries, branches, offices, joint ventures, franchises, agencies or other business relationships with ETECSA, other businesses or individuals.

Advertising Week Is Expanding to Cuba This November

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Advertising Week now has a fourth destination—Havana.

Stillwell Partners, the organizing firm behind Advertising Week, will launch its first Advertising Week: Cuba x Creativity on Nov. 28, and it will run until Dec. 1. The announcement comes after JetBlue, a founding partner of the event, kicked off the first commercial service to Cuba from the U.S. in over 50 years.

“This is a unique moment in history,” said Matt Scheckner, CEO of Stillwell Partners. “When the door to go to Cuba opened a crack—the embargo is still in place; we’re in a very interesting transition period and as an American, there has been 53 years that we have not been able to go to Cuba—we went down there right away to see if an event was possible.”

While adding Havana to the Advertising Week roster doesn’t make sense when considering major advertising hubs—New York, London and Tokyo host the other three weeks and make up the three largest ad markets in the world—the city makes sense “as a place for a celebration of creativity,” said Scheckner.

Fast Company is also partnering with Stillwell Partners for Cuba x Creativity, serving in a curatorial role for the event’s thought leadership program. “It’s hard to imagine a destination with more intrigue than Havana,” said Fast Company managing director and editor Bob Safian in a statement. “We look forward to a completely unique experience sure to incent our creativity, inspire and enlighten.”

Marty St. George, executive vp of commercial and planning for the JetBlue, said the company “is thrilled to be leading the way to Cuba.”

“We are proud to partner with Advertising Week and Fast Company in this inaugural celebration of creativity in Havana,” he said.

JetBlue is providing airfare to the event’s 400 attendees, which Scheckner said will be capped “at a relatively modest number.”

For those who wish to attend the event, the process is “turnkey,” according to Scheckner.

“All the planes leave from Fort Lauderdale, and once you get to Fort Lauderdale, everything is included,” he said. “Registration includes flight, hotel, food and beverage, visas, all the other required government paper work—everything is done turnkey.”

Famed Cuban musician Isaac Delgado will be chairman of the event’s local organizing body. Delgado was part of a delegation from Cuba that quietly attended Advertising Week in New York last fall to see what the event was like before approving its extension to Cuba. Planning for the event began in June 2015.

Havana’s Hotel Nacional de Cuba will serve as headquarters for Cuba x Creativity. A daily breakfast will take place at the Parisién Cabaret. The thought leadership seminar program will be held at the Salon 1930, which has long served as the home of the Buena Vista Social Club. Other event venues include historic destinations like the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso and The Tropicana.

Attendees of Cuba x Creativity will get an immersive experience, according to Scheckner, including Cuban arts, culture, cuisine, music, and cigars and rum.

“We think Havana is a phenomenal destination,” Scheckner said. “I’m thrilled that the fourth host city for Advertising Week is one that is a real wild card. It’s the antithesis of a big advertising and media market, but it’s actually a destination that’s a great home for creativity.”

Your Editor Reacts: Keep Going to Cuba. No government, repressive or not, can push back dialogue and engagement.  

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