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Teaching Twitter in Havana

Teaching Twitter in Havana
Students squeeze into 's living room to learn about WordPress,
Wikipedia and the digital revolution.
By Nick Miroff
Published: April 2, 2010 06:57 ET

Yoani Sanchez sits with her computer in her apartment in Havana, Oct. 3,
2007. Sanchez runs a Blogger Academy out of her living room. (Claudia
Daut/Reuters)Enlarge Photo

HAVANA, Cuba — As an educational institution, Cuba's Blogger Academy
suffers from a few notable deficiencies. Its six-month course doesn't
grant an accredited degree, and its single, cramped classroom — the
living room of founder Yoani Sanchez — isn't even hooked up to the .

Then there's the possibility that the next knock on the door might be
the . They haven't shut down the Blogger Academy yet, but on this
web-starved island — the least-connected country in the hemisphere —
this classroom is a place where the digital revolution really feels like

At least the 30-odd students squeezed onto benches and chairs in
Sanchez's 14th-floor Havana apartment see it that way. They're taking a
risk to come here twice a week to learn how to use Twitter, or write
code in WordPress for their own blogs. That's not because those software
programs are in Cuba, but because Sanchez, 34, is considered
dangerous company.

Sanchez remains largely unknown on the island, where her award-winning
, Generation Y, is blocked. But she has a huge following among
Cubans living abroad, and she has used her literary talents and the
power of the internet to become a potent symbol of opposition to a
one-party socialist system run by men in their 70s and 80s. With the
Blogger Academy, where the instructors are volunteers and tuition is
free, Sanchez is drafting others to the digital cause.

"Today we're going to talk about Twitter," Sanchez began on a recent
afternoon, quieting the room. The students ranged in age from early 20s
to mid-50s. One's man late father had been a leader of the Cuban
Revolution. Given the Castro government's record of infiltrating
opposition groups, it was also likely a few of the students were there
to take notes on their classmates, not their coursework.

No one seemed too worried about that, though, and the atmosphere was
friendly, almost festive. Sanchez used a projector to cast an image of
her laptop screen onto the wall, displaying web pages she'd saved from
the last time she was able to use the internet. Like most Cubans, she
isn't allowed to have an internet connection at home but can pay to go
online at hotels and cyber cafes. "Who can tell me the difference
between tags and categories?" she asked the class.

There were other classes that day on journalism ethics, photography, and
Wikipedia. A nearby table was stacked with photocopied handouts of
articles with titles like "Can Journalism be Participatory?" and a
Twitter manifesto called "The revolution in 140 characters." Students
huddled to share the room's few laptop computers.

At most journalism schools, it would be ordinary subject matter. But on
an island where the media is almost entirely state-controlled and less
than 1 percent of the population has an internet connection, it seemed
like the first tremors of a paradigm shift.

Cuban authorities, meanwhile, see it as little more than a new phase of
an old fight. They view Sanchez's rapid rise to international fame as
part of the broader U.S.-funded campaign to foment anti-Castro activity
on the island. Sanchez insists she funds the academy and supports other
bloggers with the money she's earned by publishing articles and a book

"We're not trying to challenge or subvert the government," Sanchez said
in an interview. "This isn't a political party. There's no boss here,
and no director. No one is telling us what to write, or what type of
criticisms we can make. We're just trying to create a virtual world that
reflects the variety of views that Cubans really have — but are now
suffocated and hidden by government controls."

Rosa Miriam Elizalde, the editor of the pro-government website
Cubadebate, said she views Sanchez as a figure who has been hyped up for
a specific political purpose — to attack Cuba. Elizalde said there was
nothing wrong with the material taught at the Blogger Academy, but she
said Sanchez's goals were hardly apolitical.

"You can't criticize learning," Elizalde said. "But you can criticize
the intention behind her efforts, which are taking place in a framework
of a U.S. policy of subversion and aggression."

Elizalde also questions the international support Sanchez receives to
run her blog, which is translated into 18 languages. "We're not talking
about some blogger in Sweden," Elizalde said. "We're talking about a
blogger in Cuba, which the United States has been waging economic and
political warfare against for the past 50 years. And this is just the
latest form of that warfare."

Several of the academy's students say they've faced more than criticism
in recent months, receiving threats and other forms of harassment from
the government. A few said their computers and cell phones had been
confiscated by state police.

"There are people who think I'm doing something wrong by coming here,
but I don't think so," said Regina Coyula, 53, a housewife and former
Cuban state security agent who now writes a blog, Mala Letra (Bad
Handwriting), launched with Sanchez's help.

"I think I'm giving a voice to a lot of people who think like I do,
whose views aren't reflected in the official media," said Coyula. "We're
people who want change, and we want the current government to be an
instrument of change."

Sanchez said the academy's graduates are developing the skills to shape
Cuba's future media organizations. Blogger Orlando Luis Pardo described
their one-room with a quote from famous Cuban novelist Jose
Lezama Lima, likening it to "building a cathedral in the air."

"Somehow this is the image that I have," Pardo said. "Something very big
and very beautiful that we are trying to build, and very fragile also,
that could crumble to the ground at any time."

"We hope not," he said, "but it's something very fragile.

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