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Cuban Bloggers Worry U.S. Tensions Could Create Chilling Effect


In recent years, a growing number of news and political sites have popped up in Cuba. Some are taking advantage of what they say is a small but vibrant opening, one offered them since President Obama re-established relations with Cuba.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports that others worry President Trump's harder line toward the communist Castro government could have a chilling effect.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Harold Cardenas Lema runs the blog The Young Cuba out of his two-room apartment he shares with his mom and his girlfriend.

HAROLD CARDENAS LEMA: One and a half, actually (laughter). This is a very small - a very small apartment.

KAHN: Discussion on Cardenas' blog are quite lively and popular. He says he gets about 2,000 unique visitors a day, nearly three-quarters coming from inside Cuba. That's quite a following given how expensive and difficult it is to access the Internet here. In a recent blog titled "Papa Estado" - "Father State" - he opened a discussion about whether it was right for the Cuban government to control all aspects of private life on the island.

How is that you can criticize the government on the Internet here in Cuba now?

CARDENAS LEMA: There's this prejudice that you cannot do that in Cuba. And I think it's pretty much a prejudice of people that doesn't know how Cuba works.

KAHN: Cardenas puts President Donald Trump on the top of that list. He says in the seven years he's had the blog, he's never been told to remove a post or been detained by security forces. Although he does say he has on occasion been misunderstood and called to task by officials about certain articles. He says since President Obama improved relations with Cuba, he has had more freedom than ever to criticize his government. It's a small but important opening he fears will inevitably close given Trump's harder line toward the island.

CARDENAS LEMA: If Donald Trump really wants to end the Cuban government, he's not doing a very good job (laughter).

KAHN: Mostly, he says, because as the past has shown, when the U.S. clamps down on Cuba, everyone goes on the defensive and are less open to self-reflection, even those who push for wider debate and criticism about conditions at home.

CARDENAS LEMA: We work better and we are a better country to deal with the many things we have to solve here when we don't have the pressure of the biggest country, the most powerful country in the world.

KAHN: Cuba's state apparatus does control news and information on the island, but some are breaking through, providing even unfiltered news these days. Recent articles in some blogs chronicle local problems like debilitating water rationing and cheating on state university entrance exams. And they've even successfully pushed the government for fixes. Ted Piccone of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., says these new Cuban media journalists work in a vulnerable gray area, tolerated by the state but not working with official authorization either.

TED PICCONE: The government has sent agents to shut them down or interfere with their work. Nonetheless, they're smart, well-trained, well-educated professionals in Cuba. And they are committed to expressing themselves through this format.

KAHN: While the Castro regime may be giving a slight opening to younger Cubans exploiting new media, it continues to crack down on the island's older dissidents, who've long protested bans on public gathering and freedom of expression. Not all of Cuba's young media professionals are willing to explore the realms of Cuban openness through politics and opinion. Robin Pedraja just wanted to write about reggaeton and rock 'n' roll when he launched his cultural magazine Vistar three years ago.

ROBIN PEDRAJA: Everybody told me, hey, you're crazy. The government isn't going to allow you to make this.

KAHN: But Pedraja says in Cuba these days, you're only held back by your own limitations. Although he admits to never publishing anything negative about Cuban culture, a closely controlled state commodity.

PEDRAJA: I want more. Vistar, the magazine, is just the beginning to build something very big.

KAHN: He says one day he hopes to gain official press credentials and even start Cuba's first Billboard-like music ratings and award shows.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE WEEKND SONG, "STARBOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.