The Making of Generation Y
Translated by Ted Henken and posted on his blog here.
One would have to begin by clarifying that a Cuban citizen cannot go to an office and buy a web domain, neither for private nor for collective use, and much less place a domain purchased abroad on a domestic server. In Cuba, a URL address is an exclusive privilege of state institutions. Not even accepted alternative projects have access to such favors. All this leaves any Cuban citizen with interest in becoming a webmaster with a dilemma: either wait for the day when it becomes possible or turn to those â€”in other parts of the worldâ€” who can help set up a website.
Reinaldo and I took the second path when, in mid-2006, we decided to ask a friend of ours by the name of Josef Biechele if he would do us the favor of buying the domain http://www.desdecuba.com/ for us. Born and raised in Germany, Josef is one of our best friends, someone we met during the 1990s when he made a visit to Havana. We share a great friendship with him, one that is not muddied by the very different points of view we often have about some political and ideological issues. Although some have alleged that Josef is really a CIA agent, the truth is that he was a member of the Communist Party in his youth and continues to maintain many of his convictions from that time. Ours is a friendship based on respect for our differences and reciprocal support, especially when one of us is in a difficult predicament.
Back when the idea of having a blog hadn’t yet even crossed my mind, I had already started to study web design and my experience with the Consenso magazine led me to learn more about launching a website. Josef, who knew all about my cyber-inclinations, had no defense when we explained to him our idea of setting up a domain in Germany. He put the domain in his name in order to register it with the German web-host company Strato. He also helped us with the initial investment, which at that time was barely 40 Euros a year.
Although that amount of money was a fortune in terms of low Cuban wages, we could breathe freely for two years â€”already paid for upfront by himâ€” and start saving for future payments. The package we bought at the time â€”incidentally, the most basic plan availableâ€” included the option of choosing two domains. Thus, we created one domain with a tourism profile that we called http://www.habanaapie.com/ (Havana-By-Foot.com) where we advertised the unauthorized Spanish courses we taught to foreigners. With a lot of caution and without mentioning even our names, we included an e-mail address through which potential clients could contact us, registering for two weeks of intensive language practice along with tours of Havana focusing on Cuban culture. The economic autonomy that this website provided allowed us to pay for part of the Internet hours that I needed to administer the domain and, later, to open my blog, GeneraciÃ³n Y.
Josef was always at hand to help me fix things whenever I really put my foot in it with my trial and error method on the server. Not a few times did I ruin everything we had worked on and never did I hear from him the smallest reproach for my impudence. It was in this climate of collaboration that I asked him about the idea of launching a blog, however he â€”though a computer programmer by professionâ€” was not really up-to-date with the architecture of the various available blog platforms. For that reason, I started along a path that required me begin with a page that I built myself in “html” and, though I called it a “blog,” it really did not possess the basic requirements of interactivity essential to that tool.
In April, 2007, my blog finally saw the light of day under the name GeneraciÃ³n Y. Each time I wanted to post a new entry I had to substitute the archive “index.htm” for one that included the new text. I had designed everything with an old version of Dreamweaver on an obsolete laptop that I had bought from a chronic rafter who was in need of a motor for a Chevrolet. My new “site” lacked a database and did not make use of the magic triad Apache-PHP-MySQL that has afforded blogs so much potential. It was like trying to fly to the moon with a rocket made of rocks and tree limbs. At the same time, it was very gratifying to see it eventually take flight and begin to reach the stars.
Soon my first readers arrived, but my contacts with them were limited to e-mail whenever I could slip into a hotel and check my in-box. They constantly asked me why I didn’t use a common free platform like WordPress, MovableType, or even Blogger.com. Thanks to those observations, I discovered that free blogging platforms existed. Up until that moment, I had thought that every blogger had to endure the same difficulties I did each time they wanted to post an entry on their blog. Suddenly, an enormous world filled with new possibilities opened up before my eyes.
It was only in mid-October, 2007, that I managed to download the script of WordPress from http://wordpress.com.org/ and then test it out on a recently released test server that I installed on my laptop. That “flight simulator” has saved my life more times than I can count; without it and the trials it has allowed me to do off-line, everything would have been more difficult. After getting rid of MovableType (it was only in May of 2005 that they had started charging for the license) I turned to WP and I believe that pure chance led me this time around to to make the right choice. I could never thank myself enough for having adopted this system of free code that seems to mutate before my very eyes, always offering new and better versions and infinite possibilities. After that, I joined the fraternity of WP without yet knowing very well that I was already making the first steps of an entire philosophy that I carry with me until today: to give preeminence in my cyberlife to free software.
It would be maddening for me to relate in detail how I managed to upload the script of WordPress to the server by “ftp” and make it work. After all this trouble only a few weeks later I discovered that my basic package at Strato already included the option of starting a blog with just a few simple clicksâ€¦ The only problem was that the interface was in German and it would be difficult to change it to Spanish. Readers of the blog saw GY reborn at the end of December, 2007, now with new bells and whistles, including the ability for readers to post comments and for me to set up an archive, categories, and even an internal search engine. However, behind the slick facade everything was done in minute code and even I felt overcome with the labor-intensive dual role of administering a domain and a blog at the same time.
The advice of a number of friends along with Josef’s invaluable help were key to my eventual success. Once in a while, my lack of knowledge provoked a technological disaster. A few months earlier I had helped Reinaldo kick off his own blog Desde AquÃ and Miriam Celaya explode onto the scene under a pseudonym at the site Sin EvasiÃ³n (see photo below to the right). Both blogs benefited from the mistakes I had made with GY. Everything was much easier now, but it continued being quite complicated.
We could enjoy this new situation only for three months since in mid-March of 2008 the Cuban government set up a filter to block the entire Desdecuba.com domain. At first, I thought that this would be a transitory tactic, but the filter remains in place today, raised up as a wall to separate me from the world of cyberspace. Many others, who have seen the blank page that appears when I type in my URL in the only two cybercafÃ©s in Havana or in the hotels where I can connect, tell me that the strategy is to reduce the signal to such an agonizingly slow pace so as to make it virtually impossible to ever actually load any of the portal’s content. Perhaps if I were to stay on-line for two full days with the navigator open to http://www.desdecuba.com/generaciony I could eventually see my site appear in toto, but without daring to click on any links, which would send me back to the start of another 48 hours of waiting for the page to load.
If it was already difficult without a blockade, it became impossible with the wall of censorship. Luckily, by that time I had already developed a good friendship with various assiduous commentators and readers of the blog. Some of them offered me a hand in solidarity and I decided to trust in this virtual relationship that had developed over the course of a few brief months. It was the third great decision that I made in the life of my blog: the first had been launching it in the first place and the second was to use WordPress. I began to send my texts via e-mail, accompanied by an image which my “helpers” would then publish for me.
We also found people who offered to assist with the administration of the other blogs at Desdecuba.com by Reinaldo and Miriam, as well as El Guajiro Azul and the blog by Dimas Castellanos. A web of citizen solidarity was stitched around us. Then came proposals to translate the blog, with people I had never met from all over the world freely offering their help as volunteers to transform my words into Portuguese, English, Chinese, or Dutch. This is something that those who can only conceive of conspiracy theories always use as evidence of the “dark” origins of GeneraciÃ³n Y. They have no trust â€”or understandingâ€” of the sympathy that can develop among people without some government, political party, work program, or financial mission getting in the middle. For these people who like to construct elaborate conspiracies, the way in which everyday citizens spontaneously organize themselves is either unworthy or suspicious. But for me, this is the fundamental axis upon which my on-line project rests. Put simply, without such support the entire project would have remained an impossible dream.
May of 2008 came full of surprises. first was the Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism and then was my being included on Time magazine’s list of the year’s 100 most influential people. The blog was enjoying a period of good health, even though it was high time to upgrade its design and functionality. The big problem, however, was that I was no longer able to gain access to the blog in order to administer it. Moreover, those who were helping me publish it, despite their willingness to assist me in any way, did not have sufficient familiarity with WordPress to dare undertaking such demanding tasks.
Technically, these were difficult months. GY often ran into trouble preventing it from always booting up. It was also the victim of a series of hacker attacks. The rush of new visitors was greater than what my basic traffic package at Strato could handle. Not a week went by that I did not receive news from a frustrated reader telling me there was an error message where my blog should have been. In fact, on the very day I was awarded the Ortega y Gasset prize the blog was down due to a hacker attack that even managed to harm the blog’s database. In one of these repeated assaults I lost all the images that had accompanied my texts up to that point and reloading all those photos one-by-one was quite an odyssey. From this side, disconnected from the web and with my site blockaded I could hardly sleep thinking of the chaos that the hackers had left on the server.
At the end of 2008, GY was nominated for awards by three important organizations: 20 Minutos, BitÃ¡coras, and The BOBs. My chances were slim. Back at that time, WP featured the Mandingo theme, which included a deficient banner (pictured above), had no categories or labels, allowed changes to the sidebars only with great difficulty, the blogroll and links area was a disaster, I had barely been able to install a single plug-in, and on top of all this, my readers were beginning to need a more functional area to share their opinions. So, I asked a friend who was a web designer â€”a Cuban residing in Spainâ€” to help me develop a personalized banner and logo for GY. What you see on my blog today was born out of that crisis. I owe its attractiveness to the talent of this designer, whose own logo is located on the side bar of my blog as a sign of appreciation (see below).
Working together with those who were helping me put up my posts we were able to make some improvements in the blog, one of which was dividing the comments pages into sections of 100 so that they would not take so long to load. We also made some stylistic adjustments to Mandingo and the new banner worked like a charm. The year ended with the news that GY had won the top prizes at both The BOBs and BitÃ¡coras, despite the blog’s obvious technical dificiencies. It was as if I had finally reached shore in my rustic ship.
News of my winning The BOBs prize was covered in the German press, especially by Deutsche Welle and this caused Strato to realize that the top prize winner was being hosted on their server. They got in touch with their client, Josef Biechele, and he gave them my e-mail address and we were able to establish direct contact for the first time. They told me that they were honored to count me among their clients and asked if I needed anything special. I asked that they change the administration language of the server to Spanish, which required them to transfer the domain to one of their subsidiaries in Spain. They were so keen on keeping me as a client that they offered me 18 months of free service and an upgrade to a better service package. In exchange, they only asked that I be one of their business references, allowing them to use my name and blog in PR and advertising their services. It seemed to me to be a great deal and I accepted.
In mid-February of 2009 we began the move. It was a disaster. The old version of WordPress 2.3 broke down and the database turned out to be more difficult to move than a Siberian mammoth. For 11 days the entire domain of desdecuba.com was off line. I couldn’t sleep, my in-box was overflowing with alarming messages, and in the midst of all that chaos an opportunistic hacker took advantage of my vulnerabilities, turning my downed tree into pulp.
We had to rely on back up copies of the blog that had been saved by the server. My situation as a “blind blogger” was becoming insufferable. I saw how my almost two years of labor could all be lost in a moment each time one of those error messages appeared on the screen of anyone who tried entering GY. Finally, a friend gave me an Internet card worth five hours in a Havana hotel and I went there with the conviction that I would not get up from the computer until I could see my blog live once again. Luckily, I found one of the people who helps me was already on chat.
From the country where he lives he could easily navigate around the web and gain access to the control panel of our server. However, he lacked all the technical know-how to fix the problem. I, on the other hand had an idea of how to resolve the issue but I was trapped off-line unable to do anything. Finally, we were able to combine his eyes with my instincts, he was my sight and I was his mind. It took us until almost eleven that night, but in the end the blog was up and running once again, with a few flaws yes, but alive and kicking!
Learning as we went we were able to work out the remaining bugs and the new space on the server turned out to possess a greater capacity for the growing level of traffic on the blog. I changed my theme to Atahualpa, the theme I continue to use today. Just three weeks later the new site was attacked once again, but we used what we had learned from the previous disaster to be better protected this time around. Then came a period of relative technical stability mixed with apprehension about what was happening in the real world. In mid-October someone found a new vulnerability. They were able to gain access and erase the index.php archive. Fortunately, we could solve the problem immediately thanks to the knowledge that my friend had already gained when he saved me the first time around.
Come mid-2010, the 18 months of free domain hosting courtesy of Strato will come to an end. By that time we hope to have saved enough money to continue with our current service plan without losing any of its functionality. My weekly column in the Italian magazine Internazionale, the newspaper collaborations I have done around the world, among which a few are fairly regular like the German publication TAZ, the magazine Poder, the Brazilian magazine Imprensa, and a recent possibility at El Nuevo DÃa in Puerto Rico, all have allowed me to pay for my time on-line and help other bloggers navigate the net. This allows me to continue to focus my minimal resources and prioritize communication and my presence on-line.
Although I will have to sacrifice in other areas, I’m not going to stop investing in connection time, mobile phone cards â€”that allow me to Tweetâ€” , nor in giving logistical support to others who want to begin expressing themselves on the Internet.
The prize money I received for winning third place in the Caminos de la Libertad contest has allowed me to defray the costs of the Blogger Academy, especially in obtaining paper, CDs, DVDs, and some snacks for the participants. Donations made in solidarity through the Paypal button on my blog have also gone toward strengthening the communicative infrastructure that I am trying to create for the use of a whole community.
Material autonomy is the base upon which citizen autonomy is built. This precept is one of the maxims of my life and I will neither be ashamed nor made to feel guilty for having freed myself from paternalism, state dependence, and ridiculous subsidies. I aspire to a Cuba where anyone who wishes can have a web domain, pay for it with their work, not be forced to pay any ideological quota to obtain it, and above all neither be accused of being a “mercenary” nor of being constructed by a foreign power for the mere act of refusing to conform to material indigence and technological disability.
GeneraciÃ³n Y is the fruit of my talent, my energy, the collaboration of thousands of citizens in may parts of the world, the support of my friends, years of reading and study, listening to others, the solidarity of many bloggers and commentators both inside Cuba and abroad, but it is especially the direct result of my interaction with a reality that can be hidden neither by triumphalism nor by the same old stereotyped military mantras.