While low levels of internet access across the Caribbean island limits the outlets’ domestic reach and they are not fully free to speak their mind, they are opening up the range of voices and sparking a debate about the role of the media in the one-party state.
While the Cuban constitution forbids privately-owned mass media and there are no independent newspaper printing presses in the country, web-based outlets have so far been tolerated as long as they are not “counter-revolutionary”, a nebulous term generally used against those the government accuses of trying to undermine it.
Vistar is a glossy magazine also popular abroad – each edition is downloaded on average 50,000 times – and says it earns revenue from advertising, including Mexico’s Sol beer and Silver Airways, which serves Florida, the Bahamas and now Cuba.
“Creating it was not difficult in the sense that we made the first edition without knowing for sure what was ahead, but to continue was itself was a bit difficult, due to internet access,” said Robin Pedraja, 29, editor of Vistar, a digital magazine about youth culture, speaking moments before a photoshoot with an up-and-coming Cuban singer at its airy office, decorated with contemporary Cuban art and enjoying a fine views of Havana.
“We thought we could gain recognition as an independent magazine in Cuba and then we realised it was not like that. But that did not stop us, we carried on. At first we had a bad reputation because we represented a media uprising, to call it something, but we knew what we could do and what we couldn’t,” he continued.
President Raul Castro’s government blocks internet access to dissident media, such as the country’s most famous blogger Yoani Sanchez, as well as stridently anti-Castro, Miami-based outlets.
The new outlets, mainly run by millennials, have distanced themselves from dissident groups. Although they are often are highly critical of government policy and describe in detail everyday hardships, they are not calling for an end to Cuba’s socialist project.
But some Cubans are suspicious of the new outlets.
“Information in unofficial media is unreliable. It has to be official information media. It is most reliable, because the other unofficial media can undergo transformations or can be manipulated,” said Cuban doctor, Alejandro Larrinaga.
The new openness is emblematic of a wider, albeit cautious, reform program under Raul Castro, who has allowed Cubans to purchase cellphones and laptops, installed 200 Wi-Fi hotspots across the country and even fostered a small private sector.
For some, the mere fact a debate about the role of the media is taking place is a sea change.
“There’s obviously a debate and in my opinion is a healthy debate between journalists and the institutions that represents them. We have kept ourselves away from that issue. I’m not a journalist, I’m a businessman and I appreciate the fact that that debate is happening. The Cuba that I grew up in, that debate would have never existed,” said Hugo Cancio, founder of media platform OnCuba who says he moved to the United States 35 years ago after being expelled from school for making a joke about revolutionary leader Fidel Castro.
The new tolerance may not last. The Communist Party newspaper Granma has published a series of increasingly angry attacks calling for restrictions on the new competitors, who have lured away some of its journalists by offering higher salaries and more freedom.
The critics link the new media to U.S. government financed outlets such as Miami-based opposition Radio Marti and Television Marti that seek to undermine the Cuban government.
“Cuban institutions have a legitimate right to adopt required measures in the face of tendentious journalism,” Granmas Iroel Sanchez wrote on Wednesday in a column. Sanchez called the new outlets “Trojan horses” set on attacking Cuba’s existing journalists and creating a “media aristocracy.”
Insiders at OnCuba, which overlooks Havana’s sweeping seafront and by describing itself as foreign media has become the only one of the new media crop to win official accreditation, say it has softened its editorial line recently in order to keep its permit.
Cuba remains one of the world’s least connected countries. Fewer than 5 percent of homes are estimated to have internet and access at Wi-Fi hotspots around town costs $2 per hour – a hefty sum in a country where state wages average $25 per month.
The emergence of alternative outlets has added to fuel to a smoldering debate between reformists and conservatives in the heart of Cuba’s system about the pace of economic and social change necessary for the system to survive.
Castro himself lambasted state-run media five years ago, complaining it was often “boring, improvised and superficial”.
“We need to leave behind the habit of triumphalism, stridency and formalism in broaching the topic of national news,” he said at the 2011 Communist Party Congress.
In a sign of the internal debate this has caused, Granma’s deputy editor, Karina Marron, made a closed-door speech in June saying nobody chose journalism to write propaganda and calling for reform. The speech was leaked on the blog of a state media journalist and went viral. The reporter was later fired.
OnCuba, which also targets U.S. readers, has 259,616 likes on Facebook, Vistar has 15,776, and younger and more news-based outlets like The Sneeze and Neighborhood Journalism have several thousand each.
For the time being, television remains most Cubans’ main source of news, given that internet is still a luxury. Cubans tune in to the thrice-daily state news programmes or to foreign satellite programs pirated from the United States.