A Conversation Between Yanelys Nuñez Leyva and Iliana Álvarez González
For the past few months, whenever Cuban activists made a complaint on social media, the first comments have always had the hashtag #PatriayVida attached to them. The song that made the phrase popular premiered on the 16th of February 2021 and presently has more than five million views on YouTube. It has become one of the most forceful symbols of civil society on the island.
This is just one example of the impact of the Internet in Cuba. Though the Internet appeared late and access to it has been controlled by the communication monopoly ETECSA—remember it was only in 2015 that the first Wi-Fi hotspots were set up in the public space and in 2018 that a mobile network was set—Internet for Cubans has had a therapeutic effect.
In 2008, Yoani Sánchez, one of the most recognized journalists of the Cuban blogosphere, already predicted its impact. In an interview for Deutsche Welle and talking about alternative bloggers, Yoani said “they are going to play a very important role in the future of Cuba because they have the individual, the citizens, point of view.” 
Even if this future Cuba does not seem to consolidate itself in a democratic manner; social media, blogs, magazines, and independent newspapers have become essential for the activation of collectives and individuals who have been disconnected from each other for too long. They have also contributed to the international unveiling of a different story about the island, far from any revolutionary utopia.
In conversation with Ileana Álvarez (Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, 1966) and thanks to her career as an independent journalist, with this interview, we aim to restore a part of the collective memory concerning Cuban publications. We are going to focus on the feminist magazine Alas Tensas, which Iliana is a founding member and director of.
We are also going to refer to the most recent social movements in the arts sector. These have been significantly supported by the independent media.
Ileana Álvarez graduated from the University Central de las Villas with a degree in philology and earned a master’s degree in Latin-American Culture at the Instituto Superior de Arte of La Habana. She has attended several international workshops on publishing, journalism, and gender. However, she thinks about herself as “a poet that enters other professions.”
Internet and Online Publishing
Yanelys: When did you realize that online publications could offer a different look at Cuban reality?
Ileana: I was working for a cultural magazine, Videncia, where the team had to go to great lengths to get it printed. This and other signs made me understand that the future of communication was in the digital world. In 2005, we created the cultural magazine Árbol Invertido, first thanks to the Public Regional Library of Ciego de Ávila, which was interested in giving publicity to writers and artists in the country. Afterward, we slowly started to grow and became totally independent. Today, we are an independent cultural magazine that covers a large spectrum of social and cultural issues and that was born digitally.
Y: How did you get Internet access at the beginning and what was your experience of its evolution?
I: I remember my first encounters with the digital world in the computer room of the University of Central de las Villas. We did not even have Windows at the time. For us, the students of Humanities, it was a whole new world.
After my graduation, I used this technology for the first time to send and receive emails that were authorized by the Regional Head Office of Culture of each province. Then, we moved into the Intranet, which was a sort of local navigation. Internet was still a utopia. During those years, the world moved towards the mass use of the Internet, but in Cuba, only a few privileged had access: diplomats, state institutions, and some artists and writers. In 1999, I was able to get a computer on a trip to Mexico and after a whole odyssey, I managed to bring it to Cuba. I got authorized by the Regional Head Office of Culture to use email and the Intranet, both supervised by the State Security that had access to all our emails and the sites we visited.
Years later, other segments of the population gained access through mail offices and the navigation rooms created in the Computation Youth Clubs.
Looking back, Internet access in Cuba has evolved but it has been a long way and it is still complicated for most Cubans. We still suffer from bad connections and have to use VPN to access the sites that are censored by the government.
Y: In your opinion, what’s the importance of the independent publishing world, and what are the risks of being part of it?
I: Independent journalism in Cuba was born as an alternative to official journalism, which has been characterized by the sole control of the government for over sixty years. In independent media, themes, stories, and issues of Cuban society are discussed that the official media hides or manipulates. Independent organizations try to reflect on social issues with objectivity, addressing its complexity, its inequality, its struggles, and aspirations. Independent platforms also unmask the ruling power and deconstruct its triumphalist discourse with the descriptions of the stories and struggles of everyday Cuban people. Searching for the truth and the construction of a new Cuba, independent journalism has a very important role to play. It supports—sometimes making mistakes—pluralism and inclusion.
Most independent journalists suffer arbitrary detentions, in many cases, violence, incarcerations, their equipment is confiscated, they are prevented from leaving their house to do their jobs or forbidden to leave the country in order to be able to study; most of them are vilified by the official media, they are threatened and pursued, but not only them, their families and friends too. The truth is, there are many risks and lots of psychological violence. Due to the amount of harassment, independent journalists often work less or stop working altogether. At least their mental health is at risk. Facing this reality, many journalists, like myself, feel they have only one choice: exile.
Current Situation of Culture in Cuba
Y: At this point, I would like you to give a background about Cuban cultural policies regarding freedom of expression in the media and the field of culture.
The legal repertoire built by the Cuban government to act with total impunity has been updated these last years. In 2003, based on the still existing Law 88, 75 dissidents were prosecuted, 29 of them independent journalists. Altogether, they were sentenced to over 28 years in prison. Nowadays Law 370 is in use. With this Decree created in 2019, the government “punishes the spreading of information which is against ‘social interest’, ‘morals’ and ‘good habits’ through social media. These categories do not describe the crime and inhibit the debate in the political and public sphere.”  In 2021, the government formally included the operation of independent news agencies in the list of forbidden activities in the private sector. 
The independent cultural sector is similarly oppressed; it is a non-cohesive movement that has initiated several emancipatory gestures of great visibility. The Museo de La Disidencia en Cuba (The Museum of Dissidence in Cuba) , La #00 Bienal de La Habana , the campaign “Cuban Artists against the Decree 349” , the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI)  and the #27N  are some examples of actions, platforms, and collectives that have been working in the online and physical public space.
Their actions have been inspired by different events in the history of resistance in Cuban art, starting from 1959. One of the most recent sources of inspiration is the OMNI Zona Franca Movement, which started in 1997 . The Omnis were influenced by the philosophy of the schizo-poet Juan Carlos Flores (1962-2016) and for twenty years they cultivated art far away from academic rigors, taking advantage of the public space in a carefree way—something that few collectives achieved. Alamar, a dormitory town marked by the presence of many Chilean and Argentinian refugees, the sea, and the Russian neighborhood, was the group’s operation center. In the Casa de Cultura Fayad Jamís, where they lived together, they organized meditations, poetry readings, etc. until 2009, when the Vice Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas proclaimed (after eviction by the police) that the Institution had “divorced the Omnis”.
Back to the present, we should speak about the specific case of Movimiento San Isidro/MSI (San Isidro Movement). Not only because one of the founding members of the Movement, Omnipoeta Amaury Pacheco, was one of the creators of the OMNI group, but also because MSI has thrown the artistic community out of their comfort zone and has encouraged the political participation of their colleagues.
MSI was founded in 2018, during the campaign against Decree 349. The San Isidro Movement is a Cuban collective with members such as independent journalists, producers, agents, artists, and researchers. Its main organizer is the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and the goal of the movement is to promote and protect the cultural rights of Cuba. They work to create spaces for dialog and for the democratization of the nation.
During all these years, MSI has organized a large number of civic-artistic actions. One of the most important of these was the formal registry in the complaint with the Attorney General, against the Ministry of Culture and other institutions, asking for the derogation of the so-called Decree 349, introduced in 2019. MSI also organized concerts in the headquarters of the Museo de La Disidencia de Cuba, set in a private house of Habana Vieja (Old Havanna district), film festivals, public debates, poetry readings, manifesto signings, and symbolic-religious pilgrimages. MSI created the social media challenge #LaBanderaEsDeTodos Tthe Flag Belongs to Everyone), the Plataforma de Diálogo Nacional (Platform for National Dialog), and the hunger strike of November 2020.  The repercussion of this last action of the independent media caused a protest of 400 artists and intellectuals on the 27th of November 2020 (one day after the strikers had been evicted) outside the Ministry of Culture, demanding the end of censorship and institutional repression.
MSI raised the spirits of those who live on the island but also of those living in exile outside of Cuba. Around the world, there was a series of demonstrations supporting the San Isidro Movement, as a result of which Cuba became part of the discussions in the international community again, which, in return, generated historic resolutions on the political situation of Cuba, like the one passed on the 10th of June 2021 by the European Union. This resolution condemns the existence of political prisoners in Cuba, the repression against the opposition and independent journalists, as well as the unbearable conditions that health workers sent for the so-called “medical missions”  have to endure.
Cuban Feminisms and Alas Tensas Magazine
Y: How was Alas Tensas born?
I: I started Alas Tensas in 2016. It was the result of a learning process. I became connected with feminism in my university years, through literary criticism and theory with a gender perspective. It was at the end of the 1980s when feminism entered the university through the curricula of women studies and feminist criticism. I understood how important it was to rescue the names of Cuban women who had contributed significantly to the history of Cuban literature and who have been overshadowed by a patriarchal and heteronormative canon.
Once I started working as a publisher, I made two feminist anthologies: Cuarto creciente and Catedral sumergida, the latter, in collaboration with feminist writer Maylén Domínguez. It was published by Letras Cubanas. Cuarto creciente gathered a group of Cuban poets that were writing in the provinces, in the periphery, far away from the cultural power headquarters, and that weren’t taken into account by the anthologies made in Havanna. Catedral sumergida was a dialog in one textual body between poets inside and outside Cuba. After two years of intensive work, we managed to gather almost forty writers living in exile, breaking several walls inside and outside the country, with a significant body of work. Many of them had never been published in Cuba and had been intentionally forgotten for ideological reasons.
Yes, I arrived at feminism through and thanks literature, and from then I inevitably started to look at reality through my purple glasses. I started to look and explain to myself culture and society through this new perspective, through the new angle that feminism contributes, revealing unequal relations and oppressions that were overlooked before.
By 2016, several independent media platforms appeared in and outside of Cuba. As an editor of Árbol Invertido magazine, I went to several editorial and literary workshops and meetings with journalists. In those meetings, I analyzed how rare gender-related themes were in the independent media of the country. I came to the conclusion that a forum that would address issues holistically with a noticeable gender perspective was necessary. Alas Tensas was born out of the enthusiasm of a group of professionals for a project that combined the possibility for professional development and for serving the readership with real information. Sadly, most of them were forced to abandon the project due to the pressure of the State Security and institutions such as the Unión de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba (UNEAC), which doesn’t allow independent initiatives to develop in the country.
Y: What influences or references did you take into account when creating the magazine?
I: Alas Tensas is following Cuba’s feminist tradition. Cuba’s feminist movement has its roots in the 19th century with the proliferation of the female separatist clubs and the determination of magazines like “Álbum Cubano de lo Bueno y lo Bello” (1860), created by the important Cuban writer Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814–1873). In the first half of the 20th century and as aprt of the Avant-garde of Latin America, Cuban feminism grew at the same pace as in other countries. This development was abruptly interrupted by the triumph of the 1959 Revolution, which considered feminism, its fights, and gains, as the bearer of a “liberal petite bourgeoisie ideology”, as even revolutionary and feminist Vilma Espín (1930–2007) formulated it. Feminism was regarded as unnecessary, even harmful for a Revolution such as the one happening in Cuba, where the class struggle was the most important thing. This way, the Cuban feminist movement, which had achieved significant social conscience and had an impact on the progress of the nation and its fight for emancipation, disappeared from the public sphere. Furthermore, the achievements of the feminist movement were silenced and forgotten. Decades had to go by until a few historians, researchers and feminist activists rescued the richness of that movement, its complexities, its gains, its history, and its main figures. Thanks to the feminist movement, Cuba was one of the first Latin American countries to grant women the right to vote in 1934 and to pass important legislation that expanded women’s rights, such as the 1917 Parental Responsibility Law, the 1917 Property Law or the 1918 Divorce Law. These reforms, originally incorporated into the Civil Code, were enshrined in the country’s 1940 Constitution.
It was in those years that journalism with a clear gender perspective, made by women, started to appear. Some of them were Mariblanca Sabás Alomar (1901–1983), Pilar Morlón (? – 2000), Ofelia Domínguez (1894–1976), Hortensia Lamar (1938–). That perspective wouldn’t endure in Cuban journalism after 1959, and it is only now, after so much time, when there’s a huge cry out for it, now when this perspective starts to appear in the alternative media, with an obvious delay compared to journalism in other parts of the world.
Alas Tensas was inspired by that tradition and by more recent projects like Magín , created in the 1990s by feminist women, among others Sonnia Moro and Darsy Rubiera, as a follow-up of encounters with like-minded colleagues in international meetings. They were trying to change the image of Cuban women in the media and banish stereotypes that strengthened gender violence. Alas Tensas aims to grow and to contribute to the formation of values such as equality and respect towards women in the new generations.
Y: What are the themes of the magazine?
I: In its different sections, Alas Tensas reveals the hidden history of feminism, unmasks the patriarchate, and portrays Cuban women’s different lifestyles, challenges, problems, and achievements, their quest for autonomy and empowerment. It provides information about gender discrimination and oppression; about the LGTBIQ+ community, domestic violence, and political violence against Cuban women.
In the magazine, we have an activism section we call “Observatory of Femicide”. Here we share information about how to fight domestic violence; we gather data about cases, we make public demands like the typification of femicide in the Penal Code, the implementation of a Ley Integral contra la Violencia De Genero (a Law against Gender-Based Violence), or for the creation of shelters for women who have suffered domestic violence. We turn to Cuban institutions like the Federación de Mujeres Cubanas (Cuban Women Federation) or the Cuban Parliament, we participate in campaigns and we collaborate with activist platforms in order to strengthen our forces and work together.
In the “Observatory of Femicide”, we work with an anonymous network of women observers throughout the country. We also work with sources from the community, family members of victims, and citizen reports on social media. Due to the lack of official data platforms, we verify the information carefully through collaboration with other independent organisations.
Y: Summarizing, why is it important for independent and official media to include a gender perspective?
I: The gender perspective gives the necessary tools to journalists and scholars, so they can do an analysis of society and speak about it without falling into sexist and macho stereotypes. It helps to avoid the—sometimes unintentional—promotion of discrimination of women and other marginalized groups. Media plays a very important role, not only in how it portrays reality but also in the construction of a new society. Gender perspective helps to participate in that construction through introducing the lens of equality and justice.
Y: Would you say that a feminist movement exists in Cuba?
I: I think that the arrival of the Internet in Cuba is a significant turning point for the expansion of different types of feminisms throughout the country. I think it is not yet an articulated movement, but there is no doubt that feminist activism exists, most of it in the virtual space. There’s also a new way of thinking, a kind of feminism that soaks into other activisms, citizens’ initiatives, oppositional organizations, and political parties, something that was unthinkable just a few years ago.
Within the feminist movement the “Platform Yo sí te creo” (Platform “I believe you”) stands out. It does not only educate people on feminism and condemns gender violence in all its manifestations, but it has also given psychological and legal help to women victims of gender violence. We also have the “Red Femenina de Cuba” (Cuban Women’s Network) that started to coordinate several feminist anti-government organizations and nowadays it is obvious how their actions gave clarity to the gender perspective.
About the Author
Yanelys Nuñez Leyva (Havana, 1989) is a curator, researcher and activist. She is co-author of the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba, a platform that establishes spaces for dialogues and artistic creation. She was one of the organizers of # 00Bienal de La Habana in 2018. She has participated in international discussion forums such as Creative Time and Forum 2000. After the signing of Decree 349 in 2018, a law that criminalizes all cultural production on the island, the Cuban Artists Campaign against Decree 349 began together with other creators, which promoted the repeal of the decree through legal claims, artistic actions and unauthorized peaceful public protests. She has held workshops to expose her independent cultural production tools at conferences in Argentina, Chile, Great Britain, Czech Republic, France and elsewhere.
 Luna Bolivar, “Yoani Sánchez: ‘soy una blogger a ciegas’, DW.com, November 27, 2008, https://www.dw.com/es/yoani-s%C3%A1nchez-soy-una-blogger-a-ciegas/a-3827316-0.
 “Cuba: El Decreto Ley 370 debe ser declarado inconstitucional pues atenta contra la libertad de expresión y de prensa,” Article 19, June 15, 2020, https://articulo19.org/cuba-organizaciones-y-medios-de-comunicacion-respaldamos-la-peticion-para-declarar-inconstitucional-el-decreto-ley-370-en-cuba/.
 “Actividades donde no se permite el ejercicio del trabajo por cuenta propia,” MTSS, October 02, 2021, https://www.mtss.gob.cu/noticias/actividades-donde-no-se-permite-el-ejercicio-del-trabajo-por-cuenta-propia.
 The Museum of Dissidence is a system-critical art collective of several Cuban artists that has been formed in 2016. Through diverse creative projects as poetry reading, film exhibits, or workshops they advocate for the dissent, system-oppositional perspective in arts. “The Museum of Dissidence in Cuba: Past and Present,” Democratic Spaces, August 16, 2020,
 Bienal de La Habana was the first independent art biennial of Cuba. “#00Bienal de la Habana: In Every Studio a Biennial,” e-flux.com, April 29, 2018,
 Decree 349 was announced in 2018, and it is considered as the most severe regulation directly attacking the independent cultural scene by wide censorship and control. Since then, independent artists have launched a global campaign against the regulation. “Art under Pressure: Decree 349 Restricts Creative Freedom in Cuba,” Artists at Risk Connection March 4, 2019,
 #27N has been a movement of Cuban artists and intellectuals for democratic freedom: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/09/world/americas/cuba-protest-san-isidro.html
 Zoya Kocur, “OMNI Zona Franca and the Public Sphere,” http://archive.hemisphericinstitute.org/hemi/en/omni-zona-franca-essay
 On the 18th of November 2020, the members and allies of MSI (university professors, independent journalists, artists) declared a hunger and thirst strike to demand the liberation of the Cuban musician Denis Solís. Denis was unjustly condemned to 8 months of prison in a summary trial accused of Contempt of court. The strikers, known afterwards as the “acuartelados de San Isidro” (the holders of San Isidro), had been besieged by the political police for 10 days before they were cleared out by force from the private house of artist Luis Manuel Otero, where they had sheltered to do the protest. More on the movement: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/10/opinion/cuba-san-isidro-movement.html.
 Medical missions are when the Cuban government sends health professionals to countries that officially ask for help. Many doctors went to Venezuela, for example. There may be different reasons for a country to ask for help: help during a health crisis, or in order for Cuban professionals to work in risky zones. These missions are always done with an economic agreement between the soliciting government and Cuba.
 Cuarto creciente (poetisas avileñas), Ediciones Ávila, Ciego de Ávila, 2007
 Catedral sumergida. Poesía cubana contemporánea escrita por mujeres, Editorial Letras Cubanas, La Habana, 2014.