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Teaching Twitter in Havana

Students squeeze into blogger's living room to learn about Wordpress, Wikipedia and the digital revolution.

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)

Photo caption: 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)

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 internet.

Then there’s the possibility that the next knock on the door might be the police. 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 one.

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 illegal in Cuba, but because Sanchez, 34, is considered dangerous company.

Sanchez remains largely unknown on the island, where her award-winning blog, 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 abroad.