Divided Cuban Community Meets on 'Planet Facebook'
HAVANA – Susana has never set foot outside of Cuba but she has seen plenty of pictures of her friends' houses in Miami, their new cars and even the fancy disco they went to the other night.
Like more and more of her fellow Cubans, she is getting a glimpse of the larger world through Facebook, the Internet social network that is allowing contact with the Cuban diaspora in ways previously unthinkable from the communist-run island.
"It is a way of staying in touch with the rest of the world. You check the pages of your friends living abroad and you see how they live, where they go, who they hang out with. It's like being there," said the 24-year-old pharmacist.
"All my Cuban friends who have access to the Internet are now on Facebook," she said.
With at least 1.5 million Cuban exiles living abroad — most in the United States just 90 miles across the Florida Straits from Cuba — and international phone calls too costly for most Cubans, Facebook provides a new way for the divided Cuban world to come together.
U.S. President Barack Obama has lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting relatives in Cuba in a slight easing of the long-running U.S. trade embargo on the island, but thousands of Cuban families remain separated.
Facebook does not disclose how many people in Cuba have subscribed to the service, but there are several indicators that the number is on the rise —no small feat in a country where Internet access is limited.
Alain Ramirez, founder of a Miami-based Facebook group for former students of the prestigious Lenin secondary school in Havana, estimates that 30 percent of the group's 1,750 members are in Cuba.
"The number of users in Cuba is growing fast. There are more every day, but they are not very active. They might just log on every other week or two," said the 30-year-old computer scientist who emigrated to the United States six years ago.
Facebook has more than 300 million subscribers globally, but Cuba lags most of the world in Internet use.
Official figures show that only 13 percent of Cuba's 11 million people have access to the Internet, and in most cases only to a tightly controlled intranet of approved sites, not the full World Wide Web.
But they have enthusiastically embraced Facebook, which allows them to learn more about life outside the island, while giving emigres a way to keep up with their homeland.
In a recent entry, Havana-based Daniela told her 96 Facebook friends how it felt to be among hundreds of thousands of Cubans who flocked to the city's Revolution Square for a Sept. 20 concert organized by Colombian pop star Juanes.
"Tell us more, tell us more!," pleaded Aileen, a friend from school now living in New York.
Daniela says Facebook has become a "virtual island" populated by Cubans scattered all over the world.
"Facebook has created a new community, a new sort of country. I call it Planet Facebook," she said. "There is where we meet. It often makes your day. Some people cry, others share a song or just talk about their new haircut."
The network also seems to be blurring the borders of the politically correct in Cuba, where once it was not unusual for people to avoid trouble with the government by cutting off ties with relatives who fled to Miami.
Today, the Facebook page of a journalist for the official newspaper Granma shows friends now living in the United States, and a Cuban singer known for his pro-government songs has among his Facebook contacts a columnist for El Nuevo Herald, the Miami newspaper that is often critical of Cuban leaders.
Facebook is also proving a useful tool for Cubans who are making plans to leave the island.
Susana, the pharmacist, has obtained a visa to go to the United States and will soon leave for Miami.
She has been busily conversing via Facebook with her friends who have promised to look after her in her new home. "I got in touch with the ones who are in Florida and they say they will help me find a job," she said.
Right now she is using Facebook to pick her costume for the Halloween party friends are planning to welcome her to Miami.