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AYM ’09: Getting Cuba Connected AYM ’09: Getting Cuba Connected

AYM ’09: Getting Cuba Connected

by Erin Mazursky
October 21, 2009 at 4:00

Interviews from the Alliance of Youth Movements summit: Roots of Hope.

From Obama's campaign fundraising to the election protests in Iran, we've all heard that Twitter and Facebook are rewriting the rules of public engagement. Guest blogger Erin Mazursky talked to participants at the Alliance of Youth Movements summit in Mexico City to find out how the nonprofit leaders of tomorrow are using technology.Verónica Nur Valdéz and Felice Gorordo, ages 25 and 26 respectively, are the co-founders of Raices de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope, a U.S.-based organization that works to empower Cuban youth. Here, they tell Mazursky talked about new uses for old cell phones, Cuban bloggers, and the value of face-to-face communication.ERIN MAZURSKY: What does Roots of Hope do?ROOTS OF HOPE: We work to empower Cuban youth. We are not a political organization. Rather, we promote academic and cultural exchanges between youth in the United States and Cuban youth living in Cuba.EM: What specific projects are you working on now?RoH: We have two main flagships to our organization right now. Our Cell Phones for Cuba campaign collects used cell phones from the U.S. and sends them to Cuba. Per capita cell phone use in Cuba is on par with sub-Saharan Africa. For young people on the island, cell phones are tools. Increased communication and interconnectivity are good for everyone, so we are helping to find ways to make these connections. We also have a publication called Ex(CHANGE) Guide that outlines a number of different ways to connect with Cuban youth-everything from traveling to Cuba legally to using the internet and new media.EM: Cuba is one of the most closed societies in the world with the most restrictions on media and internet usage. How do you create more communication in the face of these restrictions?RoH: Cuba has an intranet with a very effective firewall, but only two percent of the population even has access to this. The internet is only accessible to very high ranking officials, who have government jobs. Oftentimes they will "rent out" their username and password to their friends after work, who pay them to access the outside world. This is how, little by little, young people are connecting to their counterparts in other parts of the world.Roots of Hope works to get youth connected to the internet. This is the first way many Cuban youth are able to connect with the outside world. Bloggers are also becoming more vocal and finding ways to circumvent the system, which is incredibly important in creating outlets for Cuban youth in realizing their voice.EM: What role has technology played in helping you to build a movement behind your work?RoH: Technology has, without a doubt, helped us to reach a much broader span of people. When we started, we were simply making phone calls to people that we knew, and relying on them to spread the word. Now, through social networks, we can spread the word through many different outlets.EM: What are some of the biggest challenges your group faces?RoH: We are a completely 100 percent volunteer organization, so the internet is our office space. This can be really helpful, but interacting with people virtually leads to things being lost in translation. We have to find ways to bring people together face-to-face in order to be as effective as possible. As great as online coordination can be, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction.EM: How do you like Mexico City?RoH: We have been here many times, but the summit is great. We are fortunate and humbled to meet these dynamic young leaders. This is a network unto itself that is being created that helps to reinforce all of our causes.Erin is a proud member of the Millennial generation, an independent nonprofit and political consultant, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and a contributor to the GOOD column Canapés and Kalashnikovs.
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