Despite Censorship and Poor Internet, Cuban Podcasts Are Booming

New audio shows made in Cuba are finding a rapt audience and upending the island’s hyperpartisan media landscape.

A report by Ernesto Lodoño for The New York Times.

There has been little to laugh about in Cuba lately. But on a recent episode of El Enjambre, a weekly podcast produced on the island, the three hosts were howling at the latest form of censorship by the state-run telecommunications company.

“If you send a text message with the word freedom, the message doesn’t reach the recipient,” Lucía March told her incredulous co-hosts, referring to the Spanish language word libertad. “It evaporates, vanishes! I’m serious.”

The exchange was funny, informative and lighthearted, traits that have made El Enjambre one of the biggest hits among the scores of new Cuban-made podcasts that are now competing for residents’ attention and limited internet bandwidth.

Cubans began having access to the internet on smartphones only in 2018. Since then, podcasts about politics, current events, history, entrepreneurship and language have upended how Cubans get their information, expanding the middle ground between the hyperpartisan content generated by government-run media outlets and American government funded newsrooms that are highly critical of the island’s authoritarian leaders.

“There has been exponential growth, and I predict it will continue to multiply,” said Yoani Sánchez, a Cuban journalist who records a daily news podcast plugging stories from the independent news portal she runs, 14yMedio. “Cubans by and large are devoted radio listeners, and for that reason they have the potential to become devoted listeners to podcasts.”

Cuba’s government blocks access to several news websites — including 14yMedio — and recently passed a measure making it a crime to post content that is critical of the Cuban state on social media. But the authorities have not yet taken action to censor or block access to the more than 220 podcasts that are produced in Cuba or cater largely to Cuban audiences, said Carlos Lugones, the founder of Cuba Pod, a platform that promotes and catalogs Cuban podcasts. (The country’s state-run telecommunications company did not respond to a request for comment about censoring text messages.)

“It’s very difficult for a government to censor a podcast because there are many ways of distributing it,” said Mr. Lugones, who believes the new audio initiatives are stirring nuanced conversations on the island. “Podcasts spark debates in society all the time. They cause people to reflect.”

Yoani Sánchez, who records a daily podcast and runs an independent news portal, speaking at the 2019 Inter-American Press Association meeting.
Yoani Sánchez, who records a daily podcast and runs an independent news portal, speaking at the 2019 Inter-American Press Association meeting.

A desire to do just that prompted Camilo Condis, an industrial engineer who has opened a few restaurants in Havana, to launch El Enjambre — Spanish for swarm of bees — in late 2019. The heart of the show is a spirited, spontaneous conversation among Mr. Condis and his co-hosts, Ms. March and Yunior García Aguilera.

No subject is off limits.

El Enjambre provided detailed coverage of the remarkable July 11 anti-government protests in Cuba and searing criticism of the ruthless crackdown that followed.

The hosts also dissected the dismal state of the health care system as Covid-19 cases surged on the island, mocked the sputtering initiatives by the government to allow some private sector activities, such as garage sales, and attempted to read the tea leaves on the future of Washington’s relationship with Havana.

Each episode includes a short, humorous, scripted drama, a segment called History without Hysteria and a lengthy conversation that tends to focus on the issues Cubans have been arguing about on social media over the past few days.

“The objective was to create a conversation like you’d have on any street corner in Cuba,” Mr. Condis said. “But we provide only verified facts, because it matters greatly to us to never provide false information.”

Mr. Condis said he steered clear of using what he views as needlessly polarizing language, refraining, for instance, from referring to the Cuban government as a dictatorship. The hosts don’t take for granted the relative freedom they have enjoyed so far in criticizing the government. After all, Cuba does not have press freedom laws and critical journalists are often subject to harassment and home detention.

“At any moment they might go to war with us and take us off the air,” Mr. Condis said.

If anyone has been pushing the boundaries it’s Ms. Sánchez, an ardent critic of the government who first gained prominence as an early adopter of technology in 2007, when she began writing a raw and lyrical blog about life on the island.

In December 2018, when Cuba’s telecommunications company Etecsa began offering data plans for smartphones, Ms. Sánchez saw an opportunity to expand the reach of her journalism, which had previously been distributed as an emailed newsletter and a PDF file.

She began recording short episodes early each weekday while drinking her morning coffee, telling listeners what the weather looked like outside the window of her 14th-floor apartment in Havana. She jokes that the soundtrack of the show is the spoon stirring her cup of coffee, “always bitter and very, very necessary.”

“I must say there are many people who are not interested in the news we put out because they’re not readers, including older people who don’t see well,” Ms. Sánchez said in response to questions, which she answered — fittingly enough — in a series of audio files. “But the human voice, news that is narrated, sitting together to share a coffee, creates a sense of intimacy, of familiarity, of closeness that allows me to reach those people.”

The podcast boom in Cuba has coincided with a worsening economic and health crisis. The sanctions imposed by the Trump administration have made it harder for exiles to send money to relatives and for Americans to travel to the island, and have contributed to food and medicine shortages that have worsened during the pandemic.

But the format is the rare media venture that requires little training or capital, said Elaine Díaz, the founder of Periodismo de Barrio, a watchdog news site that covers environmental and human rights issues in Cuba.

“They’re a cheap product to make,” said Ms. Díaz, who launched a podcast in January 2019. “The editing formats are very simple.”

The creators of El Pitch, a show about marketing, offer actionable tips for entrepreneurs navigating the web of sanctions and rules that have hobbled the growth of the private sector on the island. La Potajera, a show that launched in July, gives voice to gay, bisexual and transgender Cubans.

Podcasts in Cuba are labors of love at this point, said Mr. Condis. But he hopes that one day they can become profitable.

“In the future, I want to have advertisers,” he said.

El Enjambre is a production of El Toque, an online news site that says it receives grants from philanthropic and journalism organizations. Periodismo de Barrio says on its website that it receives funding from international organizations, including the Swedish Foundation for Human Rights. Ms. Sánchez’s news service says it makes money from online ads.

During months of isolation, as Covid cases have surged, podcasts have helped foster a sense of community and a reprieve from boredom. Because Cubans pay large sums of money per gigabyte for internet access from Etecsa, the only provider, podcasts provide an attractive alternative to scrolling aimlessly on phones or laptops for hours.

“You can listen to podcasts while you wash the dishes, while taking a stroll down the street,” said Ms. Sánchez. “People feel that I’m inside their homes, sitting at their kitchen table stirring a bitter cup of coffee.”’

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