Esquife: Cuba’s Online Culture Project

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA TIMES, April 6 (IPS) — Buoyant in the storm and sailing for new horizons, the Cuban cultural project Esquife (Skiff) has spent over a decade navigating the rough waters of thought-provoking digital journalism, stirring up opinions rather than wallowing in complacency.

Convinced that “the editor of a digital publication must keep his eyes on the horizon, an ear alert to the academic world, his heart in the street, one hand on the computer keyboard and the other knocking on the door of life,” poet and journalist Andrés Mir describes his job as editor as “taking an ethical stance.”

“We have a network of more than 100 contributors all over the country, of whom 20 or so are regulars. We are not concerned about the person’s CV but about their work and we set very high standards for that. We do not publish just any old thing, and we take responsibility for everything written in the magazine,” Mir told IPS.

Esquife’s critical, incisive and enquiring gaze monitors events of cultural significance on the island every week, and devotes special coverage to the Cuba International Book Fair, the Havana visual arts biennials, and the May cultural festival in the eastern province of Holguín, known as the Romerías de Mayo.

Its logo is a paper boat, made out of newspaper, and its name refers to the small boats that transport passengers and crew between a ship and land.  Not satisfied with posting a magazine on the internet, it has also incorporated an electronic distribution system reaching over 3,000 email addresses.

“When we publish an article that might cause trouble or raise concerns, we sign it ourselves. People who work in digital media tend to forget about reality.  We cannot forget that we are still working in the physical world.  We do not just want to get inside a computer, but to go out into the world,” said Mir.

Esquife, founded in 1996 as the personal initiative of Mir and Cuban painter Hanna G. Chomenko, began as a communication, research and creative project investigating the links between visual and literary images, and promoting dialogue between artists’ proposals and the wider public.

The collective organized several exhibitions, one of which was devoted to women, with over 40 artists participating, and then in 1999 the Esquife group put most of its energies into fulfilling a longstanding dream: creating a magazine, not in the utopia of print but in “digital reality.”

“Ours was the first digital magazine on arts and literature produced in Cuba. I don’t know whether that counts as a great achievement, but at the time we felt we were banging our heads against a brick wall,” said Mir, as he recalled the great efforts they made to avoid becoming an “institutionalized” magazine.

From the start, Esquife had the backing of the Asociación Hermanos Saíz (Saíz Brothers Association – AHS), an organization bringing together young Cuban creative talent; but although the magazine project always recognized those things it had in common with AHS, it refused to be tied down in a closer association.

Keeping to “the margins,” it worked on shedding light on emerging and alternative initiatives, and turned the spotlight on creative artists who are kept out of official promotion circles. The initial idea was complemented with the opportunity to download music files, image galleries and books.

Founded during the severe Cuban economic crisis of the 1990s, which had a major impact on newspapers and magazines, Esquife attempted to fill the “need for a different kind of journalism that would be more in-depth and less cosmetic, more analytical, and cultural in the broadest and deepest sense of the word,” Yanet Bello told IPS.

One of the four people who “do everything” at the core of the project for several years now, Bello said that more than a decade after the magazine’s first issue appeared, its creators still face a lack of understanding by certain official individuals and bodies.

“We’re still fighting a lack of comprehension of the digital world. It’s not always understood that the digital media cannot be controlled in the same way as print products,” said Bello, who mentioned the lack of support for an international meeting organized by the project last year.

The International Theoretical Meeting on Digital Media and Culture was not covered by the national media, and faced countless hurdles because of government fears that “it would be contaminated by politics,” specifically by proposals from dissident political groups.

Nevertheless, with essential support from several AHS programs, the meeting created a new space for Cuban cultural thought, centered on information technologies, digital journalism, social networks and their social impact.

“Now we’re engaged in reorganizing the Esquife site to make it more dynamic and to build up a social network for debate on these issues. In other words, we want to put the theoretical meeting permanently online, as an ongoing debate, using the same media that are the objects of our analysis,” said Mir.