A lot of my diplomatic counterparts in Havana look completely bemused when I talk to them about Twitter or tell them what my last blog was about. That’s not because they don’t know what Twitter or blogging is but because they don’t really see social media as playing a role in their daily diplomacy. Many ask me why I bother telling the world what I’m up to in a 140 character tweet or why I toil over a blog about Cuba’s investment policy or my recent trip to a corner of Cuba. With access to the internet in Cuba limited, they wonder who reads what I write and whether it’s really worth it.
My response is three-fold. Firstly, if you want to really understand the range of opinion about Cuba, you have to be on Twitter. There you’ll find people from right across the political spectrum (and a few beyond it!) tweeting, posting and sharing information. Everyone’s on there: government bloggers, dissidents, Cubans in the diaspora in the US or Spain, Brits who care about Cuba, Brits coming here on holiday, Cuban musicians, the Cuban government, non-governmental organisations, academics and academic institutions, international journalists in Cuba, Cuban journalists…the list goes on and on. They’re all posting links, photos, the latest news, their views and their opinions. The debate is rich. Disagreements are fierce. The humour can be vicious. News often breaks on Twitter before it does anywhere else. (And sometimes before – the story that an earthquake in Virginia was read about by someone in New York on Twitter just before they felt the tremor themselves is apparently not apocryphal.) So it’s the right place to be to understand what is happening and to learn what people think.
My second answer is that social media is also the right place to be if you want to engage with Cubans. Of course you can’t engage with all Cubans as not all are on Twitter but those that are and that follow me (about a 1,000 last time I checked), often ask me questions or challenge me about what British policy towards Cuba is. That’s absolutely right in my view – I’m a public servant and our policy has to stand up to public scrutiny. Twitter conversations don’t beat a face-to-face chat but they’re a good second best. Engaging with Cubans is also the reason my Embassy is so active on Facebook. There we publish some great photos and post lots of fascinating facts or articles about the UK, many of which you won’t read on other media available in Cuba.
Lastly there’s the question of principle. In the United Kingdom we strongly believe in the freedom of speech and the right for people to express their own opinion without restriction. We urge the governments of other countries to allow this freedom too. I believe strongly that as a matter of principle we should practise what we preach. Tweeting, blogging, posting on Facebook or our web page, talking, engaging, agreeing, disagreeing, sharing our experiences, telling people what we’ve done – all of that is bringing to life that right to free speech.
I’m not sure I convince many Ambassadors when I tell them all this; some of them look even more bemused after my rant! But anyway, I look forward to seeing you on Twitter, reading your comments on my blog and invite you to become a friend of the Embassy on Facebook.