As the pandemic rages in Cuba, many on the island have been finding it difficult to afford basic goods. Hundreds wait in line in central Havana for up to 12 hours at supermarkets, only to be disappointed. Most necessities, aside from rice, beans, and bread, are sold only in U.S. dollars or euros, referred to locally as “MLC” (moneda libremente convertible). Not all Cubans have access to MLC. On September 22, one of Cuba’s most popular Twitter accounts, @daikeldfc92, tweeted: “Finding happiness, only to find it’s in MLC.”
@daikeldfc92 and his fellow memero @Ru4kSo — two of Cuba’s most popular meme-makers — believe that the anti-government swell seen across the island on July 11 was not a spontaneous rush onto the streets but that it was actually built online. Phrases cut from memes they and others created were painted on signs and shouted in the streets during the protests. These tweeters say the protests were the result of the youth doing what they do best: sharing memes on social media.
The Cuban government seemed to agree and, on August 17, passed Decreto Ley 35, a new law designed to suppress anti-government discourse on the internet. As a result, some meme creators have gone silent. Others have chosen to be louder than ever, using coded language, humor, and the support of their large followings to evade government scrutiny.
Decreto Ley 35 prohibits criticism of the government online, with the stated purpose of using the country’s “telecommunications services as an instrument to defend the revolution.” Consequences of breaking the law include jail time and a fine of $3,000 — far out of reach for the majority of Cuban households.
Some memeros are afraid of the consequences of being caught. They could end up losing their university enrollment, their job, or worse, they might end up detained or “disappeared” without warning. Hundreds of people, mostly young men, went missing on July 11 and in the weeks afterward, with some estimates of those detained as high as 400.
Raudiel F. Peña Barrios, a Cuban professor of constitutional law at the University of Havana, told Rest of World that virtually anyone with a social media account in Cuba could be arrested under Decreto Ley 35.
“It’s hard to avoid a law that prohibits criticism,” said @Ru4kSo. “Everyone, or practically everyone, violates Decreto 35 in one way or another. Some of us have grown more afraid, which is understandable. We’ve seen our friends being taken for interrogations. The others of us have lost that fear and are expressing our dissent more directly through our humor.”
@daikeldfc92 says that humor is also helping Cubans navigate multiple crises at once, like frequent power outages, medicine shortages, and overpriced necessities, all of which have caused a significant amount of mental and emotional fatigue and pain over the course of the pandemic. “About a year ago, we started to use more sarcastic text,” he said. @daikeldfc92 found that while irony was helping him connect with his audience, it also coincided with increased government scrutiny online.
Peña Barrios told Rest of World that the Decreto Ley 35 could have been drafted around the time of this switch to increased online sarcasm. In late 2020, dissident movement Movimiento San Isidro began livestreaming anti-government hunger strikes as well as clashes with police. Their posts gained significant attention online, and the government began taking stricter precautions, like shutting off internet access for millions of people while they conducted raids in the San Isidro movement’s neighborhood in Old Havana. Memeros took note, and as shortages and outages worsened, they began hiding their political commentary behind thicker layers of humor.
@Ru4kSo thinks sarcasm became a more integral part of Cuban meme culture this year because of Cuba’s familiarity with coded language after 60 years of Castroism. “Because we have such limited freedom of expression, when it’s time to criticise or complain about a situation, sometimes it’s easier to make a post understandable through irony than to say it as it is.”
“The reader has to do the work,” Michaelanne Thomas, assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies Cuba’s sociotechnical systems, told Rest of World. By using the semi-coded language of sarcasm, one can lament the fallout of Cuba’s current economic situation without explicitly talking politics, allowing some wiggle room during police interrogations. “They’ll be detained by the police a couple times, but they’ll usually be set free after a couple days, unlike some activists who use other media,” she said. For example, numerous rappers, singers, and visual artists who frequently criticize the government, like the leaders of Movimiento San Isidro, have been sentenced to years in prison since the July protests.
This was what happened to famous memero Ariel Falcón. He is a medical student known by the handle @YoUsoMiNasobuco and was detained after the protests of July 11. In a video testimony published on Youtube, Falcón claimed the dean of his medical school was present at his interrogation by state security forces, making plain that his enrollment was at stake. After six days in jail, he was released and published a tweet claiming his arrest was unfounded. “I don’t post about politics,” he said.
“Nothing is about politics, but at the same time, everything is about politics,” Thomas said.
She stressed that not only is the creation of these memes important in the context of Cuban political awakening, the act of thousands of people sharing them is even more significant.
@Ru4kSo believes there is safety from the Decreto Ley 35 in numbers, specifically one’s number of followers. Tens of thousands of young Cubans follow him and share his memes with their friends on Facebook and WhatsApp, sharing in the risk of arrest. He feels it helps create a protective bubble.
“If someone publishes a meme on social media, and 100, 200, 300 people share it, it’s too much work,” Peña Barrios said. “It would take too much time for the government to figure out who made it or to find and punish all of the people who shared it. And they would have to do it for every individual meme, so there is safety in numbers.”
Followers also help to ensure the safety of memeros when they are taken into custody. When Ariel Falcón was detained, thousands participated in a campaign on Twitter and Facebook to demand his release.
@daikeldfc92 does not consider himself to be an activist or an influencer, despite his nearly 32,700 followers on Twitter. In real life, his identity is separate from his online persona. He is certain that government security forces are aware of who he is. He toes the line between acceptable humor and unacceptable political commentary. His posts often require fluency in the sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek vernacular of the Cuban internet.
Even if memeros cannot be directly arrested, other means of coercion can be deployed. Mag Jorge Castro, or @mjorgec1994, another Cuban Twitter personality, received eerie messages from anonymous profiles he suspects are controlled by Cuban intelligence. “They sent me very personal information about my life that I thought was private,” he told Rest of World.
@Ru4kSo said he is proud of the activism among young people in Cuba over the past year. He sees current interactions between his followers on Twitter as a stark departure from previous, more sanitized political discourse. “The generational change is visible not only on the internet but walking around and listening to conversations among young people in the street. It’s a voice that is, in reality, impossible to shut up.”