An uninvited presence hovered over the large conference room where the eighth Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC, in Spanish) was held this past April. At the three-day event in Havana, the feared and unwelcome guest was none other than the internet itself.
The PCC, the organization that governs the fate of 11 million Cubans, had maintained a decades-long, ironclad information monopoly on the island. This monopoly is now being held in check: challenged by memes and social media.
“At this point, there can be no room for naïveté or excess enthusiasm for new technologies without first ensuring digital security,” Raúl Castro told a room of PCC delegates while reading from his keynote report, the last he would give as general secretary of the party. His words revealed the concern that has permeated the entire castrista leadership for months.
The Cuban Communist Party has lost the battle for the internet by failing to understand it; by believing that fear and punishment alone — their chosen tactics for street protests and university classrooms — can silence dissent. The emergence in late 2018 and continued resilience of the oft repressed San Isidro Movement of artists — which exists loudly both on and offline — is a tribute to this failure.
The timing of the San Isidro Movement’s emergence is no coincidence. Web browsing came to Cuban cell phones in December 2018, unleashing an avalanche of perennial complaints against the government, as well as ridicule toward party bureaucrats, officials, and leaders. It was as if, in this long-muzzled nation, we had all started shouting at once, raising a collective howl of indignation, weariness, and desire for change.
The whispers that preceded this chorus began long before the Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) permitted cell phone connectivity on the island. More than a decade ago, the first independent blogs appeared on the island; today, Cuban citizens are starting to see the fruits of those labors.
In 2007, hidden from the control of Cuban institutions and government ministries, early personal blogs first gained popularity online. Generación Y, the blog I started in April 2007, was to me “an exercise in cowardice” since it afforded me a space to describe what was going on in Cuba in a way that was forbidden to me in my civic actions.
Looking back on that period now, it feels downright prehistoric: in order to publish our writing, we had to disguise ourselves as foreigners and visit Havana’s few internet cafés, which restricted access to Cubans and charged high prices to tourists.
The days of blindly fumbling around Twitter feel distant too. As of 2016, and at a gathering pace after users were allowed to register an account with a local phone number, Cubans began to flock to the social platform. By allowing users to publish text-only messages, Twitter made it possible for a vibrant community of activists and reporters to recount what was happening in Cuba in real time. These new technologies gave the independent journalism movement room to breathe. The internet allowed journalism to keep growing, as it struggled to recover from the repressive crackdown of spring 2003 — when 75 journalists and human rights activists were rounded up and imprisoned.
And so a vigorous alternative blogosphere emerged, instantly becoming the central target of official attacks, defamatory government propaganda campaigns, and police operations. In response, the Plaza de la Revolución — home to the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces — wanted to create a captive blogosphere that would serve as a sounding board for its own slogans: to seize the internet with a hammer and sickle in hand.
Countless online and offline scuffles have since ensued, but the balance has tipped toward anti-establishment voices. The Cuban regime opted to censor websites and create highly controlled bubbles via stand-ins for Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Renowned professionals devoted months of work to programming these parallel networks — only to realize that the virus that is the internet had already irremediably infected the Cuban people.
Despite the high costs of internet usage — still prohibitive for the majority of the population — Cubans found ways of peeking into the World Wide Web. After that, it got much harder to reduce the internet to a few select government-affiliated sites and applications. Unlike in China, where Communist Party leaders rushed to create a sterilized, monitored web, Cuba’s old Castroists took too long to notice the new enemy bearing down on them.
By the time ETECSA, the state-owned telecom authority, had given the green light for mobile connectivity, we, on the other side, had already become “internauts sans internet.” We knew the potential of the tool we’d conquered through years of creativity.
Then came everything else: the first images in over 50 years of a Cuban presidential caravan being booed by a crowd protesting the delay in aid for storm victims in Havana on February 1, 2019; the searing mockery of a venerable Sierra Maestra comandante who, in April 2019, suggested we eat ostrich as a solution to the chronic food shortage; the anguished sobs of families who lost three daughters on January 28, 2020, when a balcony collapsed on top of them after years of warning signs.
As the icing on this very messy cake, new forms of social criticism have swarmed the virtual village and mastered its tools. The San Isidro Movement and its most visible figure, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was released from the hospital after a hunger strike earlier this week, are practically digital natives. To them, chatting on Telegram, publishing on YouTube, or streaming on Facebook Live are processes as natural as breath.
On November 27, 2020, dozens of those artists and activists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture to demand an end to censorship and greater creative freedoms. Cell phones connected to the internet were the ideal infrastructure for chronicling the protest. As night fell outside the much-feared state institution, tiny mobile screens illuminated the faces of the demonstrators, who were young and restless — and full of energy.
The PCC, however, is not one to acquiesce. Since last November, they have launched a fiercely repressive campaign against those artists, mobilized their most intolerant followers, and turned the national media into a firing squad for their critics’ reputations.
Since then, there hasn’t been a day’s rest for the Cuban regime, which once boasted of its ability to control even whispers. A downpour of citizen outcry — including from people who identify with official ideology — has come pelting down, and it threatens to intensify as new voices join the chorus. Seeking cover from the acid rain, officials have responded by deploying their slogans online, to minimal effect.
On the internet, where military formations are easy to spot, a lack of authenticity can be ruinous. Like an amateur dancer who sneaks into a professional ballet contest, the government’s forays into online propaganda are clumsy, out of step, ridiculous.
They’re out of their element, and it shows: the official narrative only thrives on censored television and controlled newspapers. The internet is a terrain that Cuba’s Communist Party is forced to traverse but does not fully understand.