Why the Castro regime fears social media

Mary O’Grady in the Wall Street Journal:

Why Socialist Cuba Prohibits Social Media

The regime fears Cuban-to-Cuban chatter even more than it does communication with the outside world.

http://online.wsj.com/img/renocol_MaryOGrady.gifThere’s a reason the people in Cuba don’t have access to the Internet. It is because the government [couldn’t] survive it.”

That was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio last week at a Washington conference titled “Cuba Needs a (Technological) Revolution: How the Internet Can Thaw an Island Frozen in Time.” The event was sponsored by Google Ideas, a for-profit venture of the giant Internet search enterprise, and the nonprofit Heritage Foundation. I was asked to kick off things with a Rubio interview. So I began by asking him what he makes of the Cuban military’s reference last year to technology that allows young people to exchange thoughts digitally as “the permanent battlefield.”

Mr. Rubio responded that it isn’t communication with the outside world that the regime fears the most, but Cuban-to-Cuban chatter. “I think Raúl Castro clearly understands that his regime cannot survive a Cuban reality where individual Cubans can communicate [with] each other in an unfettered manner.” He called “unfiltered access to the Internet and social media” Cuba’s “best hope” of avoiding “a stagnated dictatorship” for “the next 50 years that would survive even the death of Raul and Fidel.”

Mr. Rubio would like to see the U.S. go after the goal of turning Cuba into a Wi-Fi hot spot—that is, finding a way to provide wireless Internet access to Cubans so they can both receive and send data in real time. “That’s what U.S. policy should really begin to focus on, a 21st-century effort.”

It won’t be easy with today’s technology. While Internet experts tell me it is possible to expand two-way Wi-Fi communications to those that the regime has not approved to use its new fiber optic cable, access would likely be quite limited. Nevertheless, Mr. Rubio’s proposal goes to the heart of the Cuban government’s vulnerability.

The pope on his visit to Cuba today will see and hear what the military dictatorship wants him to see and hear, not the kind of public debate he would witness in a normal country. He will not see what Mr. Rubio is talking about—emboldened Cuban dissidents who have no use for the “revolution” of a half-century ago and if given access to real-time communications would endeavor to overthrow their oppressors.

“If Cubans were able to communicate with each other, if Cubans in Santiago [de Cuba] were able to figure out what was happening in Havana and vice versa,” Mr. Rubio said, there would be a real chance for change. “If these groups were able to link up with one another and coordinate efforts and conversation and so forth, the Cuban government wouldn’t last very long. It would collapse under the weight of that reality.”

Some of Mr. Rubio’s comments suggest that he is over-optimistic about whether technology can create island hot-spots from afar. But if and when it can, there is little doubt that social media would play a role in bringing about change, as it did, for better or worse, in the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak.

Closer to home, Mr. Rubio pointed out, it has already made a difference. Referring to the tea party movement, he said, “Fifteen years ago if you wanted to organize a group of people to do anything politically, you needed a big, burdensome organization to coordinate it. Today anyone with access to Facebook and Twitter can be an organizer, and it’s happening all over this country, it’s happening all over the world, and it will happen in Cuba.”

Conventional anti-embargo wisdom holds that hordes of Americans traveling to the island would undermine the regime. The pro-embargo crowd, including Mr. Rubio, counters that foreigners, like everything else in Cuba, are tightly controlled. I mentioned that thousands of Americans are already going to Cuba every year on “educational” travel. Mr. Rubio responded dryly: “Conga dancing [and] ethics briefings from the Castro government, that’s the itinerary.”

It’s a good point. “Educational” tourists to Cuba are herded like goats to pre-approved destinations. Their vacation spending goes straight into the pockets of the military and they return home glowing with praise about the literate peasants that they met. U.S. businesses also are now engaged with Cuba, selling all the food and medicine it can pay for. Yet this engagement has done nothing to influence change.

The regime can physically attack public displays of resistance, like the Ladies in White who are beaten by Castro’s hired hands. But it would be much tougher to put down protests that go viral. That’s why Mr. Rubio wants us to “imagine what would happen if all of a sudden Havana became a Wi-Fi zone.”

It’s not a bad thought experiment, even without the technology at hand today. As Mr. Rubio said, if the Cuban people get access to the Internet, “the Internet will take care of everything else, I believe that with all my heart.” So too do the Castros, judging from the lengths they are going to keep it from happening.