Reports from Cuba: Cuban regime loses ground in battle to control the internet

Yoani Sanchez writes in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

Cuban Regime Loses Ground in the Battle for Control of the Internet

When Etecsa offered the ability to connect from mobile phones, we were already “Internet users without internet.”

An uninvited presence hovered over the spacious room where the eighth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) was held this April. The Internet was an unwanted and feared guest at the three-day event that took place in Havana. The organization, which governs the destiny of eleven million Cubans and which, for decades, has maintained a tight news monopoly on the island, is now challenged by social networks and memes.

“There should be no room for naivety at this point, nor for excessive enthusiasm for new technologies without ensuring computer security,” said Raúl Castro in the central report that he read to the delegates before leaving the post of general secretary of the PCC. His words displayed the concern that had been felt by the entire Castro leadership for months.

The Cuban government has lost the terrain of the internet for not understanding it, for believing that – as is the case with physical streets or university classrooms – fear and punishment are enough to silence dissent. The emergence in late 2018 and the continued resistance of the San Isidro Movement, which exists both online and on the streets, is a tribute to this failure.

The date of birth of the San Isidro Movement is no coincidence. With the arrival of the web browsing service to Cuban mobiles, in December 2018, an avalanche of popular denunciations, questions and ridicule against bureaucrats, officials and party leaders has been unleashed. As if in this nation, long gagged, we had all begun to scream at the same time, in a howl that mixes indignation, boredom and desire for change.

However, the history of this chorus of despair heard today on social networks began long before the Cuban Telecommunications Company (Etecsa) allowed Cubans to connect from cell phones. More than a decade ago, when the first independent blogs appeared on the island, part of a path was traced from which citizens are now beginning to see the fruits.

It was 2007 when the first personal blogs outside the control of Cuban institutions and ministries began to gain visibility on the networks. Generation Y, the blog that I started in April 2007, was for me “an exercise in cowardice” since it gave me a space to describe what was happening in Cuba in a way that was forbidden to me in my civic actions.

Now those times seem prehistoric, times when to publish we had to go disguised as foreigners to a few Internet cafés in Havana where access to nationals was restricted, while high prices were charged to tourists.

Also long gone the days of “tweeting blindly” on Twitter, a tool that, thanks to the possibility of publishing through text-only messages, allowed a thriving community of activists and reporters to have immediate insight into what was happening in the interior of the country. The independent journalism movement, still trying to recover from the repressive blow of the spring of 2003, found in these new technologies a breath of oxygen to grow.

A vibrant alternative blogosphere then emerged that was immediately placed at the center of official attacks, government propaganda smear campaigns, and repressive police operations. But, the main response from the Plaza of the Revolution was to create a captive and controlled blogosphere, which would serve as a sounding board for its slogans: take to the internet with a hammer and sickle in your hands.

Since then, the skirmishes on one side and the other have been countless, but the balance favors the protesting voices. The Cuban regime chose to censor web pages and to create controlled bubbles with substitutes for Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia. Months of work, with professionals devoted to the programming of these parallel networks – resulted in the understanding that the Internet virus had already irremediably infected Cubans.

Despite the high prices for connecting to the web, which are still prohibitive for many state workers, people were peeking into the great world-wide-web and it was then very difficult to try to shrink it back to a ghetto of applications and digital sites associated with the Government. Unlike in China, where party leaders pushed for the creation of a neutered and guarded network very quickly, on this island it took too long for the olive-green elders to recognize the new enemy that was upon them.

By the time the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa offered the ability to connect from mobile phones, on the other side here we were already “Internet users without internet” and we knew the potential of a tool that we had conquered with years of demands and creativity.

Then came everything that followed: the first images in more than half a century of a Cuban presidential caravan being booed by a crowd furious about the official delay in helping victims of a tornado in Havana; the acid mocking of a Commander of the historic Sierra Maestra who came up with the proposal that we eat ostriches to alleviate the chronic food crisis; the disconsolate tears of several families from whom the collapse of a balcony – which had been in danger of falling for years – robbed them of three little girls.

To top off all that mess, the new forms of social criticism have thrown themselves fully into the virtual village and use its tools effectively. The San Isidro Movement and its most visible figure, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, are practically digital natives to whom chatting, posting on YouTube or putting a live broadcast on Facebook are like breathing.

When on November 27, dozens of artists and activists met in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand the end of censorship and greater creative freedoms, mobiles connected to the web were the ideal infrastructure to narrate the protest. At nightfall, in front of the dreaded state agency, cell phone screens illuminated young, restless faces… full of energy.

Accept, however, is a verb that is not in the dictionary of the Cuban regime and since that November it has unleashed a fierce repressive campaign against these artists, mobilized its most intolerant television presenters, and turned the national media into firing squads against the reputation of its critics.

Since that time there has not been a single day of calm for the Cuban regime, which once strutted to control even whispers. A downpour of citizen criticism, even from those who identify with the official ideology, has fallen on them and threatens to continue to rage as new voices are added. To protect themselves from such acid rain they have tried to respond by displaying their slogans on the social networks… but it hardly works.

On the internet, the regime’s soldiers are effortlessly recognized, lack of spontaneity is paid for dearly, and blocking positions are detected with ease. Like an impromptu performer who sneaks into a high-level dance contest, the steps that the government has taken in the fields of propaganda through the Internet are clumsy, without rhythm and even ridiculous.

It is not in its medium and it shows; because its medium is controlled newspapers and censored television. For Castroism, the internet is a terrain where it is forced to operate but one it does not understand well.

Editor’s Note: This text was originally published on Rest of World.