TED A. HENKEN
South Florida SUN SENTINEL, DEC 28, 2020
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the subsequent global proliferation of new information and communication technologies, including the internet and social media, the Cuban government’s mass media monopoly has progressively eroded and Cuban citizens — working independently of and sometimes in open opposition to the government — have increasingly become active participants in the worldwide digital revolution, remaking the Cuban media landscape in the process.
This second, digital revolution has erupted within the Cuban Revolution, leading to a dynamic and unpredictable struggle over the meaning, impact, scope and direction of both. Who will control Cuba’s digital revolution? Who will benefit from it? To what ends will it be applied? Who will be left behind?
The San Isidro Movement (#MSI), which burst into international notoriety in late 2020 thanks in part to its members’ savvy use of digital technology, is a loosely affiliated group of independent artist-activists that emerged in late 2018 demanding the revocation of Decree-Law 349, a measure that extends Ministry of Culture control over the island’s thriving independent artistic community.
The group’s central figure, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (whose home in the Old Havana district San Isidro doubles as the group’s headquarters), has been detained more than 20 times between 2018 and 2020. This is a result of his often provocative and always unauthorized public art performances, including one in which he paraded around the city wearing a construction helmet to protest a building collapse in Old Havana in January 2020 that killed three young girls.
In early November, rapper and group member Denis Solís was sentenced in a summary trial to eight months in prison on the trumped-up charge of “disrespect” after he broadcast via social media his altercation with a police officer who illegally entered his home. This provoked MSI members to stage a hunger-strike at Alcántara’s home demanding Solís’ release, which state health and security agents raided on Nov. 26 on the pretext of controlling “the propagation of the pandemic.”
Despite government efforts to block access to social media, the real breakthrough of the MSI was its effective breakdown of the government-erected wall of fear and isolation that had previously separated such marginalized “artivists” from Cuba’s state-sanctioned artistic mainstream. After learning of the previous day’s violent raid via their cellphones, on Nov. 27, more than 500 mostly young artists and intellectuals from a broad array of disciplines staged an unprecedented, music-fueled, day-long “clap-in” (giving birth to the moniker, “La revolución de los aplausos”) outside Havana’s Ministry of Culture in solidarity with the MSI.
They demanded a meeting with the cultural minister to address not only the MSI’s original aims but also the more fundamental issues of artistic freedom, freedom of speech and the right to dissent.
While this mass gathering briefly forced Ministry officials to the table, in subsequent weeks they reneged on their promises of open dialogue and safeguards from retribution against the protesters. Instead, the government unleashed a wave of character assassination in the official media against movement leaders as supposed “terrorists” and “mercenaries.”
This is only the latest digital-age ordeal for the Cuban government. Prior to the recent MSI breakthrough, but since the coming of 3G mobile internet in December 2018, Cuba saw several inventive cyber-denunciations of the government that left an impact. Among them:
- the digital campaign urging Cubans to either vote against (#YoVotoNo) or abstain from voting (#YoNoVoto) on Cuba’s new constitution on Feb. 24, 2019;
- an independent LGBT march spontaneously organized in spring 2019 via social media after the island’s officially controlled “pride” march was inexplicably cancelled via a Facebook post by Mariela Castro herself;
- an online demand that Cuba’s telecom monopoly Etecsa lower its costly internet prices (#BajenLosPreciosDeInternet); and
- a gathering outside the Ministry of Communications together with an expression of digital solidarity (#YoSoySNET) with the netizen founders of Cuba’s SNET (street-net), an enormous unauthorized patchwork of local area networks, after these independent online communities were outlawed and dismantled starting in August 2019.
Both MSI and all of these previous protests have unleashed pent-up netizen demands and eroded two of the key pillars of government information control on the island: fear of the consequences of speaking out of turn and isolation from others who harbor similar complaints.
However, we should not assume that a handful of Twitter hashtags linked tenuously to brief marches and protests by a relative handful of “connected” and politicized Cuban citizens (however unprecedented they may be) amounts to a social movement capable of posing an existential threat to a regime that remains entrenched in power with no well-known or widely credible political alternatives.
Still, one lesson the short-term success of Cuba’s San Isidro Movement teaches us is that national culture and political context matter when evaluating the political impact of new technologies on any given society.
The same digital platforms and social networks that have come under increasing scrutiny and justifiable regulation in the United States and Europe for their monopolistic practices, abuse of user privacy and spread of “fake news,” retain their democratizing and indeed revolutionary potential in the hands of a new generation of artists and activists, facilitating their loss of fear, overcoming isolation and penetrating the information blockade built over the last 60 years by the Western Hemisphere’s oldest gerontocracy.
Ted A. Henken, an associate professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies at Baruch College, City University of New York, is the co-editor of the forthcoming book Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy, to be published in June 2021 by the University of Florida Press.