one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, and while the
government has significantly improved technical infrastructure and lowered
prices in recent years, regular internet access remains extremely expensive,
connections are poor, and authorities both monitor usage and work to direct
traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The state engages in
content-manipulation efforts while blocking a number of independent news sites.
Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, including Decree
Law 370, which has frequently been used against online journalists. However,
despite heavy restrictions, Cubans continue to circumvent government censorship
through grassroots innovations.
Cuba is a
one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, bans independent
media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The
government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit
some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not
changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018
and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.
In this month’s Meet the Investigators, Barbara Maseda tells of the challenges of finding data and documents in Cuba, a country where journalists are threatened and harassed and where information is kept hidden away.
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists collaborates with
hundreds of members across the world. Each of these journalists is among the
best in his or her country and many have won national and global awards. Our
monthly series, Meet the Investigators, highlights the work of
these tireless journalists.
month we speak with reporter Barbara
Maseda, who is the director and founder of Proyecto
Inventario, an open data initiative that helps journalists to
find data and documents to support their reporting in Cuba, a country without transparency
policies and with very poor internet access. Barbara shares valuable insights
into what’s happening behind the “iron wall” that the regime has built around
itself, and tells us that even though authorities actively intimidate Cuban
journalists — even threatening their families — she believes it’s because the
government is afraid of the power of their reporting.
McGoey: Welcome back to the Meet the Investigators podcast from the
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I’m your host, Sean
McGoey, and I’m an editorial fellow here at ICIJ. This month, my guest is a
journalist whose mission is to ensure that vital information is actually
available to the public, even when the government tries to prevent that from
Maseda: My name is Barbara Maseda. I’m a Cuban journalist. And I run a project
called Inventario that works with data and information that is very hard to
come by in a country as closed as Cuba.
Here’s the rest of my interview with Barbara Maseda. What made you want to
become an investigative journalist?
When you grow up in a country where everything is a secret, it’s not very hard
to want to uncover those types of truths that are not out there for you to get
to know. When you see what our peers are accomplishing in other parts of the
world, you wonder why you don’t have that in your country. And it makes you
want to have that for your country, for your people.
What are some of the challenges that journalists face trying to do their job in
What we had was this iron wall that was keeping the island completely isolated
in terms of information from the outside world. This absolute control that the
government used to have makes it very hard for journalists to have access to
the bread and butter of our profession — sources who are going to give you
starters, independent journalism that is not controlled by the government is
illegal. You cannot register a news organization. You’re not going to be
acknowledged as a reporter who wants access to a source. And if you have a
whistleblower in another country, we do not have the culture or history or the
condition for the emergence of this particular type of individual, who is going
to give you access to something that you’re going to follow and turn into stories.
other countries where authoritarian regimes have a very tight grip [on] many
things and treat journalists in a similar way. But I think that in the case of
Cuba, it’s that the system is very cohesive, and there are no cracks in that
system — or we’re starting to see some of those cracks now. It’s a problem that
I think has been changing in the last few years with the emergence of the
McGoey: So given those conditions
that you describe, what was it like to study journalism in a country that seems
to be fairly hostile to the profession?
did my undergraduate degree at the University of Havana, [in] the school of
communication. So my degree officially says that I have a bachelor’s in
journalism from a Cuban university.
But — and
this happens a lot in the Cuban space — we have labels or terms that mean
something very different outside of Cuba. So when you go to the school of
journalism, you would expect the standard reporting skills that you learn
anywhere else. And what really happens is that nobody ever tells you that your
role as a journalist is to hold the Communist Party to account.
contrary, actually. You are trained to be a watchdog, but for the interests of
the establishment. And if you never question any of that training, you’re gonna
keep doing something for the rest of your life that is labeled as journalism,
but that in practice is not working in the public interest — is not work that
is holding the powerful to account.
What many people do, is you go outside of the Cuban borders and you try to get some training, or you try to get inspired by the work of others. After you spend so much time isolated, getting exposed to that kind of work can be really powerful.
Karla Pérez (Cienfuegos, 1998), the
young Cuban woman whom the Cuban government prohibited from returning to her country
yesterday, March 18, is 22 years old. She graduated with a degree in Journalism
in December 2020 from the Universidad Latina de Costa Rica.
The prohibition of her return to the
country where she was born in 1998 occurs almost exactly four years after she
was expelled for political reasons from the Journalism program of the
Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas (UCLV) on April 13, 2017.
According to a detailed report from
the Observatorio de Libertad Académica in November 2020, a few months before
entering UCLV, when Pérez was still only 17 years old, she joined the political
movement Somos +, an organization established in 2013 with the objective of
“building a modern, prosperous and free country.”
This dissident initiative has been
both disqualified and persecuted by the Cuban government, which classifies it
as a subversive and counterrevolutionary project financed by the United States.
According to Pérez, at that time she
was attracted to Somos + because: “There were many good people there, people
that I considered an example to follow. In the beginning, that movement was
like a mirror of the country that I wanted.”
As a consequence of her membership in
Somos + and as punishment for expressing herself openly on the group’s blog,
she was accused of having violated university regulations and expelled on the
morning of April 13 by a group of “decision makers” from the university, made up
of four journalism professors and six members of the University administration.
More shocking is the fact that a
brigade of FEU (University Student Federation) members from Pérez’s own cohort,
that is, the 14 other students who were studying journalism with her, also
signed onto her expulsion. All of them had already been informed that anyone
who opposed her punishment would themselves be “analyzed” at a later date.
Seeing all the channels for a
professional future closed to her on the Island, Pérez accepted the offer of
assistance from the staff of the Costa Rican newspaper El Mundo and
was able to continue and eventually finish her Journalism studies in that
country between 2016 and 2020. At the same time, she actively devoted herself
to the practice of independent journalism, collaborating with Diario de
Cuba and Havana Times in 2017 and serving as a
“community manager” and correspondent at Tremenda Nota starting
in 2018. She currently works with the magazine ADN Cuba.
As part of a larger project that I am
currently undertaking that traces the career paths of independent Cuban
journalists, I interviewed Pérez on March 15, three days prior to the Orwellian
migration ordeal she is currently experiencing. The interview tries to capture
the process of “conscientization” of a young Cuban woman attracted to the
profession of Journalism in a country like Cuba. Furthermore, it reveals in
gripping detail the many personal, family, and political costs that one must
pay when embarking on the tortuous path of free expression in Cuba.
Ted A. Henken: How and why
did you decide to study Journalism in college? What attracted you to the idea
of being a journalist in a country like Cuba?
Ted A. Henken: How and why did you decide to study Journalism in college? What attracted you to the idea of being a journalist in a country like Cuba?
Karla Pérez: It is not a very romantic
response at the beginning. I had always had an affinity for language and
literature since elementary school. History, Spanish, and literature all
fascinated me. The “romantic” came later, in high school. I managed to have
more access to an alternative civil society, to find out what was happening in
Havana and the “Oriente”, and also to become irritated because I could not read
about these things in the state press.
My nuclear family and I had broken
with the Cuban government a long time ago and I had long since decided that I
would never work in the official press. I wanted to write about what was being
marginalized from the “revolutionary” discourse and I knew that I couldn’t do
it in the permitted newspapers.
Could you describe
your family and social origins?
I come from a nuclear family (my
father, mother, and me) of professionals. My father is a civil engineer and my
mother is an economist. However, shortly after graduating, they began working
in the private sector due to the poor conditions provided by the state sector.
For my parents, there was never a break with the Revolution, because they
simply never believed in it.
My grandparents, as is quite common
in the Cuban family, are people integrated into the revolutionary process, and
I wouldn’t want to go much beyond that out of respect for their privacy.
In my childhood and adolescence, I
focused on going to school and getting good grades. I was already beginning to
develop a critical capacity of my own, but apart from a few controversies with
teachers in middle and high-school, it did not go beyond that. I was never a member of the UJC (Young
Communist League) or the FEU, for example.
In college, I was also like that; I never used the university as a
platform to criticize the government. I did that on the outside (through the
Somos + blog and in my on-line social networks).
What was your first
job as a journalist in the state sector?
I never worked in state newspapers,
although I did do an internship for a month, during my first semester of college
between January and February of 2017. The provincial newspaper 5 de
septiembre allowed me a lot of leeway within the “professional
Calvary” that working in the official media represented. They did not impose the topics I should write
about and I was able to focus on giving a voice to actors in the private sector
who were then emerging in the city (business owners and bicycle taxi drivers).
There was one time where I was directly censored when the then director of the
newspaper, Adonis Subit Lamí, called me into his office to ask me to “correct”
certain phrases of an interview.
I cannot share any articles from that
time with you because they have since been deleted from the newspaper’s
website. Just now, I went back to look for them and they do not appear. However,
in essence I interviewed an engineer who earned his living as a rickshaw
driver, because working in his profession paid little and the owners of a
private cafe known as “La Buena Pipa”; among other jobs that I don’t remember
very well now.
Regarding the censorship of Adonis
Subit Lamí, I remember that it was in the interview with the rickshaw driver
and focused on a passage that quoted him as saying: “there is lack of freedom
to do things[…]”. This was related to private sector work in Cuba. The official
told me that using the word “freedom” was too strong in that context and that I
should change it.
Why did you decide
to leave the state media and become an independent journalist?
Already ever since I was a student
working toward my degree, I wanted to work in the emerging alternative,
independent media sector. I had been watching the appearance of new outlets
like El Estornudo and Periodismo de Barrio.
How did you
discover these two independent media start-ups and how were you able to access
their content during these years?
Through the internet and through
friendships that I had been building through Facebook, which I have been on
since 2011. Also, remember that earlier the “weekly package” used to include
content from dissidents, activists, and independent journalists, especially as
part of programs produced in South Florida. That’s how I discovered figures
like Yoani Sánchez and Eliecer Ávila. Now, however, this kind of content is
systematically eliminated from the “package” by its distributors.
For me, it was just the dream of
being part of the independent media, not actually putting it into practice,
that led to my definitive expulsion from the world of higher education in Cuba.
That triggered my forced exile in
order to complete my university studies. At the same time, I have been
separated from my family for almost four years now (2017-2021). During that
time outside of Cuba, I have also done independent journalism based as I am in
a solid democracy like Costa Rica and have suffered no retaliation because of
Why do you say
Well, it seems enough to me to
qualify as “forced exile”, based on my expulsion at the age of 18 from the university
and the entire system of higher education in Cuba. At that age what you do is
study, right? What was left for me in a country where I could not continue to
achieve my academic goals?
What were the costs
and benefits of your decision to practice independent journalism?
It’s bad enough that haven’t been
able to see my parents, sister, and other relatives for four years. Perhaps the
greatest benefit has been to have a clear conscience for having fulfilled my
duty and feeling that I have served a useful purpose for Cuba, reflecting that
part of reality that never appears in the official media. And that is a big
part of what makes up Cuba.
What is it that
fundamentally differentiates independent journalism from official journalism?
The essential difference is that
independent journalism covers more of Cuban reality; it covers a much wider
spectrum of how life actually goes on in Cuba. Meanwhile, the official media
looks the other way when it comes to poverty, the repression of dissent, and
It is an automated operation and
anyone who has tried to push the limits suffers the consequences. Plus, the
salaries for official journalists are among the lowest in the state sector,
pushing its practitioners into precariousness.
You are a journalist,
but doing journalism outside the official media in Cuba turns you into a kind
of “dissident” in the eyes of the state, even when that is not your aim. Right?
For you, what is the key difference between being an independent journalist and
a dissident? Is it possible to be both at the same time?
I think that in a totalitarian state
like Cuba, I am both: a journalist and also a dissident; I “dissent” from the
established order because it affects me directly both on a personal and
professional level. So, I am not interested in distancing myself from one thing
or the other. Still, of course, I have established limits in my coverage of
dissidents, organizations, and movements.
I am not an active member of those groups, but I do advocate for causes
that I consider just.
And even if a democracy were founded
on the island tomorrow, I would always work to hold the government and its
leaders to account. I would continue being a “dissident” vis-à-vis policies
that seem wrong or arbitrary to me. Injustice
is not automatically eliminated with the arrival of democracy.
For a time, some
blogs and then later independent media outlets emphasized the fact that they
were produced “from Cuba,” in contrast to others that were produced “from
abroad.” For you, does this distinction still have importance, significance, or
relevance given the increasingly “transnational” reality of both journalism and
the Cuban nation itself?
To advance in our common goals, the
inside and outside should no longer be thought of as separate settings.
Although, of course, I consider the
people who do journalism from within the island of greater value based on their
resistance, and I never would, from my position of privilege, minimize them or
try to tell them what to do.
In the end, I think we complement one
another very well. Exiled professionals have always pushed those who fight, in
this case journalists, from within totalitarian regimes.
In all parts of the
world, the model of media financing is in crisis. In Cuba, there is also an
official discourse that argues that the independent journalists and media are
actually “subversives” or “mercenaries” because they have developed alternative
financing. How do you navigate in this extremely polarized and politicized
The key in my work is that there is
no imposition of agendas, editorial lines, or approaches that betray my values
and what I believe is fair. Everything can be discussed in the newsrooms.
There must be openness, of course, but there are basic principles that are
non-negotiable. This is a conversation that we have (and must have) within our
The defamations and slanders that are
showered down from Cuban officialdom no longer affect us. What concerns me is
clarity within myself and with my nuclear family.
What are your experiences
of harassment, intimidation, or detention and interrogation by state security?
Has your free movement been prevented or “regulated” within or outside the
I was interrogated three times
(between September 2016 and January 2017) when I was 18 years old when I was a
Journalism student at the Universidad Central “Marta Abreu” de Las Villas
What were the
reasons behind these interrogations?
My posts and denunciations on social
networks; my collaboration on the blog of the Somos + Movement; my relationship
with figures like Eliecer Ávila and Iliana Hernández; my absence from
political-indoctrination events at the University, such as those that occurred
with the death of Fidel Castro. Later in
April 2017, I was expelled from UCLV and permanently from the entire system of
higher education in Cuba.
I have seen the
document that was given to you justifying your expulsion. Are there other
similar cases of students or professors who have been expelled from Cuba’s
Journalism schools for ideological reasons?
I personally know of the case of a professor from my own University (UCLV), Dalila Rodríguez, a Master of Linguistic and Editorial Studies, who was expelled just weeks after I was. She did not belong to any opposition movement, but the repression occurred because she was the daughter of a religious leader, Leonardo Rodríguez, an opposition leader associated with the Instituto Patmos.
Ted A. Henken (Pensacola, 1971) is an associate professor of sociology at Baruch College, CUNY. His most recent academic works include Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy (University of Florida Press, 2021) and Cuba empresarial: emprendedores ante una cambiante política pública (Editorial Hypermedia, 2020). He is currently working on a history of independent journalism in Cuba.
Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy (Reframing Media, Technology,
and Culture in Latin/o America), June 1, 2021
by Ted A. Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria
In spite of having
a slow, expensive, government-controlled Internet infrastructure, Cuba is
undergoing what Ted Henken and Sara Garcia Santamaria refer to as a digital
revolution might be said to have begun in 2007 when Yoani Sánchez launched her blog “Generation
Y.” Internet access was difficult — she would get illegal connectivity at
tourist hotels, and the blog was initially hosted in Germany. Soon, the
Huffington Post began publishing her posts, and she has subsequently received
many international awards, including the Ortega y Gasset Award for Digital Journalism in
I recall reading of
her teaching others to blog at her home, and other blogs followed, but that was
just the start of the digital revolution. Today, she publishes a daily digital
newspaper 14Ymedio which is available in Spanish
and English, and there are many independent (non-government) media sites that
cover fashion, sports, art, music, and technology as well as news, commentary,
and current events.
Since Cuba had and
still has very poor Internet infrastructure, one might ask how this digital content
is distributed. The digital-distribution revolution began in 2008 with el Paquete Semanal, the “weekly
package” of digital material distributed on hard and flash drives that
became a nation-wide sneakernet. El Paquete is financed by advertising and
customer fees and it has been suggested that it is the nation’s largest private
employer. In 2015, the Government began opening public-access WiFi hotspots. Cubans hackers
also created local community networks which did not have a connection to the
global Internet. The largest, Havana’s SNET, had an estimated 100,000 users before it was taken over by the government. More
recently, 3G mobile service was introduced and
now 4G is beginning to roll out.
I’ve been speaking
of media, but Henken estimates that there is also a digitally-convened movement
or protest in Cuba every two months or so. He describes several of these and
their leaders in this article.
If you are
interested in more on Cuba’s digital media revolution, check out Henken’s recent
interview at Tulane University. (It’s over an hour-long, but he
speaks clearly so you can listen at 2X speed). He talks about Cuban media and
introduces a forthcoming anthology he and Santamaria edited. In his presentation,
Henken discusses independent Cuban media and summarizes each chapter of the
book, which will be available from the University Press of
Florida on June 1.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
In Medias Res: Who
Will Control Cuba’s Digital Revolution?, Ted A. Henken
Part I. History,
Media, and Technology
1. The Past,
Present, and Future of the Cuban Internet, Larry Press
Itineraries and Cyclic Trajectories: Alternative Media Communication
Technologies, and Social Change in Cuba, Edel Lima Sarmiento
Part II. Politics
3. Information and
Communication Technology, State Power, and Civil Society: Cuban Internet
Development in the Context of the Normalization of Relations with the United
States, Olga Khrustaleva
4. Ghost in the
Machine: The Incompatibility of Cuba’s State Media Monopoly with the Existence
of Independent Digital Media and the Democratization of Communication, Alexei
Padilla Herrera and Eloy Viera Cañive
5. The Press Model
in Cuba: Between Ideological Hegemony and the Reinvention of Civic Journalism,
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Arechavaleta
6. Digital Critique
in Cuba, Marie Laure Geoffray
7. From Generación
Y to 14ymedio: Beyond the Blog on Cuba’s Digital Frontier, Ted A. Henken
Journalism in Cuba: Between Fantasy and the Ontological Rupture, Sara Garcia
9. Perceptions of
and Strategies for Autonomy among Journalists Working for Cuban State Media,
Media on the Margins: Two Cases of Journalistic Professionalization in Cuba’s
Digital Media Ecosystem, Abel Somohano Fernández and Mireya Márquez-Ramírez
Part IV. Business
Marketing of Touristic Cuba: Branding a “Tech-Free” Destination,
12. A Una Cuba
Alternativa”? Digital Millennials, Social Influencing, and Cuentapropismo
in Havana, Jennifer Cearns
Part V. Culture and
Initiation Ceremonies: Cuban Literary and Cultural E-zines, 2000 — 2010,
14. Images of
Ourselves: Cuban Mediascapes and the Post-socialist “Woman of
Fashion,” Paloma Duong
Sara García Santamaría Blanquerna – Universitat Ramon Llull (Spain)
(Reuters) – A group of Miami-based Cuban musicians including reggaeton duo
Gente de Zona launched an impassioned anti-Communist anthem this week that has
gone viral, sparking a furious state response.
Zona, Yotuel of hip-hop band Orishas fame and singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno
collaborated on the song with two rappers in Cuba, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky,
who are part of a dissident artists’ collective that sparked an unusual protest
against repression outside the culture ministry last November.
and Life” repurposes the old slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”)
emblazoned on walls across the Caribbean country ever since Fidel Castro’s 1959
leftist revolution and expresses frustration with being required to make
sacrifices in the name of ideology for 62 years.
lyrics refer to ideological intolerance, the partial dollarization of the
economy, food shortages and the exodus of young Cubans who see no future on the
island. The government blames its economic woes largely on crippling U.S.
featuring the five artists – all Black men – has racked up 1 million views on
YouTube in three days, sparking lively discussions on social media, while many
in Cuba – where internet service is costly – are sharing it on USB sticks.
lies, my people calls for freedom, no more doctrines” sings Alexander Delgado,
one half of GdZ, chanting “It’s over” in the refrain.
Miami-based artists had until recently managed the tightrope of achieving
capitalist success abroad without breaking with the Communist-run island. GdZ
even called for applause for Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel at a Havana
concert in 2018 although that sparked calls for a boycott from some in the
state media and officials including the president have launched a barrage of
attacks, Twitter hashtags and memes on “Homeland and Life,” branding it
unpatriotic and without artistic merit. They say the artists behind it are
opportunistically trying to placate their Miami public.
fun of one of the slogans held aloft by our people in the face of continuous
U.S. aggressions,” said Havana-based TV anchor Froilan Arencibia.
Dopico, the Cuban-born director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and
Politics at New York University, said the rejection of that revolutionary cry
was unprecedented in recent Cuban popular music.
us all out of the depressing menace of death that comes with our understanding
of nation,” she said.
reflects a surge in overt anti-Cuban-government sentiment among more
contemporary generations of Cuban migrants, said Michael Bustamante, an
assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International
has also resonated with people on the island, especially youths who have become
increasingly vocal about their frustrations since the advent of mobile internet
two years ago, with some emblazoning their Facebook Profile photos with the
banner “Homeland and Life.”
Fidel’s ideals but lately things have been happening that I don’t really agree
with,” said Havana resident Loraine Martinez, who enjoyed the song.
not the first time that the songs of Cuban musicians on the island and abroad
have become stand-ins for political causes, said Bustamante. But the Cuban
government’s response was unusually forceful, he said, reflecting its anxiety
and what he called “misplaced priorities.”
“If they are worried about popular frustration, the way to fix that is to focus on bread-and-butter reforms, not this kind of reflexive ideological performativity,” he said.
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
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
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.
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.”
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:
digital campaign urging Cubans to either vote against (#YoVotoNo) or
abstain from voting (#YoNoVoto) on Cuba’s new constitution on Feb. 24,
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;
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
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.
Something extraordinary is happening in Cuba these days — and I am not talking about the absence of Canadians on its beaches.
of mostly young artists, independent journalists, and some academics, are
raising their voices against censorship. Some of them even call the regime for
what it is: a dictatorship.
has been brewing in the island for some time, especially among young Cubans.
But the spark for this rapid escalation was a few arrests too many, as well as
the wider availability of social media over the past two years.
there was the arrest and imprisonment of an irreverent rapper (Denis Solís) for
“disrespecting authority.” Solís is a member of a loose and mostly artist-based
collective named the San Isidro Movement. The “MSI” emerged in 2018, to protest
against new restrictions on freedom of expression.
Solís’ arrest, the video of which he made available on social media, prompted
some of his friends to go on hunger strike in the MSI headquarters, demanding
his release and calling peers to join them in protest. It was their turn to be
detained, by police in civilian clothes, who illegally broke into their
apartment for the alleged misconduct of violating the COVID-19 testing protocol.
The websites they were using to call for action were blocked by the government
— so much for the public health concern — but, apparently, too late: digital
nonconformity was already spreading wide in the community.
arrests are common in Cuba: There were close to 2,000 cases in the first eight
months of last year. But this time, a straw broke the camel’s back. On Nov. 27,
up to 300 mostly young Cubans turned up in front of the ministry of culture,
calling for the release of Solís, greater freedom of expression, and …
dialogue with the minister of culture. Many more would have joined had the
place not been blocked by security agents.
one-party communist state that criminalizes opposition, no collective and
public protest of this magnitude was ever attempted or tolerated in Cuba since
the revolution — with the possible exception of a repressed LGBTQ parade last
appears to be a wide opposition movement. There are known dissidents (like
“artivist” Tania Bruguera), and a few irreverent but institutional cultural
figures, like film director Fernando Pérez and beloved actor Jorge Perugorría,
who offered support. In between, one finds a whole ecosystem of potential
dissidents, who are not (yet) advocating open confrontation with the so-called
“revolutionary” (in fact conservative) government. Many of them are independent
journalists and bloggers, like Carlos Manuel Alvarez (age 31), who publicly
called for “conversation … not just with a supporting actor like a
minister,” but directly with President Díaz-Canel.
protesters were cheered on by the usual suspects in the U.S. government; no
less predictably, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel called the event an
“imperialist reality show.” Official media called the protesters “mercenaries,”
and even “terrorists”. Two white members of the almost all-white ruling class
(Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, and former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto)
indulged in tropical Trumpism, smearing the mostly poor, brown and black crowd
as “vulgar, tacky and miserable” (Mariela), and “marginals” and “criminals”
(Prieto). Even an occasionally dissonant but mostly official bard of the regime
like singer Silvio Rodríguez, whose songs were actually sung by the protesters,
publicly said that the government was handling this very badly.
this may seem like a footnote compared to massive anti-dictatorial
demonstrations and violent crackdowns in Venezuela and Nicaragua — or even
anti-neoliberal demonstrations in democratic Chile and Peru. Cuba is a
dictatorship, but not one that systematically tortures or opens fire on crowds.
(This may change.) In addition to exporting its opposition (about 20 per cent
of Cubans live abroad), the government secures compliance most effectively with
neighborhood spy networks, public shaming (the infamous “acts of repudiation”)
and incarceration. This toolkit has been in full display in the past two weeks.
just be a moment, an important one, in the awakening of civil society. Cubans
generally toe the line, and know what line not to cross. But the “little
police” in each and every Cuban, as they often call this mechanism of
self-control, is increasingly disrupted by other voices. Social media is a big
factor here, so the Cuban government may crack it down more. But it would be a
mistake. Young Cubans are already fed up, and crave change (or exile). If
artists can connect with them more broadly, this moment may lead to something
Yvon Grenier is a professor, department of political science and resident fellow, Mulroney Institute of Government, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish.
THE FRONT door of Damas 855, a ramshackle
building in San Isidro, a poor neighbourhood of Havana, snapped like a wishbone
when security agents charged through it on the evening of November 26th. The
lock and chain tumbled to the ground. The agents, dressed in medical gowns,
arrested 14 people (their pretext was that one of the residents had violated a
covid-19 testing protocol). They had locked themselves in for eight days to
protest against the arrest of Denis Solís, a young rapper who had been accused
of disrespecting authority and sentenced to eight months in prison. A few of
the Damas 855 denizens were on a hunger-and-thirst strike. Police cars took the
detainees away. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram went down on most of the island
for about an hour. Connections have been spotty since.
defenders of Cuba’s 62-year-old revolution, the adherents of Movimiento San
Isidro (MSI) are reprobates. On Twitter the
country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, called it an “imperial show to destroy
our identity and subjugate us again”. A photo of President Donald Trump
accompanied the tweet. State media echoed the message.
Cubans take a kinder view of the movement, which includes artists, scholars,
journalists, rappers, poets and scientists who advocate freer expression and
more democracy than the communist regime allows. Its leaders are Luis Manuel
Otero, a performance artist, and Maykel “El Osorbo” Castillo, a musician who
sewed his lips shut in prison in August. They gather in a part of Old Havana
where the mainly black residents live in rickety housing in the shadows of
luxury hotels. When a balcony collapsed in January, killing three girls, Mr
Otero wore a hard hat for nine days to honour them. He has been arrested more
than 20 times over the past two years. His hunger strike landed him in
movement began in September 2018 in response to Decree 349, which proposed to
restrict cultural activity that is not authorised by the culture ministry.
After a protest that month outside Cuba’s legislature, the government suspended
enforcement of the decree. That has not stopped it from silencing voices it
MSI is not comparable to Belarus’s
mass movement to overthrow a dictatorship. Cuba has no such movement, though
pro-democracy activists were among the 1,800 people who have been arbitrarily
arrested in the first eight months of 2020, according to Human Rights Watch. MSI has more in common with other recent home-grown
protests that have wrung small concessions from the regime.
2017 cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) proposed reforms, such as the right
to incorporate, to the labour ministry. Initially they were rebuffed. The
government forced the cancellation of events meant to help budding
entrepreneurs. When in 2018 it threatened to restrict each entrepreneur to one
line of business, cuentapropistas, who run much of the economically
vital tourist industry, said they would strike. The rules were eased.
between the gamers who cobbled together SNet, a private intranet, and the communications ministry played out in a
similar way, though the government yielded less. On an island with poor and
expensive connectivity, the network was a way for gamers to play with one
another, often games they had created. When the government restricted the use
of such networks and threatened to confiscate the equipment in May 2019, SNet users were devastated. Several dozen gathered at
the ministry to protest. Police cars quickly surrounded them. The government
eventually decided that SNet and its hardware would be
permitted, but under the supervision of the state-run youth computer clubs.
Like the cuentapropistas
and the SNet gamers, MSI began in response to a threat to its members’
private pursuits. But it has more potential to grow. On the day after the Damas
855 raid nearly 300 people, many of them supporters of other movements,
gathered outside the culture ministry, refusing to leave until the vice-minister,
Fernando Rojas, agreed to meet them. Security forces and “rapid-response
groups”, trained to shout communist slogans at sceptics, flooded the area.
Agents in plain clothes snapped photos and took videos.
met with 30-odd activists for nearly five hours on November 27th-28th and
promised more dialogue. But the government then launched a media campaign
against MSI. Police chased Mr Otero after
his release from hospital.
the movement thinks it has made progress. The gathering outside the culture
ministry is a sign of an emerging “collective unconformity”, says Carlos Manuel
Álvarez, one of the Damas 855 detainees and a co-founder of El Estornudo (“The
Sneeze”), an independent online magazine. He sees that as a direct threat to
the culture of submission demanded by the regime. Its agreement to meet
participants in such a large protest “was unprecedented”, says Camila Ramírez
Lobón, a visual artist who joined the meeting with Mr Rojas. Artists who are
both popular and acceptable to the regime, like Fernando Pérez, a film
director, and Leoni Torres, a musician, have publicly backed MSI.
internet, unreliable though it is, is making such movements harder to control.
More than 60% of Cubans have access to a connection. That has led to “an
explosion of civic activism” among groups advocating such causes as feminism,
gay rights and animal rights, says José Jasán Nieves, editor of El Toque
(“The Touch”), an independent online publication. Some were at the
culture-ministry protest. If they joined forces more often, they might
challenge the government more effectively.
ruling Communist Party, divided between hardliners who remember the revolution
and younger officials who are slightly more liberal, is not about to yield. On
December 1st the government released Silverio Portal Contreras, a prominent
political prisoner (and supporter of Mr Trump, who has imposed sanctions on the
Cuban regime). That is probably not a sign that the regime is growing tolerant
of dissent. More likely, it was a way to allay anger about the San Isidro raid.
Most Cubans, who queue for hours for chicken or eggs, often to return home empty-handed, have little interest in the doings of agitators like those of MSI. Their suffering has got worse since the pandemic shut down tourism. But a vaccine, and perhaps a softening of American sanctions by the incoming Biden administration, might eventually ease shortages. More Cubans might then ask why they have so little freedom.
Cuban artists after the late-night encounter and initial accords for dialogue with the vice minister of culture Fernando Rojas early on November 27th. Photo: 14ymedio
HAVANA TIMES – The Ministry of Culture, announced today it would not honor its agreement for a dialogue with Cuban artists. The Communist Party currently carries out a massive media campaign to paint artists critical of government policy as “mercenaries”. They are also holding “seminars” at workplaces to reinforce the accusations.
The government had already backtracked in less than 24 hours on the other accords reached between the vice minister of Culture and hundreds of artists in the wee hours of November 27th. These included a truce in the harassment and criminalizing of independent artists and journalists, and police restrictions on their mobility.
The reasons for reneging on the agreements
The Ministry of Culture said today it would no longer meet with the artists. It alleged: “they have direct contacts and receive financing and logistical support from the US Government and its officials.”
Furthermore, the Ministry blames the artists for its backtracking on the dialogue for including participation of members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI).
It was that Movement, a week long hunger strike, and the nighttime State Security assault on their headquarters on November 26th, which led to a spontaneous day-night sit-in of hundreds of people from the Cuban cultural world the following day at the gates of the Ministry of Culture.
Late that night vice minister Fernando Rojas finally met with a delegation of 30 artists including some MSI members. To diffuse the tense moment, Rojas promised a dialogue for the coming week to discuss issues and concerns.
The Ministry statement published in the official press today justified their reneging on their promise. “The inclusion of persons who for a long time, have violated patriotic symbols, committed common crimes and made direct attacks on the Cuban Revolution under the guise of art, is what led to breaking off any possibility of dialogue.”
The Castro-Diaz Canel government maintains that any criticism of their policies, laws and leaders originates from the United States. According to them, no Cuban has a right to criticize a government that only acts to benefit the people. Furthermore, for decades they maintain that the US embargo is the cause of all their failed economic policies.
The policy of dealing with artists and writers dates back to 1961
The Ministry said its doors were open, “as always”, to those artists who are not committed to the enemies of the Cuban nation.
Back in 1961, Fidel Castro set what is still government cultural policy. He said that all cultural expression that supports the Revolution would be permitted. In official lingo, the Revolution, Communist Party, leaders and the government are all one and the same.
Amaury Pacheco a founding member of the San Isidro Movement
HAVANA TIMES – After the meeting between Vice-Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, and 30 representatives of hundreds of people present at the protest outside the Ministry of Culture – on November 27th – Amaury Pacheco, a founder of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), shares his experiences. He explains the meaning recent developments have had for the Movement, Cuban civil society and the future of these interrelationships.
HT: How did this process unfold? What came out of it?
Three vice-coordinators were at our houses under the siege of police patrol cars. Likewise, the people at the Movement’s central point – San Isidro and Damas Streets, in Old Havana.
We circulated information via different channels: Exchanging what was happening to everyone during this home arrest?
Things got heated when the MSI’s base was attacked [on the night of November 26]. Members of the military dressed up as doctors, wearing white coats. They broke into the space. Those present at the Base say that they were beaten. A set-up that nobody sees.
They were removed from the house under the suspicion of having COVID-19, when Carlos Manuel Alvarez, a journalist arrived on the scene, who said he came from the US.
The police withdrew from outside our homes when they went to attack our Base.
We found out that a group of Theater and Movie artists were planning to organize a peaceful protest outside the Ministry of Culture. Creating a powerful critical mass. Calling on people to come.
I said: “… they are coming together for Freedom of Expression, for what happened at San Isidro. Asking to enter a dialogue with the Ministry of Culture. I’m going!”
It was around 5 PM. Over 200 people were shouting in chorus. There was a joyful atmosphere, but there was also a lot of determination.
I was really happy to see this. We realized that what had happened in San Isidro awakened people in a way that was bigger than us.
Seeking connectedness and new spaces
The San Isidro Movement seeks Connectedness. For different spaces to open up. For people to connect with one another based on their personal experiences, techniques and peaceful means of social struggle.
We arrived and there was a list. It included Michel Matos, Aminta D’Cardenas, Claudia Genlui and Catherine Bisquet, who doesn’t belong to the Movement, but was one of the people holding a hunger strike at MSI’s base. I wasn’t included, but because I form part of the Movement, I was added in the end. This was agreed in a democratic way. I didn’t even take part.
I was surprised to see artists linked to state institutions, who don’t normally take part in these things, as it could have repercussions on them.
Some points were written down, from more general to more specific points. We talked about FreeDenis, one of MSI’s main demands, and everybody there agreed. It wasn’t MSI that brought this to the table. We joined and formed part of this Coalition.
#FreeDenis and then calling off the Hunger Strike, were our proposals for the dialogue: following protocol. Getting Luis Manuel Otero back home, his house [the MSI base] is shut off and taken over.
A wide variety of concerns and demands
There were representatives from the different arts and they all had their own struggle. Theater/Movie/Visual artists, were vindicating important agendas for independent spaces. They insisted on the need for structural change in artistic institutions.
Civil demands in general: freedom of speech, the right to dissent, to create freely, the end of state harassment, defamation and no more police violence, no more political hate, and so on.
MSI promotes cultural rights, freedoms, so the dialogue was in sync with our own objectives.
Yunior Garcia Aguilera, somebody with a lot of talent and charisma, managed to organize that conversation and laid the groundwork for the dialogue with the Ministry.
We were there since around 10 AM and we weren’t seen until 11 PM. The Minister never showed.
What happened inside the Ministry
The Delegation went in: 30 people talked to the Vice-Minister. They didn’t want to accept some people, but we really struggled and MSI got its foot in the door.
The dialogue couldn’t be broadcast live, because our cellphones were taken. It became a secret space, but we have different versions of what happened from everybody who was there.
It was a frank, cutting, straight-to-the-point conversation. We told the Government everything that was on our minds, the need for Civil Society, a Constitution and how the Government needs to abide by it. About Decree-Laws 349 and 370, which have created an earthquake.
Decree-Law 349 criminalizes the dissemination and promotion of art. Decree-Law 370 criminalizes social media communication.
Our Movement knew this wasn’t the time to discuss certain issues, but it was an opportunity that had never existed up until now. That the State took upon themselves to open institutions to a dialogue with groups they call counter-revolutionaries, dissidents, but they are just independent in reality.
Letting them know we are not afraid
The Government played this card. They told International Opinion that “there is an ongoing dialogue with the MSI, but not directly.”
The way we shared and responded to the vice-minister was truly impressive. It reminded me of shoals of fish moving altogether at the same pace. There was an inner beating, regardless of our different demands.
A powerful will to tell them that we weren’t AFRAID. That the over 400 people outside weren’t afraid. The people with whom we had reached an agreement for this dialogue and with whom we would have to speak with afterwards.
This generation has shaken off its fear, just like we have to do what we do. It’s a great thing on a national level and proof that there is social discontent in Cuba.
The State isn’t controlling everything that happens, it’s just not true. There is social debilitation, though. We need political change, yes, a strategic change on how to build the nation.
Everything outside was said out loud. Everyone agreed with these demands.
We broke our fear. We looked at each other, acknowledged each other and spoke. That was the power there. We opened the door, so the Government had to sit down and talk under pressure. The people were determined, “We won’t leave until…”.
San Isidro had ignited the flame that connected many people.
Practing what we want for the country
There were many artists, but we were talking about citizenship, individual rights, social rights, human rights, not just cultural rights. Comprehensive issues, but key issues.
We practiced what we want for the country. It was a dangerous action, like the human body: muscles, mind, neurones, everything moving for a specific action. It’s what we practice in San Isidro, and it managed to awake citizens.
Being a person – an important part – practicising citizenship, reflects the other parts. They don’t work on their own. People are the most human thing that exists. Individuals with their own things, own way of doing things, getting places, moving forward with their lives. Citizens facing laws, how it orders them, their place in the current hierarchy, in society.
This point about citizenship and exercising democracy, of reaching a consensus, is very important. It is something that this generation truly has. If you are under the yoke of totalitarianism, a wisp of democracy can appear. We all came to an agreement. Coming up with agendas that we can all push together, and not via a hierarchy or dictatorial space.
There wasn’t a dialogue with MSI. We took part in something a lot larger, civil society speaking, saying: “…we want to take your points to the table because they are important, somebody is dying.”
Filmmaker Fernando Perez was an important witness
Fernando Perez, a well-respected filmmaker, was also at the table. He said that he wouldn’t speak, but watching everyone say their piece, he also decided to say a few words. This was important because it made the involvement of different generations clear. Every generation has its own social history in Cuba, with very specific characteristics.
The Vice-Minister said that they could find a solution for demands within the artistic and cultural sector, but there were other demands that needed to be talked over with other institutions, and he made a note of this. He said that everything depended on processes.
Connections were made for meetings, a platform for dialogue with some of the arts. General issues would be discussed at a later date, when they could be looked over with the Minister.
Press conferences would be held about what happened there because “… we owe it to the people outside.”
Many followers of the tense developments at San Isidro’s base, felt like the Movement had ended and this isn’t true.
Channels of domestic politics in Cuba are very slow. If you don’t have a position in the public space and spaces of pressure, there isn’t anything that allows you to sit down at the negotiations table.
The agreements made
The agreements we made by the time we left, included: A channel of dialogue with cultural institutions. Address the issue of Denis Solis Gonzalez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara “urgently”. Independent artists can meet without being harassed, among other points, such as the safeguard of going home that night without suffering police harassment.
The Government says: “We don’t work under pressure.” So we have to pressure them; they pressure us all the time. In the meeting, a young woman said: “We aren’t here to pressure you, we are here to give you a chance to enter a dialogue and change what’s happening.”
It was like saying: We are giving you a chance to renew your own foundations… because this is going to go ahead regardless. It’s going to be huge… and you won’t be able to stop it. You are rusty as a State. You don’t understand what is happening. New generations don’t understand these dated procedures.
The government will renege on this meeting, but it really has changed Cuban reality. We know that it is being replicated in Matanzas. It could even explode on a national level.
Manipulation and back-tracking
The Government has manipulated everything in its official account of events.
What happened in that room hasn’t had a historic precedent in these past 60 years.
San Isidro has its own list of proposals, which haven’t ended: Luis Manuel and Maykel Osorbo held a hunger strike. San Isidro has very clear strategies. Our reports are clear on our social media pages.
MSI has gained many followers with successful campaigns. Ever since Decree-Law 349 was announced, as well as all of the attacks against Luis Manuel have become successful campaigns, because of what we have done.
I’m grateful to these people – many young people – who said: ENOUGH! and chose to stand outside the Ministry. We know what happens to people who speak openly in Cuba’s public space. The street is the Communist Party’s private property. Public spaces are pretty much closed off.
Recent events have opened-up a space forever. Many other things can be pushed forward. It’s happening as we speak.
Note: *During this interview, we learned that Luis Manuel Alcantara was under arrest in a hospital. His location had been unknown.
Also read this followup article when days later the governernment backed out of future talks.