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In Cuba, a geriatric government switches off a wave of youthful infoactivism

More protests are poised to test the Cuban regime’s ability to clamp down on the country’s digital spaces and retain its grip on power

On July 26, two weeks after a historic series of protests rocked Cuba, the island nation’s internet went dark for several hours. 

It was the latest digital shutdown to occur during the wave of unrest. On July 11 — fueled by electricity cuts, food and medicine shortages, and a spiraling economic crisis — thousands of Cubans took to the streets in the country’s largest protest movement in decades. Images and videos of the protests ricocheted across social media. Shortly thereafter, digital rights groups began reporting a series of internet outages, while authorities blocked access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for days on end.

The Cuban government, led by Raúl Castro’s successor, President Miguel Díaz Canal, quickly moved to clamp down on the unrest. Since protests broke out, the government has detained an estimated 700 people, according to human rights organizations, and relatives of those held report being left in the dark for extended periods of time about their family members’ whereabouts. “At any moment, they could show up at my door,” a Cuban independent journalist told the New York Times. “It’s a fear that’s with me from the moment I wake up.”

The country’s last major protest movement was in 1994. That was a previous internet era, a time before smartphones and social media. In 2018, after years of internet restrictions, Cuba began permitting 3G for mobile phones, and later legalized wireless networks in homes and businesses. Many believe the country’s expanded internet access has played a key role in the current protest moment.

From Russia to Africa, internet blackouts have become a go-to method of repression for authoritarian governments during elections and political unrest. 

Norges Rodríguez is the co-founder of YucaByte, a website about technology, activism, and culture in Cuba. He believes the internet has helped bring about a Cuban version of perestroika, the series of political and economic reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union during the 1980s, by allowing people to access a wider range of information than previously possible — including perspectives that challenge the government’s tight grip on power. 

We talked about how Cuba’s digital ecosystem has become a political battlefield as protests test the regime’s hold on the country. 

This conversation was edited for length and clarity and translated from Spanish.

Coda Story: The news out of Cuba is moving quickly. So let’s start with what’s happening. Can you bring us up to speed on what’s going on right now in Cuba and the state of internet access?

Norges Rodríguez: Right now there are no protests. What there is is a lot of repression. After the protests, which lasted 3 days more or less, there was a campaign of repression. There are people who are missing, their families don’t know anything about them, people who are detained and some who have been let out, mainly because of international pressure. But there are no protests.

The [authorities’] response to these incidents is not disinformation, but brute force. And brute force is turning off the internet and social networks.

The thing is this is an analog government confronting a digital reality. For TV and radio they had and have a monopoly. They said something and this was the truth. But this reality changed because for many people, social media is something else. What you say on the radio and TV, after, people do fact-checking of what you said. This has harmed them.

I want to talk a little bit more about the significance of the internet and social media in this moment. Do you think that this could have happened without social media?

No. In December 2018, Cuba connected to the internet for the first time from mobile phones. Before this, they didn’t have internet 24 hours a day. This began to generate what we called the ‘infoactivism’ of Cubans. From then on, people started to organize themselves, using groups on Telegram. Not just to protest, but to help each other. 

In January 2019, there was a tornado in Havana and people organized themselves to help people who had been harmed. In May 2019, the LGBT community marched in Havana and protested. They organized on WhatsApp, Telegram. It wasn’t that big. But it ended with repression and a lot of people were detained. After this it could be a kind of timeline of everything that has happened in Cuba, that is related to the access to the internet and social media. 

I think that the internet has been the perestroika of Cuba. You can go to the internet to get information but also you can transmit, upload videos and tell a story. You can access information you didn’t know, and then you can convert it into media. It can be a video transmitted on facebook that can get a million views. 

In some ways, what you’re describing kind of seems like an older moment in the history of the internet. For example, during the Arab Spring, I remember hearing people talk excitedly about how it represented the promise of the internet and the digital sphere. But now, in the U.S., at least, it often feels like we are in a digital moment that feels much harsher. 

I totally understand what you mean. In the context of countries that have democracy, human rights, it has been negative, but because social media it’s like a country inside the country, or a state inside the state. There is no precedent, because laws don’t go at the same speed as technology. But in the context of Cuba specifically, I think it has been positive. I worry about countries where there was this spring but in the end there wasn’t a more democratic change. Power adapted and started to use social media as a mechanism of control.

Do you think that could happen in Cuba?

It worries me. I think this scenario could happen. But on the other side, I note that within the government, I feel that they don’t have the skills to carry this out. I think there’s a generational element. There are very few young people committed to the regime. Those leading the country are almost all over 80, 90 years old. On a social level, there’s a disconnection between the people who are tech savvy, who are almost all young people, and those who dominate the country, the physical space. And I think this could be negative for them, for their objective to stay in power.

Do you have any predictions or thoughts about what may happen next. Do you think people can expect to see more blackouts? 

Well, if there are protests, there’s obviously going to be more blackouts. And I think you are going to see protests. Because the things that brought people to protest were things like food — there’s not a lot of food in the country — electricity blackouts — continue. The pandemic hasn’t been resolved. 

People asked for liberty and an end to the dictatorship. And there’s no liberty, the dictatorship continues. So there are all of the elements there for people to protest. And if people go out to protest, obviously [the government is] going to turn off the internet.

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