In January 2019, a tornado ravaged several municipalities in Havana, mainly Regla and Diez de Octubre, leaving seven dead, 10,000 displaced and some 8,000 homes affected. In addition, it provoked an unprecedented revolution in Cuba: for the first time, the island saw a civil mobilization powered by mobile data, activated by the government just a month before that disaster. The availability of the Internet on mobile phones meant that citizen solidarity with the affected families was greater than ever. For months people were taking donations to the affected neighborhoods. Accustomed to hoarding all the aid and fearing that this would be interpreted as a questioning of its ability to deal with the disaster, the government then wanted to be the intermediary between people in need and those who wanted to donate. But it was impossible for him to monopolize solidarity.
Cubans living in and out of Cuba quickly realized that the Internet could be an extraordinary ally in gaining some freedom in an authoritarian context. The mobilization of the tornado was followed by a march against animal abuse, in April 2019, and a few weeks later, another in defense of the rights of the LGBTIQ community, the first convened by independent organizations. But the second had no government authorization and was heavily repressed. Then came the viral challenges: there was the #Trashtag challenge, What mobilized environmental groups to clean up coastlines, rivers and forests, and #LaColaChallenge, a call to post on social media photos and reports of the crowded lines to buy food, toiletries and other basic goods. Also came the Cuban version of the Fridays For Future, the global environmental mobilization of young people, but on the island they were not allowed to demonstrate in public spaces. The problem was not so much in the ideals of the calls as in the fact that the population organized itself independently of the State.
Independent media and opposition groups also found the Internet and cell phones a space to spread their ideas. Without them, the impact of the San Isidro Movement or the viralization of the song would not have been so great. Homeland and Life, the dissenting anthem that turned around an old pro-government slogan (‘Fatherland or Death’) and that irritated the regime. The Government also quickly realized the effect that mobile data could have. As citizens were empowered with digital tools, repression was adapted to the new circumstances. Over time, the fines for social media posts, mainly to independent activists and journalists, web blockades, Internet outages and mobile data in critical places or times and even persecution and arrests. On 11 July, several of the best-known dissident figures had been without access to mobile data for several days and under police surveillance outside their homes to prevent their departure.
But society jumped all those barriers. When the residents of San Antonio de los Baños, southwest of Havana, took to the streets in the largest protest against the Cuban Government since the 90s, the citizens who were demonstrating to the cry of “We want freedom” were not following a previous call from any dissident group, nor were they under surveillance. They were anonymous and diverse people driven by the deep shortages exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. And it wasn’t a small group. When the government cut off internet service, it was too late: videos of the rebellion had gone viral and inspired many people who longed for change throughout the country. According to Inventory records, an independent project specializing in data journalism, there were protests in more than 90 parts of the country that day alone.
The protesters’ tools on July 11 were mainly two: live streams via Facebook Live and hashtags, the tags that allow you to group information on social networks. Broadcasting a live is popularly known on the island as “making a live”. Accustomed to censorship, Cubans know that these live videos are harder to remove and that’s why it’s one of their most powerful weapons of denunciation. The direct ones from San Antonio were adding followers, visualizations and indignation. Then followed the hashtags. The #SOSCuba, #SOSMatanzas and #PatriaYVida tags were turned on on platforms like Twitter. And not by chance. Behind each of them are stories, contexts and strategies.
For example, the tag started with “SOS” is very popular in Latin America. It has been used multiple times in demonstrations against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, in Nicaragua to document the excesses of Daniel Ortega, and has recently been used in the same way in the massive protests in Colombia. According to estimates by the AFP agency, between July 5 and 8, some 5,000 tweets were published with the label #SOSCuba. On July 9, about 100,000; on 11 July, 1.5 million; and 12.two million. Meanwhile, the label #PatriaYVida, in allusion to the song of rappers Maykel Osorbo and El Funky, who live on the island, along with other Cuban musicians who live outside, went viral in the same way as their music video, which in less than a week totaled more than a million and a half views on YouTube. Today it represents a slogan for those who disagree with the system and was one of the most chanted phrases in the demonstrations.
The Government blames a hashtag
From Twitter, the mobilization jumped to three instant messaging networks: WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram. In his book Cuba’s Digital Revolution (Cuba’s Digital Revolution), published in June, Ted Henken reveals that Facebook is the most important network in the country, but that Cubans also largely use WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram. Twitter and Instagram are much less popular among the island, but they play an important role in multiplying trends outside. In addition, thanks to social networks, the demonstrators documented with testimonies and videos how massive the protests were, the repression by the authorities and the subsequent arrests in their homes of those who participated in them. In total, more than 500 persons have been reported to have been deprived of their liberty and disappeared. Nine of them are minors.
On July 11, almost everything was documented until, around four o’clock in the afternoon, the connection stopped working. NetBlocks, an internet monitoring site, reported that the network had been restricted and that the most affected platforms were WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram and Telegram. one report published by that company on July 12 revealed that the blockade had “a constraint-like pattern to social networks” that were seen during the November 27 protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana, in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement and in defense of artistic freedom and expression.
“The big internet cuts are very rare, but they usually happen in Cuba,” reads a report from internet monitoring company Kentik, which on July 11 documented the blockade and a “targeted censorship” of Signal, Telegram and WhatsApp. Seven hours after the protests began, the direct protests ended and the streets were controlled by the police, elite army forces and groups of civilians armed with sticks and stones who responded to the “order of battle to defend the revolution” of President Miguel Díaz Canel on national television. The government thus tried to sow bewilderment and disinformation, but it was too late. the hashtags they kept moving around the world.
In the official version, the blame for the protests lay largely with the US Government and social media. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said in one press conference, two days after the mobilizations, that there was not a social outburst, but a series of “riots” and “disorders on a very limited scale”, in which “agents of a foreign power” and “criminal elements with criminal records” participated. And he denounced that “the incidents” were not only the result of Washington’s policy toward Cuba, but of a “political communication operation” that was exacerbated by the launch of “the call #SOSCuba in New York” in front of the United Nations headquarters. According to his hypothesis, that label came from a US company registered in Florida and the strategy was developed “on the very expensive servers of US companies, which protect these digital operations against Cuba for political purposes.”
He also said that if the #SOSCuba label became a global trend it was due to “an inorganic action from North American territory” supported by robots, fake accounts, digital media and activists. “It is an aggression by the United States Government, which today does not need missiles, does not need marines, and which has an enormous capacity for unconventional warfare actions in a computerized manner,” the foreign minister said. However, the label was born earlier than the minister claimed. On the Twitter account of the San Isidro Movement, for example, there are tweets with her from the end of April denouncing the police siege that dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was facing at the time.
It was then used to call for solidarity with prisoners of conscience and it was not until July that its use was popularized to promote the creation of a humanitarian corridor to facilitate the delivery of food and medicine to the island by Cubans living abroad. In fact, they were various artists like Daddy Yankee, Becky G, Natti Natasha, René Pérez (Residente), Alejandro Sanz, J Balvin, Nicky Jam or Mia Khalifa who managed to make the public discussion around the health crisis in Cuba gain strength in the virtual space by making publications accompanied by the #SOSCuba.
A window to the democratization of the island
Not surprisingly, one of the government’s responses to the protests was the blocking of the Internet, a service that in Cuba is under the state monopoly of the Cuban Telecommunications Company (ETECSA). According to government figures shared by Humans Rights Watch, 4.2 million of the country’s 11.2 million residents “are connected to the Internet through their mobile phones.” In addition only 189,000 Cubans they have Internet in their homes, a figure that represents less than 5% of the population. Three years ago, they were even less privileged, because the service is not available to anyone who wants to hire it, but to those who reside in specific areas that the company has selected.
December 2018 was a key date for Cuban history. It was then that ETECSA activated the service of Internet connection by mobile data and for the first time civil society knew what it was like to be able to browse at any time and with privacy. Before, most had to go to public spaces, to parks almost always, and connect to an overloaded, slow and expensive Wi-Fi network. That also meant that everyone listened to the conversations of the video callr and that it was almost impossible to find a free bank, so users used to browse sitting on the floor, in a conten, in the weed or wherever they could.
Enabling mobile data Transformed Cuban society drastically. Somehow, it became more democratic. Employment opportunities, sources of income, influencers. The discourses and narratives about the Cuban reality diversified. Anyone could post a complaint or express their opinions on different topics. And that reality of the networks took to the streets on July 11.
After the internet outage that day, the service remains irregular and Cubans who can have opted for alternatives. One of them on Psiphon, which allows them to browse social media and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, through a VPN without the need for a connection to ETECSA. Meanwhile, the United States has already begun to consider supporting the island with connections. President Joe Biden himself noted that his Gobierno evaluates if it has the technological capacity to offer free Internet for Cuba in the face of the cut of mobile data, while the senator from Florida Marco Rubio, of Cuban origin, has called for so-called “Internet balloons” to be enabled to provide free service to protesters.
And while the inhabitants of the island are kept in their homes in the face of the militarization of the streets, the emigrants and exiles have taken over with demonstrations in different cities of the world and continue to move the label #SOSCuba. But neither the social media trends nor the robots the foreign minister talked about would have succeeded in mobilizing thousands of people in a country where protesting can land you in jail if there weren’t strong enough reasons for it. Surely those who make the decisions on the island also know this. It is no coincidence that, three days after the protests, the government announced new measures: exceptionally authorizing the import of food, toiletries and medicines without limit and free of payment of tariffs until December 31, 2021. If the unprecedented protest of July 11 has made it clear, it is that a decades-old can hardly be neutralized by restricting digital rights.
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