Communist Cuba existed as essentially an Internet-free bubble outside a radical global transformation. Until 2018 that is, when the government (which holds a monopoly on telecommunications) authorized 3G data service on smartphones. The service is still prohibitively expensive for most people and subject to censorship by the government. Still, it is a qualitative leap compared with what existed before. As I discovered reporting there in 2017, Cubans had mostly consumed the Internet by physically carrying it around, exchanging USB sticks and hard drives storing pirated content smuggled in by various means.
But that’s all changed, and just in time.
What started as a spontaneous protest two Sundays ago in San Antonio de los Baños, a provincial town southwest of Havana, instantly spread to every major Cuban city, and all because of a 49-minute video shared on Facebook. From one end of the island to the other, you saw livestreamed scenes of Cubans screaming “Freedom!” and “We have no fear!” at stunned security agents, who in turn reacted swiftly and brutally.
Suddenly, everyone could see how Cuba deployed club-wielding thugs alongside riot police to take on peaceful protesters. Or how police kicked the door of a family’s home while a mother looked on clutching her infant, and apparently shot the child’s father before dragging him away. Or how Cuban state security is now plucking people off the street in the dead of night and hauling them off to jail. Like police body cameras that revealed to a wider world the sort of abuses an unfortunate few already knew about, this sudden transparency exposed the morally bankrupt regime that Cubans and exiles abroad already knew very well.
In mere weeks, the Cuban Internet has gone from half-baked workarounds to the full-on whirlwind of hashtags, algorithmic outrage and pile-ons that have driven us all crazy for years. In this case, this social media frenzy is aimed at a fossilized Communist apparatus whose dusty rhetoric usually graces state-run newspapers. The country’s youths are transforming themselves into that cadre of media influencers who define the new culture and politics elsewhere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those same influencers are often the impromptu leaders of a protest movement that exists as much online as off.
One example is Dina Stars, one of the new crop of Cuban YouTubers. She was arrested while being interviewed live for a Spanish TV show in her home; the police escorted her away for no apparent crime. Or take popular Twitter user @yousominasobuco, Ariel Falcón, who has accumulated almost 32,000 followers in a year online and who was arrested for livestreaming the gatherings. Supporters clamored for his freedom online under #freearielfalcon.
The Cuban state’s detentions are often extrajudicial and murky, with people disappeared into the maw of a prison system with little in the way of due process. The outside visibility that social media provides puts pressure on the government. Dina Stars and @yousominasobuco were eventually released, but many Cubans remain imprisoned or unaccounted for, with their photos being furiously shared online.
This brewing battle of state vs. Internet-enabled protesters bears more than a few resemblances to similar online conflicts in our American political discourse.
The Cuban government convened a “revolutionary” demonstration after the recent protests, exhorting the attendance of the party faithful via messaging apps (the messages were posted online). Afterward, Cuba’s various embassies abroad posted deceptively framed photos of what seemed like a rowdy crowd filling Havana’s seaside esplanade, and party officials claimed a 100,000-person turnout. The threads soon had Cubans trolling the official counts with amateur photos claiming a far more modest turnout. The whole thing resembled the Trump inauguration crowd kerfuffles of early 2017.
The difference is that in the United States we’ve been building toward this digital refraction of reality, complete with head-on collisions between citizen and politician, journalist and random citizen, for two decades. Cubans, who have lived in an Internet blackout, are getting there in the blink of an eye before our eyes, under hashtags such as #SOSCuba and #PatriaYVida. A crack has been opened in the monolithic edifice of Cuban state censorship, one that the regime will be at pains to ever fully seal again.
The reaction from the American government and officials here has been almost as surprised and flat-footed as that of the Cuban one.
Last Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis posted an open letter calling on the Biden administration to provide the Cuban people with Internet, as did the Federal Communications Commission’s Brendan Carr, who highlighted that the necessary technology already exists. On Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Julie Chung tweeted: “We are working with the private sector and Congress to identify ways to make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people.” One option could be modeled after Project Loon, an initiative by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, that provided Internet to 100,000 Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Unleashing Internet access would be a transformative end run around the Cuban government’s total Internet shutdowns, something no amount of technical hackery by the resourceful Cubans would otherwise be able to overcome.
During the Cold War, the United States transmitted the Voice of America to Soviet bloc nations, and even now the U.S. government transmits news to Cuba via the analogous Radio Martí. Beaming Internet to Cuba is the updated form of Cold War-era programs, and something the United States, given both its proximity and large Cuban exile population, should feel duty-bound to do.
Let the Cuban people tweet and troll and livestream — let them show the world the reality of Cuban communism. For far too long, outsiders with conflicting agendas have been defining the reality of Cuba to Western minds. It’s time for the Cubans to tell their own story —and, perhaps more important, to tell it to their own government.