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Cyber-dissidence in Cuba: At a Crossroads

  • Abr 23, 201019:26h
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In recent months, people interested in how new technologies can challenge authoritarian societies have witnessed an interesting debate among researchers, writers and, of course, the bloggers Yevgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky. Various Anglophone media have published the debate, and a good summary can be found in the magazine Prospect (Nos. 165-166, December 2009-January 2010).

It is, in a nutshell, about a dispute over the lessons we can draw from very different phenomena — the post-electoral mobilizations in Belarus in 2006; the demonstrations of the Burmese monks in 2007; and the “Green Revolution” that shook Iran last year — which share one common denominator: the important role played by new technologies in their organization and in the almost instantaneous dissemination of news about government repression.

Initially inflated by the extensive media coverage of these protests, the expectations of those who saw in the new technologies the key to a new and glamorous form of struggle and political organization, capable to leading civil society to the paths of massive protests, have been somewhat disappointed. The obvious outcome is that none of these movements has succeeded in overthrowing a single regime, although undoubtedly they have weakened them in the face of public opinion. Morozov, pessimistic to a fault, has gone so far as to blame these experts, their politicized programs and the media enthusiasm that causes the cyber-dissidents to undermine the causes they were trying to promote for producing the exact opposite of what they intended: an increase in repression and an extension of the limits of authoritarian surveillance.

Whatever our own position on this debate, we might well applaud the enthusiasm of Shirky with regards to the “organization without organizations,” the “new civic structure,” or the “technological autoimmune disease,” or, alternately, we might align ourselves with the pessimism of Morozov in suggesting that totalitarian states are strong enough to resist popular discontent and to respond to cyber-dissidents with their own weapons. In either case, it is clear that in recent years the landscape of political protests in closed societies has undergone an important mutation associated with the conjunction of new media and technology.

I use the term “mutation” to be clear that it is not just about a new way of transmitting the discourse of classic dissidence, nor is it simply a question of the availability of “new tools” which are clearly more agile and secure compared to passing proclamations or samizdats from hand to hand. The fact is that these new tools, by their very nature, are starting to generate new and contagious forms of social organization; forms that, in addition to translating into more or less massive protests, could also help to reconstruct the fabric of civil society in authoritarian countries.

* * *

Even a society like Cuba, which participates in a marginal way in the explosion of new technologies — keeping in mind that the most optimistic statistics suggest that no more than 10% of the population has Internet access on the island, and at a cost of half the monthly wage to connect for one hour — has managed in a very short time to place itself on the cyber-dissidence map, thanks to the activities of an elite group of people determined to exploit the democratic openings offered by the new media.

The “Cuban case,” in my opinion, is doubly sui generis: In addition to leaping the barriers of technological determinism, it offers clues to trace a “third way” between the “pessimists” and the “optimists” with respect to the real impact of the new media on dissidence.

Almost against her will, the blogger Yoani Sánchez has become the most visible figure of a protest movement that uses the new media to report the daily violations of basic freedoms. Her supporters within Cuba are still a minority, but the tacit sympathy she arouses is increasing, in tune with the demands for change at all levels. Her way of showing the reality that the official media ignores, her growing international recognition and her courageous acts of protest in various public spaces, have earned her a network of support unprecedented in the history of Cuban protest movements. And the support is not only for her, but also for Claudia Cadelo, Miriam Celaya, Orlando Luis Pardo, Reinaldo Escobar, Laritza Diversent, Luis Felipe Rojas and other cyber-chroniclers of disenchantment who have made access to the new technologies their principle instrument of protest.

Inspired by bloggers, rappers or artists who are not afraid to openly share their strong opinions, young people are losing their fear of expressing themselves. At the same time, they are increasingly using Twitter and cell phones to document repression, as well as to report the ever more numerous “leaks” of prohibited information: from the closed-door meeting at the Central Committee headquarters, to the freezing and starvation deaths in the Psychiatric Hospital, to the explicit videos of student protests and police beatings.

Meanwhile, the traditional opposition — fragmented, infiltrated and constantly harassed by the political police — spends years trying to make its grievances more visible. But Orlando Zapata’s recent death in prison after a prolonged hunger strike, and the marches of the Ladies in White through the streets of Havana over the seven years since the Black Spring of 2003, represent a definitive turning point in the history of the dissident movement on the island —and of its coverage by international media.

The Internet and the independent blogosphere have played a fundamental role in this turning point. I am not referring only to the fact that Yoani Sánchez and other bloggers have physically accompanied the courageous Ladies in White in the face of mobs organized by State Security and the Interior Ministry. What is happening is a change in the logic that guides these protest marches: the methods of the bloggers, which have already proved effective in previous incidents, have finally spread to other groups.

To understand this we must go back to August 2008, when Yoani Sánchez and a group of friends decided to carry out a protest at a concert of Pablo Milanés and other “officially-approved” musicians at the Anti-Imperialist Bandstand in Havana. The purpose of the protest was to demand the release of the recently-arrested rocker Gorki Águila, leader of the punk band Porno Para Ricardo, whose irreverent lyrics exceed all the limits of what is permissible under Cuban censorship.

On that occasion, while Yoani and her friends were beaten and dragged away by State Security agents, they managed to record the sounds of their protest and subsequent beatings, and quickly posted the audio on the internet. Just before the protest, a group of Cuban bloggers-in-exile had circulated an “Open letter to Pablo Milanés and other Cuban musicians,” which was picked up by the major press agencies and ultimately signed by prominent musicians and political organizations such as Amnesty International.

This letter, sent to thousands of email addresses inside and outside the island, triggered a chain reaction. A feeling of discontent had taken hold among many people, in Cuba and abroad. The repression against Yoani and her friends was the definitive catalyst of the protests. The Cuban authorities — faced with the cameras of the international press outside the court where Gorki Águila was being tried — were forced to undo the judicial pantomime they had launched against the musician. Five days after his arrest on a charge of “pre-criminal dangerousness” the charge against Gorki was reduced to “disobedience.” Slapped with a 600 pesos fine, which was paid from exile and delivered to the authorities in 5-cent coins, Gorki closed the episode with a mocking performance, which was also seen as the first victory of the bloggers’ tactics in Cuba.

The Castro regime has serious cause for concern if, as happened a few weeks ago, traditional dissidents and bloggers choose to make common cause on several fronts, calling on the international press and foreign diplomats to act as witnesses and taking advantage of the mechanism of “information cascades,” as described by Susanne Lohman, and applied by Shirky to digital activism.

“When a small group is willing to take public action against a regime, Shirky writes, —and the regime’s reaction is muted, it provides information about the value of participation to the group of citizens who opted not to participate. Some members of this group will then join in the next round of protests. In turn, further non-reaction by the regime will provide additional information to the next group of ‘fence-sitters,’ — thereby increasing participation. Consequently, strong reaction by the regime can be effective in putting down insurrection, but at the same time risks constraining and, in extreme cases, delegitimizing the regime itself. If the regime acts late, it can thus lose in one of two ways: the insurrections can win, or the state can win, but at Pyrrhic costs.”

In countries such as China and Iran, with a high rate of connection, technology reduces the marginal cost of protest and is a fairly simple way to convert the passive “fence-sitters” into demonstrators at critical moments. In Cuba, for now, limitations in Internet access make this scenario an almost utopian perspective. There is, however, another way to spread the message, which first passes through the Cuban Diaspora and then returns to the Island through media such as satellite TV or blogs read by Cubans. It takes longer but it is no less effective.

One good example is the recent campaign #OZT: I accuse the Cuban government. In barely a month, through Twitter and the Internet, a handful of activists have managed to gather almost fifty thousand signatures condemning the death of Orlando Zapata and supporting the release of the political prisoners in Cuba. Among them are hundreds of public figures ranging from Pedro Almodóvar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Fernando Savater, to Roberto Saviano and Anthony Appiah. The media effect of this campaign has been overwhelming and has successfully affected the Cuban reality. Three prominent young intellectuals, members of Cuba’s Artists and Writers Union, UNEAC, have decided to add their names, knowing the consequences which may befall them. Though few in number, they have a kind of immunity: were they to face repression, the subsequent wave of solidarity would encourage more people to get off the fence, causing major problems for the regime.

This has been the great lesson of Yoani Sánchez, learned by both the Ladies in White and cyberactivists-in-exile: Use the new media and the opportunities of the Internet to develop a win-win scenario of media transparency; no matter how it responds — whether with indifference or repression — the government is seen to be weak.

* * *

Yoani Sánchez and the Cuban bloggers have not only made it possible to know a reality silenced by the official press (as Yoani herself often repeats, “We have shattered the monopoly over the control of information”), but they have also in a way made it “trendy” — in the benumbed Cuban society — to exercise forgotten freedoms. The same journalism student who a few months ago reproached Yoani for being part of “a media campaign,” now uses his blog to report a case of corruption and then to confess his disappointment over the lack of an official response.

The resonance of the Cuban blogger phenomenon in the media around the world, and its massive support from exile, suggests a hopeful perspective in the necessary process of rebuilding the social fabric damaged by decades of censorship and repression. But it has also forced the Cuban government to devise counteroffensive cybernetic strategies. Telling examples include: the renovation of government websites; a major presence on the social networks; the creation of a platform of official blogs designed to slander and criticize the independent bloggers; and the mission of fighting the “Internet campaigns against Cuba” which have centered on trusted students at the University of Computer Sciences. Once again, however, the government is too late. Their blogs have very little presence on the search engines; their ability to mobilize the media is notably inferior to that of thousands of activists and bloggers in exile, and their technical capabilities can’t compete with those in the democratic world.

Unlike the sophisticated cyber-control measures implemented by the Chinese government or the Iranian regime, the Cuban government’s strategies have been clumsy in the extreme. The pro-government counterinsurgency has a limited captive audience, and is difficult to expand in the short term because there is less and less consensus around official discourse, including within the ranks of officialdom. Other control mechanisms — such as blocking the DesdeCuba platform, the use of spy software in Internet cafes, hotels and youth clubs, or the control of institutional email networks — have shown themselves to be, by and large, irrelevant in the face of the stubbornness the cyber-dissidence and the Creole ability to circulate all sort of things in all sort of ways. For once, the forbidden is winning the battle, at least among the minority of the public represented by Cuban Internet users.

Outside the Internet, however, the repression is much less subtle and more effective, ranging from sophisticated mechanisms to listen to the telephone network, to the beatings and acts of repudiation organized by the political police against anyone who dares to protest in public.

Thus, we arrive at a critical crossroads: government restrictions on Internet use have turned the web into a minority space for claims of freedom, but it is still not strong enough to convene massive social protests. At the same time, outside this virtual world the repression leaves little space for actions that could trigger a kind of wake-up call and lead the population at large to join the dissidents in the streets.

The extent to which Cuban cyber-dissidence might circumvent this dilemma is something that will be seen in the coming months. What recent weeks have demonstrated is that when a synergy develops between traditional dissidence and cyber-dissidence, the government is forced on the defensive.

April, 2010

Ernesto Hernández Busto
Barcelona

5 respuestas
Comentarios

  • http://www.penultimosdias.com/2008/12/18/gallita-y-gallinas/comment-page-1/#comment-42692

    … Yo creo que se están formando “mundos paralelos” (como el “mundo” que le ha permitido a los cubanos en Miami, “pasar la próxima nochebuena en al Habana” por medio siglo) es un “mundo” que aunque sus “habitantes primarios” radiquen en Cuba -existe- realmente en el Internet, lo que me lleva a cuestionarme sobre la “realidad” -real- de todo esto …

    RCL

  • oscar canosa dice:

    Para Nosotros, ahora, es mas importante desacreditarlo que tumbarlo.

  • cubañol dice:

    Estamentos, embajadas, organismos extranjeros: que dejen el wifi abierto a disposición de los ciudadanos ya.

  • Dora Amador dice:

    Ernesto, acabo de leer tu ponencia en la reunion. Magnífica, lamento que, como el gobierno cubano, la oposición tradicional en el exilio le haya prestado tan poca atención a esto. Aunque las cosas cambian, creo que ya otro tipo de activismo cívico, como el tuyo y de tantos otros en blogs, los ayuda mucho, cuentan con IPhones, no sé si tendránconectividad con Internet a través de ellos allá, sería lo ideal.
    Estaba esperando tu informe sobre esa reunión.
    Gracias otra vez, otra vez.
    Ánimo siempre, cuando el mio está por el suelo, leerte me reanima de nuevo. La esperanza permanece siempre.
    Dora

  • la flaca dice:

    Ernesto, Bien dicho, mi hijito. No sabia que tu ingles da para tanto, pero parece que eres un poliglota. Somos muchos los que estamos orgullos de ti y tus esfuerzos por nuestra Cuba.