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Cuba: “Could Cuba become the next Egypt?”

Categories: Latin America, Cuba, Digital Activism, Freedom of Speech, Politics, Protest, Technology

Throughout February, popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa had members of the Cuban blogosphere wondering: could Cuba become “the next Egypt”? Reports and footage from Cairo inspired many posts devoted to this question, but few bloggers were optimistic that a similar movement could take hold in Cuba today.

Ernesto Morales Licea [1] wrote that while he saw many parallels between Cuba and Egypt, Cuban broadcast and telecommunications policies would make it difficult to build a movement. “[The] control of information in my tranquilized country is,” he wrote, “aberrantly, more fierce than in countries such as those that have just exploded.” He continued:

[T]his massive revolt in Egypt was planned and organized through communication via Twitter and Facebook…[This] is the reason why there is no freely accessible internet in Cuba. And the reason why the brand new fiber optic cable…rather than liberate Cubans, rather than connect them to the world, will suffocate communication. As of now I bet on it. And I would be delighted to lose. […] This is why in Cuba [there is much] worrying [that] telephones are tapped and…conversations recorded. The reason international television is exuberantly blockaded…They know what’s at stake: The survival of the system.

Regina Coyula commented on this comparison on La Mala Letra [2]. Like Morales, she felt that Egyptians’ access to information and ICTs marked an important distinction between the two places, but noted other important factors as well.

I find notable coincidences between Egypt and Cuba, [but] there are also profound differences. Egypt was governed by a dictator, but it was not a totalitarian state; opposition parties and civil society found themselves structured and inside the limits of legality. The officer corps in the Army seems to be professionally trained, many graduated from institutions in the West, and when posed with the dilemma of supporting the government or the people, opted for the second…Egyptians find themselves familiar with communications technologies…and through [these] they found themselves structured by affinities beforehand with the call of Wael Ghonim from Facebook.

Bloggers also had much to say about the Facebook group “Por un levantamiento popular en Cuba [In support of a popular uprising in Cuba],” [3] [es] which, according to multiple bloggers, was organized by Cubans in Miami. The group became a space not only for those calling for a social uprising, but also for mourners of the deceased Cuban prisoner of conscience and hunger striker Orlando Zapata Tamayo [4]. The group page listed a number of rallies set to be held at Cuban embassies in Spain, Germany, Switzerland, and Mexico, to honor the one-year anniversary of Zapata’s death, but also scheduled protest events that were to take place in Havana during the week of February 21. It seems that these events did not turn out as group members hoped they would: most didn't happen at all.

[5]

Cuba's Capitol Building in Havana/By stephendl CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It is difficult to ascertain whether Cubans on the island responded to these calls to action. Several bloggers in Cuba criticized the effort, writing that it was naive of group members to do this while sitting comfortably at their computers in other parts of the world.

On Sin Evasión, Miriam Celaya criticized the Facebook group [6], pointing out that Cuba is simply not wired enough for a revolution to develop through “virtual channels.” She wrote:

Let’s discreetly review how questionable it is to call for civil demonstrations in Cuba from abroad, given that the masterminds (or “cyber-messiahs,” as befits the information age) have not given us their confirmation that they will land in Cuba to place themselves at the head of the imaginary uprising….Readers who have placed their faith in this new “now’s the time!” that has arrived from afar, forgive me, but if the matter were not this serious, it would even be laughable. Just look at a few small details, like the fact that there is virtually no Internet access in Cuba or that not too many Cubans have access to social networks. This makes it almost impossible for the democratic liberation to start via the virtual channels, through the use of computers — or perhaps simply through cell phones — by…experienced cyber-leaders of [today].

Regina Coyula also called the effort ill-conceived [2], because of the lack of Internet access in Cuba, and the lack of public knowledge about opposition movements on the island. She wrote of an informal experiment she conducted to test the validity of her assertion:

Since last Monday, I have approached a considerable group of youths with different interests — some I know, others I don’t, and I have asked them three questions. The first, if they have a Facebook account — which surprised me, everybody (!) responded yes. The second, if they knew of the initiative launched from abroad for the anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata, to which everyone answered no. The majority had gone days without being able to log on to their accounts. The others hadn’t received anything (I don’t exclude that some had indeed received it and hadn’t wanted to give themselves away)…I don’t know about those who read this, but that says something to me.

Claudia Cadelo, a leading blogger for Voces Cubanas, wrote of her emotional response to the news from Egypt [7]. She expressed little faith in an eminent change in Cuba, but spoke to the unique power of experience that she has found through her life in virtual space.

I want to know what’s happening in Egypt but on Cuban television they manipulate everything. I look out the window again and remember the photos of the Green Revolution in Iran. I feel nostalgic. It’s ridiculous to feel nostalgia for something I didn’t even experience. I remember November sixth and everyone on the sidewalk at G and 27th staring, mouths agape, eyes stupid, as a group of men in plain clothes forced three young women into a car. I laugh. I can’t imagine the streets of Vedado* flooded with young people demanding democracy.

I’m not going to get pessimistic: I always have the Web. When I connect to the Internet the bad taste in my mouth fades. There’s a sensation that the world is changing and I’m on another planet…Again I feel that it’s possible, that one day change will come, that the freedom of my life on the Web will one day be matched by my life on the street. It doesn’t matter how much we lack. I will know to hope.

* Vedado is the neighborhood where the University of Havana is located.