Human Rights in Cuba

Time To Change

Waiting for help
Waiting for help

Cuba Voices Try Spreading the Truth Through

Texts and Tweets

Natalia Martinez

Bloggers, tweeters, and techies met last week at a three-day forum – the

Click Festival – intending to discuss and promote social media and

technology. The setting would have been all too familiar in Tel Aviv,

San Francisco, or New York, but this time, it was taking place in La

Habana. In a country where penetration is intentionally low, it

is not surprising to hear the Cuban government sounding subversion

alarms and accusing the attendees of seeking to incite political action.

Despite its unsurprisingly anachronistic language, the aging Cuban

political apparatus is somewhat in step yet appropriately afraid of the

kind of that new media affords.

The focus on technology, access, and communication as a means of

empowerment and building social, economic, and political capital is

admirable. But the road to achieving a critical mass of information

hubs, of bloggers, of connected youth is ambiguous and often derailed by

intolerance and repression. It begs the question: do virtual masses

stand a better chance at unity or at change?

From personal experience, I can recall standing mid-trivial-thought

during a requested moment of silence at Pope Benedict's mass in Santiago

de Cuba at the end of March, when I heard a loud yell followed by the

single loudest communal gasp I had ever heard.

Andres Carrion Alvarez – a dissident on the island – had overcome the

barriers and rushed out yelling in Spanish, "Down with communism!"

before being pummeled by secret service officers. In turn, the masses

began clamoring for his arrest, either from genuine disagreement or to

hide personal concurrence and be safe from arrest themselves.

I held back my excitement, not only because it would have been imprudent

to yell out, but also because I was a prodigal child returning after 20

years of absence. My recently renewed Cuban passport gave me neither the

right to clamor nor to judge those who remained silent.

The sight looked like a Zimbardo experiment someone had left unattended:

a group of subjects with assigned roles – some in power, some not –

forgetting their humanity. Someone in a Red Cross t-shirt struck Alvarez

with a portable stretcher, twice. These men seemed drunk on the kind of

fabricated superiority a plutocrat would envy, secure in the certainty

of their monopoly on morality on the island.

On the ground, Alvarez stood alone among thousands that day. This

incident was reported first in the blogosphere and in 140-character

snippets full of abbreviations and Twitterisms. Mainstream media around

the world was playing catch up.

In part, it was not shocking that a brave man would yell so publicly;

dissident groups on the island had been clamoring for the Pope's

attention for weeks before his arrival. Nor was the affront on human

dignity that constituted his beating and detention a surprise; such

treatment has been the modus operandi of the Cuban security apparatus

for decades. In the Kafka-esque theater of absurdity that Cuba panders

as reality to tourists – beyond the budgets of average

Cubans, dancing and singing in lobbies that Cubans were legally

barred from until recently – doubt and dissension have always been


But, during the Pope's visit Santiago and Havana were brimming with

additional tension. Plain-clothed security walked by freshly painted

facades as strategically placed Cuban flags, branded with the creases of

their recently removed packaging, flew above them.

Demonstrators were banned from protesting in the weeks leading up to the

papal visit, but commentary on Cuban reality, repression, and human

rights appeared often in online dialogue, both formal and informal, on

and off the island. The tools we normally use for recreation – cell

phones, social media outlets – became the building blocks of the

elephant in the plaza – what the Cuban people were not allowed to do and

what the Pope was or was not saying were reported instantaneously

through clicks and texts – loudspeakers for Cuban voices.

But the connectivity of the Cuban people remains tightly controlled.

Just a few days ago, when Google blocked Google Analytics on the island

in accordance with laws governing the , Cuba criticized the

censorship and oppression this implied. Sadly, the acute irony of such

accusations is too blatant to reflect the least bit of humor. The future

of new technology in Cuba lies between a rock and a hard place, limited

from both sides of The Florida Straights.

Tags: cuba, , of, speech, dissident, voices, try, spreading, the,

truth, through, texts, and, tweets,

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