‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests

‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet
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‘On Social Media, There Are Thousands’: In Cuba, Internet Fuels Rare Protests

Artists gathered by the hundreds in Cuba’s largest protest in decades after seeing videos of police detentions that were filmed on cellphones and circulated online.

Credit…Ismael Francisco/Associated Press

Ed Augustin, Natalie Kitroeff and

  • Dec. 9, 2020

HAVANA — In another era, the detention of a young Cuban dissident may have gone completely unnoticed. But when the rapper Denis Solís was arrested by the police, he did something that has only recently become possible on the island: He filmed the encounter on his cellphone and streamed it live on Facebook.

The stream last month prompted his friends in an artist collective to go on a hunger strike, which the police broke up after a week, arresting members of the group. But their detentions were also caught on cellphone videos and shared widely over social media, leading hundreds of artists and intellectuals to stage a demonstration outside the Culture Ministry the next day.

This swift mobilization of protesters was a rare instance of Cubans openly confronting their government — and a stark example of how having widespread access to the internet through cellphones is testing the power balance between the communist regime and its citizens.

“The videos had a huge impact on us,” said Tania Bruguera, one of the artists involved in the protests. “We saw that any artist in Cuba who decides to speak up, or question what the government says, or make art that asks uncomfortable questions, could receive the same treatment.”

It isn’t clear yet whether this incipient protest movement will gather the momentum and discipline needed to fundamentally transform a political system that has quashed decades of challenges — or will simply fade away. But the mere fact that such a large protest happened at all — and led to the creation of a formal movement with a name and a Facebook page — is in itself extraordinary in a country where the opposition is barely existent.

And as protesters’ demands have shifted from ending limits on artistic expression to pushing for more fundamental political freedoms, they have earned the attention of a growing swell of young Cubans not normally inclined toward activism.

“What is happening in Cuba is unprecedented,” said José Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas program at Human Rights Watch. “It’s an awakening.”

When President Trump came into office, he quickly rolled back the Obama administration’s reopening of relations between the two countries, which he called a “terrible and misguided deal.”

Yet one of the conditions baked into that deal — that Cuba broaden internet access — has continued to play out on the island, leading to greater pressure on the government.

Cuba first made it possible to get internet on cellphones two years ago, and now four million people can get online that way. A total of seven million Cubans — about two-thirds of the population — have some kind of access to the web, government data shows.

Making a video call on a cell phone in Havana.
Credit…Ramon Espinosa/Associated Press

The government has blocked several critical websites, including Radio Martí, an anti-Castro news outlet funded by the U.S. government. But it allows access to major U.S. newspapers and Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube.

The upshot: There is a growing army of Cubans who can easily get online and use social media to organize around common causes.

Sometimes their campaigns are acceptable to the government, as was the case with the online animal rights advocates who got permission from authorities to hold a march against animal cruelty. Others, like the gay rights activists who were detained after using Facebook to organize a protest last year, were not as welcome.

The marches were small, but were among the first independently organized demonstrations on the island in decades.

“It is this awakening of civil society, facilitated by the spread of the internet and social media, which is posing this challenge to the government,” said William LeoGrande, a Cuba specialist at American University. “To what extent does a political system which prides itself on control allow the kind of civil society expression that we’ve seen growing?”

If not for Facebook, it may have been easy for the government to dismiss complaints from Mr. Solís, the detained rapper, and his artist friends.

Credit…Fernando Alvarado/EPA, via Shutterstock

In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions, the politics of some in the group have raised eyebrows. Mr. Solís is a die-hard Trump supporter: In the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.”

Some members of his artists’ collective, known as the San Isidro Movement, have been seen with U.S. embassy officials, a link the government has used to label them “mercenaries” intent on destabilizing Cuba.

Still, the clips of the police detaining Mr. Solís — who was later sentenced to eight months in jail for insulting law enforcement — and then cracking down on the artists’ peaceful hunger strike, did not sit well with many Cubans.

The night when the hunger strike was shut down, a much broader coalition of artists began messaging each other on WhatsApp and Facebook, and the next morning people started gathering in front of the Culture Ministry.

“We didn’t go there to defend those artists’ views,” said Ms. Bruguera, the visual artist who has been protesting. “We went there to defend the right of all artists to dissent.”

What started as anger over the arrests morphed into conversations among the artists about their frustration with limits to free expression on the island. They commiserated over their fear of government censorship or outright repression because of the art, theater or movies they produce.

“I want to do free art, without state security parked on my corner,” said Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a performance artist who led the hunger strike last month.

By nightfall, hundreds had gathered for the spontaneous protest against the government — something not seen in Cuba since the nation plunged into economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Troubadours, artists, playwrights, rappers and reggaetoneras played music, read poetry and sang the national anthem. When the ministry allowed a group of demonstrators into the building to negotiate, those gathered outside clapped every 10 minutes or so to express support.

Artists have a particular cachet in Cuba, a deeply patriotic nation that has long prided itself, including under communism, on the prowess of its cultural institutions.

And the government may have found it harder to outright reject this particular group of protesters, which included some of the nation’s most prominent artists. Jorge Perugorría, one of the most famous Cuban actors, and Fernando Pérez, a celebrated film director, both showed up that night.

“I will always go where I feel my presence can help,” Mr. Pérez said, adding he believed the protests “come from a great love of Cuba.”

The crowd also drew younger stars, like Yunior García, 38, who has worked for institutions linked to the state all his life, writing plays, short films and telenovelas for Cuban television.

“The fact that I’ve been permitted to create doesn’t mean I can stand by while others are censored,” he said.

But communication between the protesters and the ministry broke down after their initial meeting in late November. Protesters are now at an impasse with the government, and many now say they are being intimidated by the state’s security apparatus.

Several artists who were present say police vehicles are parked outside their homes, a tactic that some described as a form of house arrest. Ms. Bruguera has been detained twice by police when she ventured outside and said officers suggested she and others could be charged with “sedition and civil disobedience.”

Credit…Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch documented 34 instances in which the Cuban government has punished dissidents, including some involved with the artists’ movement, by accusing them of violating restrictions intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Nine were accused of not wearing a face mask properly.

Even holed up in their homes, however, many of the artists have continued to publicize what they say is harassment by the government in videos and posts on Facebook.

And the government has not stopped the flow of messages on WhatsApp group chats, which the protesters say is keeping the broader movement alive.

“The spark that we lit with the protest, that energy hasn’t left us,” said Luz Escobar, a journalist who attended the demonstration. “We feel that there were hundreds of people connected to it, and that was just on the streets.”

“On social media,” she added, “there are thousands.”

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