How Mobile Internet Has Given New Platforms To Cubans Critical Of Their Government

May 28, 2019
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3G mobile Internet access arrived in Cuba less than a year ago. It has transformed an island that had not had much access to the web. There are new avenues for commerce, new propaganda channels for Cuba's communist leadership and new challenges for the regime. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Cubans are protesting and criticizing on social media with memes becoming a popular tool.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Take last month's social media targets - an ostrich and a 91-year-old comandante of the revolution.

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GUILLERMO GARCIA FRIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Guillermo Garcia Frias declared on a state TV show that the ostrich could be the solution to Cuba's food shortages. Scarcities have gotten worse since aid from troubled ally Venezuela has significantly declined and the U.S. has imposed new sanctions. One bird produces more meat than a cow, he claimed.

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FRIAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: It's no lie, the nonagenarian stumbled on. Cubans rushed to their new Internet-enabled phones and the memes were off. There were posts of ostriches dressed in the comandante's army fatigues, ostriches sporting Che Guevara's iconic beret and even the big birds queuing up in Cuba's ubiquitous long food lines.

JOAQUIN SANCHEZ: (Laughter).

KAHN: Cubans have been enjoying this rare chance to laugh at their leaders. And like many, Joaquin Sanchez headed to the ostrich enclosure at Havana's zoo to snap a selfie with the lanky bird.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's an amazing animal, but I don't think there's enough of them to feed a population of 11 million," he says.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We are a bit restricted, but these days, I think there is more freedom to say what we think," says Sanchez.

CARLOS ALZUGARAY TRETO: The public space has widened a lot.

KAHN: Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat, says he's surprised by the public banter taking place on Twitter these days, even on government sites. Cuba, unlike Iran and China, hasn't blocked Twitter. President Miguel Diaz-Canel tweets and so do his ministers.

TRETO: It gives you the opportunity of writing to the minister and saying what I think. The comments are there.

KAHN: Censorship of the Internet is still firmly in place, though. Access to many international news outlets, opposition websites and blogs remain blocked. And the state-owned Internet is expensive and coverage spotty. But for those who can afford it, mainly with help from relatives abroad, the new 3G is also helping political organizing like never before.

(CHEERING)

KAHN: Earlier this month, gay rights activists, connected via Facebook, marched down one of Havana's prominent boulevards in an unauthorized and highly unusual show of defiance. Participants posted videos like this one in real time. Security personnel quickly shut down the march, arresting several participants. But independent journalist Maykel Gonzalez Vivero says just a month or two ago, organizers couldn't get such a crowd to form.

MAYKEL GONZALEZ VIVERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The march was possible thanks to people now using their cellphone, says Gonzalez. Ted Henken of Baruch College in New York, who studies Cuba's Internet access, says the government for now is allowing Internet expansion because it helps the regime spread its propaganda. Letting some different opinions slip by seems to be a calculated risk. He estimates more than a dozen independent professional opinion websites operate in Cuba.

TED HENKEN: In the short run, I would say that the alternative independent voices are gaining a foothold. But the government still has the upper hand.

KAHN: It monopolizes all newspapers, TV and radio where the majority of Cubans get their news. In the long run, though, it's unclear which voices will win out, says Henken of Baruch College. For now, he says, the regime is grappling with the digital dilemma facing dictators today. Do they clamp down on the Internet or risk being undermined by it?

HENKEN: They have really good examples for China that has remade the Internet in its authoritarian image, and Cuba wants to do that.

KAHN: For now, though, journalist and LGBTQ activist Gonzalez is optimistic about Cuba's opening for dissent, even though he hasn't left his house much since the march, worried he'll be arrested.

VIVERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Despite the fear, I can tell you a lot of activists are feeling stronger and more determined than ever," he says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.