Ted Henken on How Internet Access Is Changing Cuba

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In July, thousands of Cubans in dozens of cities took to the streets to protest the island nation’s Communist dictatorship and chronic shortages in food, energy, and medicine, all of which have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

These were the biggest anti-government demonstrations in Cuba in decades. They were enabled by social media and the internet, which came to Cuba in a big way only in late 2018, when President Miguel Díaz-Canel allowed citizens access to data plans on their cellphones.

To better understand exactly how Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, and other online platforms are connecting the Cuban people and undermining state control, Reason‘s Nick Gillespie spoke with Ted Henken, who teaches sociology and Latin American studies at City University of New York’s Baruch College and is the co-editor of Cuba’s Digital Revolution (University Press of Florida).

Q: How did the internet come to Cuba?

A: You basically had a period in the ’90s when Cuba was actually pretty advanced in the region in terms of its networking and internet, but Fidel [Castro] called it “a wild colt that needed to be tamed.” They saw it as a mortal threat because it undermined monopoly information control, which is one of the fundamental hallmarks of the Cuban system.

When Raúl Castro became president in 2008 and gradually thereafter, Cubans started getting very gradually online. They started getting cellphones. They started to be able to buy and use laptop computers. Internet grew from 3 percent connectivity in about 2008 to 15 or 20 percent by around 2015, enabled partly by the government rollout of internet cafés. The next big thing was that Cubans got Wi-Fi hot spots, set up largely in public parks.

Q: Why did Cuba eventually allow people to use mobile internet on their phones?

A: Because of accumulated pressure and demand. But the other reason is that Cuba is in constant economic crisis. It’s inefficient. It’s unproductive. The system is totally lacking in incentive structures. So the government sees internet access as a cash cow, because it is the sole internet provider through its telecom monopoly.

Q: The demonstrations you documented online weren’t just happening in Havana, right? 

A: Exactly. This is what’s unprecedented about them. Even if one of these had happened, it would be quite surprising in Cuba. But the fact that they happened simultaneously and probably between 30 and 50 places around the country is amazing.

Q: What are the ways in which people are using the internet to either protest or share images of protests? 

A: You can kind of break the apps that Cubans use in terms of what we’re talking about into two groups: ones that allow horizontal, encrypted, private communication, and others that are broadcast media. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are the go-to apps to share with the world what’s going on, including live broadcast in Cuba. A fourth channel is, of course, YouTube. Interestingly enough, President Díaz-Canel angrily gave YouTube an endorsement when he blamed [the protests] on these irresponsible, mercenary YouTubers and influencers.

Q: If you’re doing something on Facebook or YouTube, you are totally public. The government knows exactly who you are.

A: Exactly. That’s been a change over the last, let’s say, 15 years. One of the things they were chanting in the street was, “We’re not afraid.”

A key part of the control in Cuba is keeping people afraid, keeping them isolated from one another and not realizing that other people share their concerns or their complaints, and keeping them afraid of sticking their head up and getting it chopped off. The internet has helped mitigate both of those, because they see other people who share their concerns. And then that helps them lose their fear.

So there’s a lot of people who are out of the political closet, so to speak, in Cuba, who say the same thing in public as they would say in private.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, subscribe to The Reason Interview With Nick Gillespie.

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