A digital cold war is being played out against a backdrop of demonizing the Internet and social networks, which are accused of having a destabilising influence and being orchestrated by the American enemy. Will the arrival of the Venezuelan fiber-optic cable call into question the “rationing” of the Internet, which remains out of reach for the majority of the population? The creation of a tightly controlled Cuban Web 2.0 tends to indicate that the regime has no intention of making any concessions with regard to communications.
Pressures and defamation campaigns against critical bloggers
Pro-government bloggers are waging a non-stop battle on the Internet against “alternative” bloggers critical of the authorities. The regime is preventing most of its citizens from gaining access to the Internet and is occupying the field in order to leave no cyberspace for dissidents (see the Cuba chapter in the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report). However, although less than 2% of Cubans have access to the World Wide Web, a growing number of them have found creative ways to connect with the Internet and visit the social networks.
In March 2011, an official documentary programme named the “Las Razones de Cuba” (“Cuba’s Reasons”) (http://razonesdecuba.cubadebate.cu/) TV series was broadcast which accused critical bloggers, labelled as “cybermercenaries,” of being manipulated by the United States, had been countered by the publication, on Viméo, of a dissident video entitled “Citizens’ Reasons”, in which blogger Yoani Sanchez explained that the “demonization of the Internet” was in full throttle because the government was “frazzled” and fearful that the Internet might play a role similar to that of the Arab Spring. The dissident later stated in an interview granted on 2 January to the Peruvian daily El Comercio that she was very “sceptical” about the likelihood of a Cuban protest movement of the sort observed in Tunisia or Egypt, in view of how “highly fragmented” Cuban society is and the “minimal” mobilisation capacity of its social networks.
Yoani Sanchez founded a school of bloggers to break the tight grip on information imposed by official news sources. Other bloggers such as Claudia Cadelo, Laritza Diversent and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo have also taken the initiative to defend “digital freedoms” and the Cubans’ right to be informed. The coverage of dissident Juan Wilfredo Soto Garcia’s death by “alternative” bloggers offended a government already displeased that its official version was being challenged.
The authorities’ strategy about social networks
In November 2011, the whole world witnessed what was probably the first direct confrontation between a member of the Cuban leader’s family – in this case Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter – and dissident Yoani Sánchez. In a baptism by fire on Twitter, Mariela Castro lost her composure while responding to the arguments of her critics, calling them parásitos despreciables [despicable parasites]. During an interview for BBC, Yoani Sanchez later praised the social networks’ role as a dialogue facilitator: “On Twitter, no one gives lessons to anyone else. Presidents don’t order citizens around and neither do major personalities bully ordinary people. They all learn from each other.” She was once again prevented from leaving the country in February 2012.
On 1 December 2011, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, urged social networks to develop a new strategy which would allow them to rid themselves of the “dictatorship of the sector’s large U.S. groups” (http://www.elespectador.com/tecnolo...). A few days later, the government accused Twitter of having spread rumours about Fidel Castro’s death.
Shortly afterwards, the regime launched RedSocial, a Cuban version of Facebook accessible only via the Cuban Intranet, Red Cubana. Conceived as “a virtual meeting place for Cuban academics,” it is nonetheless a surveillance tool. In order to register, the user must provide his or her e-mail’s password. This “Made in Cuba” social network boasted several thousand registered users by the end of 2011.
The undersea Cable from Venezuela, a new hope?
Much more is at stake now with the arrival of the undersea Alba fiber-optic cable which will link Cuba and Venezuela, multiplying by 3,000 the island’s capacity to connect to the rest of the world. Initially scheduled for the summer of 2011, its implementation was postponed without further explanation. In early 2011, the regime announced that this Web access would be reserved for “social use” by institutions, universities and certain professions such as doctors and journalists. It would also make it possible to continue setting up collective access centres. Contrary to expectations, in late January 2012, the Cuban Communist Party Congress carefully set aside the issue of Internet development.
Although no one is banking on the fact that certain cable fibres will be diverted towards the Internet access black market, others believe that the cable will not create new opportunities for Cubans who wish to connect to the World Wide Web. Since the latter is rationed, as is the rest of Cuba, the cable could only enhance connection quality and bandwith speed for those who already have access. The regime remains ready to crush any attempt to bypass censorship. In November 2011, Cuba accused the United States of bolstering parallel Internet connections on the island by unlawfully importing equipment and making satellite connections available. An American citizen accused of involvement in these clandestine activities was arrested in December 2009.