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 Internet 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 expression 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 – restaurant food beyond the budgets of average Cubans, dancing and singing in hotel lobbies that Cubans were legally barred from until recently – doubt and dissension have always been criminalized.
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 embargo, 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.