The Cuban 'Tank Man' will be an influencer

Let's see if the smartphone is mightier than the thug's club

Pull Request subscribers!
Yes, I have gone off the deep end about Cuba. But history is (possibly) being made, and the call of the tribe “is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.” With any luck, Pull Request headquarters will soon be Havana, and how cool would that be?
That said, we will be returning to our regularly-scheduled programming around (mostly) technology, media, privacy, and the occasional ethno-religious jeremiad.

And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”

-Acts of the Apostles, 2:40

History has this maddening quality where documenting it very often changes its course.

Who can forget the famous ‘tank man’ at Tiananmen Square who defied an armored column, searing himself on the very memory of the event and bringing an entire world to attention?

More recently, video around a seemingly random confrontation of a bunch of Catholic school kids and Native American activists fixated this nation for weeks. We’re still in the wake of what happens when footage of a fatal encounter between Minneapolis police and one George Floyd (among many other such encounters) goes viral in the collective consciousness. The unseen suddenly becoming seen changes the underlying reality itself. The past two decades of life in the West have been the story of steadily faster and cheaper mobile computers documenting every aspect of our lives, unfettered by either distance or editing.

Almost like some uncontacted Amazon tribe, Communist Cuba has lived as essentially an internet-free bubble outside this radical transformation. Until 2018 that is, when the government (which holds a monopoly on telecommunications) authorized 3G data service on smartphones. The service is still prohibitively expensive for most and subject to sudden censorship by the government. Still, it is a qualitative leap compared to what came before. As I discovered reporting from there in 2017, Cubans have to date mostly consumed the internet asynchronously, exchanging USB sticks and hard drives storing pirated content that’s smuggled in by various means. As it once was for us before iPhones and Facebook, even when they do properly get online it was mostly about downloading content or 1-to-1 communication with distant relatives.

But that’s all changed, and just in time.

In mere weeks, the Cuban internet has gone from half-baked workarounds to the full-on whirlwind of hashtags, algorithmic outrage, and pile-ons that have driven us all crazy for years. In this case, this social media frenzy is aimed at a fossilized Communist apparatus whose dusty rhetoric usually graces state-run newspapers mostly used for something other than reading.

What started as a spontaneous protest two Sundays ago in San Antonio de los Baños, a provincial town southwest of Havana, instantly spread to every major Cuban city, and all because of a 49-minute video shared on Facebook. From one end of the island to the other, you saw livestreamed scenes of Cubans screaming “freedom!” and “we have no fear!” at stunned police, who in turn reacted swiftly and brutally.

Suddenly, everyone can see how Cuba deployed club-wielding thugs alongside riot police to take on peaceful protesters. Or how police stormed a family’s home while a mother looked on clutching her infant, and apparently shot the child’s father before dragging him away. Or how Cuban state security is now plucking people off the street in the dead of night and hauling them off to jail, or violently arresting minors for nothing more than attending protests. Like police bodycams that revealed the abuses an unfortunate few already knew about, this sudden transparency exposes the morally-bankrupt regime that Cubans and exiles abroad already knew very well.

In mere weeks, the Cuban internet has gone from half-baked workarounds to the full-on whirlwind of hashtags, algorithmic outrage, and pile-ons that have driven us all crazy for years. In this case, this social media frenzy is aimed at a fossilized Communist apparatus whose dusty rhetoric usually graces state-run newspapers mostly used for something other than reading. The country’s youth are transforming themselves into that cadre of media influencers that define the new culture and politics elsewhere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those same influencers are often the impromptu leaders of a protest movement that exists as much online as off.

What started it all: The 49-minute video of the San Antonio de los Baños protest, which quickly sparked protests across Cuba.

Take Dina Stars (Dina Fernández in real life), one of the new crop of Cuban YouTubers. She was arrested while being interviewed live for a Spanish TV show in her home; police escorted her away for no apparent crime. Or take popular Twitter user @yousominasobuco (Ariel Falcón) who has accumulated almost 32,000 followers in a year online and who was arrested for livestreaming the protests. Supporters clamored for his freedom online under #freearielfalcon, and he (as well as Fernández) were eventually freed.

The Cuban state’s detentions are often extrajudicial and murky, with people disappeared into a prison system with little in the way of due process. The outside visibility social media provides puts pressure on the government in the way that letter-writing campaigns for famous dissident-authors once did. Falcón and Fernández were eventually released, but many Cubans remain unaccounted for, with lists of their names compiled and shared online.

This brewing battle of state versus internet-enabled protesters bears more than a few resemblances to similar online conflicts in our American political discourse.

The government convened a “revolutionary” demonstration after the recent protests, exhorting the attendance of the party faithful via messaging apps (the messages were posted online). Afterward, Cuba’s various embassies abroad posted deceptively-framed photos of what seemed like a rowdy crowd filling Havana’s seaside esplanade, and party officials claimed a 100,000-person turnout. The threads soon had Cubans trolling the official counts with amateur photos claiming a far more modest turnout. The whole thing resembled the Trump inauguration crowd kerfuffles of early 2017.

The difference is that in the U.S. we’ve been absorbing this digital refraction of reality for two decades. Cubans, who’ve lived in an Internet blackout, are getting there in the blink of an eye before our eyes, under the hashtags like #SOSCuba and #PatriaYVida.

Another warp-speed example of Cuba internet adoption are the Twitter Spaces—Twitter’s new audio product that allows impromptu real-time conversations—hosted by Miami-based Cuban exile Dani Gonzalez (@GeekCubano on Twitter). In a country where phone calls to or from the United States are still a challenge, suddenly hosting open conversations with hundreds of Cuban protestors discussing how to avoid the police or the government’s internet blackouts, is simply astonishing. After discussing the best VPN software to use or the day’s crackdowns throughout the island, the irreverent Cubans always include a snide greeting to the state security agents (“besitos al culo!”) who are suspected to be in the Twitter Space eavesdropping.

A crack has been opened in the monolithic edifice of Cuban state censorship, one that the regime will be at pains to seal again. But the reaction from the American government and officials here has been almost as surprised and flat-footed as that of the Cuban one.

Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez took a few days before framing the story as one about the American embargo, a decades-old talking point that ascribes all of Cuba’s problems to US foreign policy. The real embargo that requires removal is the one the Cuban government itself maintains on the free flow of information, the one that allows them to shut down the Internet at will and keeps Cubans struggling to get their message to the world.

To that end, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida posted an open letter calling on the Biden Administration to provide the Cuban people with Internet, as did FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who highlighted that the necessary technology already exists. On Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Julie Chung tweeted: “We are working with the private sector and Congress to identify ways to make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people.”

Doing so would be a transformative end-run around the Cuban government’s total internet shutdowns, something no amount of technical hackery by the resourceful Cubans would otherwise be able to overcome.

During the Cold War, the U.S. transmitted the Voice of America to Soviet Bloc nations, and even now the US government transmits news to Cuba via the analogous Radio Martí. Technically, the plan would likely be similar to Google’s Project Loon, which provided internet to 100,000 Puerto Ricans following Hurricane Maria in 2017. 

Beaming internet to Cuba is the updated form of Cold War-era programs, and something the United States, given both its proximity and large Cuban exile population, should feel duty-bound to do.

Let the Cuban people tweet and troll and livestream —let them show the world the reality of Cuban communism. For far too long, outsiders with conflicting agendas have been defining the reality of Cuba to Western minds; it’s time for the Cubans to tell their own story, and perhaps more importantly, to their own government.

A shorter (and less AGM) version of this appeared in the Washington Post.