Time to Declare Cyberwar

Sunday, February 27, 2011
By Miguel Perez of the Creators Syndicate:

Watching Others Realize My Dream

When we see people protesting all over the Arab world — liberating themselves from oppressive dictators, using social media to come together and taking amazing risks in order to regain their freedom — most of us cringe a little. We admire their courage and their yearning for democracy, but we worry for their safety.

Not I. I'm a Cuban-American. I've spent most of my life waiting to see a popular uprising on the streets of Havana. I can't think of anything I rather would see than the day of my own people's liberation. When I see people regaining their freedom in other parts of the world, all I feel is envy.

I know our day is coming. But frankly, watching other people realize my dream is very painful, especially when we Cubans have waited longer than anyone else. We are the victims of the world's longest dictatorship — 51 years! — and now it is becoming clearer than ever that it is also one of the world's most repressive.

Let's face it; Cuba is not as free as some of the Arab states with dictatorships. There is repression, and then there is Cuban repression, which is about absolute control and intimidation.

There is repression like the kind we saw in Egypt, where the opposition used computers, mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter to organize massive demonstrations, and then there is Cuban repression, which restricts the people's access to the Internet. And in Cuba, potential organizers of a popular uprising are constantly watched, harassed, physically abused and thrown in jail even for planning a protest.

You've heard of preventive medicine, right? Well, in Cuba, the Castro brothers practice preventive repression. Unlike Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, the Fidel and Raul Castro regime has made limiting the Cuban people's access to the Internet and social networking technology a top priority.

These things are hard to explain to anyone who has not lived under Cuba's Stalinist brand of totalitarian communism. Many of my American friends simply don't understand me when I try to illustrate the reasons the Cuban people have tolerated so many atrocities for so long. And I don't blame them. Unless you have lived in Castro's Cuba, unless you feel the profound fear that has become part of Cuban culture, it's incomprehensible.

But the Cuban people do live in deep fear. They find the Castro brothers much more intimidating than the sharks in the Caribbean. Mind you, if Cuba and the United States were to open the floodgates and allow Cubans to flee from the island on flotillas to Florida — as has occurred in the past — surely thousands would risk their lives crossing the Florida Straits on anything that floats to regain their freedom. And yet they find demonstrating against the government a lot more life-threatening. Doesn't that say something?

No one turned out Monday for a Havana demonstration that was organized from the United States to follow the example of the people of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

It was obviously an underestimation of the absolute control of the Castro regime.

So why, you ask, don't the Cuban people run out to the streets and do what we have seen recently throughout the Middle East and North Africa? Well, first, because most of them have not seen it. The government-controlled Cuban media obviously want to prevent the domino effect from happening and show the Cuban people very little of what is actually happening in the rest of the world.

But even if they had clearly seen the examples of other popular uprisings, Cubans would not take to the streets, because they lack the cell phones, computers and other communication technology that has armed and strengthened other dissidents around the world.

Cell phones were not even allowed in Cuba until 2008, and they are still unaffordable to the overwhelming majority of the Cuban people. Only 14 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, and most of them are government officials and Communist Party loyalists. When dissidents use social media to organize any kind of protest in Cuba, most of the people they are notifying are Castro's goons.

Cuban dissidents are better-known abroad than they are within Cuba because, though they can communicate with the outside world, they have no way of reaching or mobilizing the masses within the island.

Yet perhaps motivated only by wishful thinking, Cuban-Americans have started Facebook pages calling on their compatriots on the island to heed the call for freedom coming from the Middle East. One page is called "If Egypt did it, why not Cuba?" Another such page, "For the Popular Uprising in Cuba," already has more than 4,500 members, calling for "a popular and peaceful uprising in Cuba, without bloodshed, without violence, with people taking to the streets ... igniting the spark of freedom in order to cause a social and political change that will lead Cuba to a democracy."

As they waited for some kind of news from Cuba Monday and realized that the uprising they expected had failed to materialize, Cuban-Americans sadly began to acknowledge that the conditions for a popular uprising still don't exist in our homeland.

Perhaps the time will come when communication technology can be used to drive the Castro regime out of power, but expecting it to happen immediately — just because other dictatorships have become technologically vulnerable — is extremely naive. It's OK for others to wonder why the Cuban people can't liberate themselves from the choking grip of the Castro brothers. If they have not lived under their regime, the extent of Cuban repression may be hard to grasp.

But Cuban-Americans who know the Machiavellian ways of the Castro brothers should know better. We know they'd do anything to remain in power.

The Arab countries have shown us the weapon that can liberate Cuba — social media — but first we have to find a way to arm the Cuban people. If we want to realize our own dream of freedom, if we want to see our people dancing in the streets of Havana, it's time to declare a cyberwar.