Castro Has Lost the War on Information

Thursday, November 29, 2012
By Ernesto Hernandez Busto in Penultimos Dias:

Cyberdissidence, information and activism in today’s Cuba

A few weeks ago, the Cuban official daily Granma published an interview with a Ministry of Education official. It was announced, almost as an afterthought, that the University of Computer Science (UCI) was no longer under the aegis of the Ministry of Information. It would now be under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education — where it should have always been.

During the last ten years the UCI has been the headquarters of the Cuban government’s propaganda cyberwar. Its students are organized in special units of commentators with privileged internet access, dedicated to neutralizing negative public opinion, to disseminating pro-government views and reporting “dangerous content” to the authorities, just like the so-called wumaodang or “50 cents commentators” in China.

One of these commentators was Eliécer Avila, who gained notoriety for his questions to Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban Parliament, during a closed-door discussion. Now he is a dissident. He graduated from UCI, but failed to find work, and then tried to start a business selling ice cream. And failed again, as he was burdened by excessive taxation. Today Avila writes for independent media, collaborates with independent projects like Estado de SATS, and is the anchor of an interesting Youtube program entitled “Un cubano más (“One more Cuban”). He also frequents activist and independent blogger circles.

The Granma news seemed important because it shows the end of an era: the time when the Cuban government believed itself capable of facing the free flow of information, the rise of the blogosphere and independent journalism using their own particular propaganda war. Another video, also leaked on the net a couple of years ago, showed their strategy; it was a sort of tutorial on how to use “the same weapons of the enemy” to respond in the “media battle.”

And here is where I have to give you some good and bad news. Good news first: the Cuban government has lost the war against the free flow of information. They fought thousands of exiles obsessed with getting information to the Cuban people in every way possible, using social networks and new technologies —and they lost. Now the real schedule for the high speed Internet cable from Venezuela remains a complete mystery. The official spokesmen themselves, including those tweeting and using the Internet in service to the State Security have entered into the scoop logic: they also want give some exclusive news to exile readers and foreign press agencies. Examples are Payá’s death or the recent arrest of Yoani Sánchez in Bayamo. Of course, they have first-hand information on issues that no Cuban journalist could cover. But it is curious that they have had to accept the laws of a free press to have some success in social networks.

Totalitarian societies do not have the resources to monitor and control web users nonstop, nor can they isolate information all the time.

Now, the bad news. The failure of the cyber strategy assures more power for the strong wing of MININT. The recent arrest of Antonio Rodiles is just a confession of the government’s failure to combat the growing civic activism with the official propaganda. Repressive methods are gaining ground in the government’s strategy. They prefer not to take the risks of the public debate. Rodiles has exposed the inability of Raul Castro to accept even a small portion of dissent. The problem posed by Estado de SATS and Demanda por Otra Cuba was not only the problem of information, but the question about the civic action.

Too much people take for granted that freedom of information leads, and must ultimately be tied to freedom of action. They believe that a better informed citizen will act out publicly and demand the government reinstate freedoms. This rule doesn’t seem to fit the equation. In the end, only a small minority demonstrates publicly against the repression of the Cuban regime. The vast majority, albeit well informed, continues to seek a best standard of living within the existing framework. And this is an evolving framework moving towards capitalism and in search of new forms of control.

The new activism, however, not only defends but better informed citizens who publicly claim their rights against the authorities. And that’s the reason why Rodiles spent more than two weeks in jail after going to the police station to require information about a detainee. This is the kind of citizen who can not be bought with the spoils of the changes and the new status. A well informed citizen seeking for explanations that anyone can’t give him.