In the last few weeks, reports of Egypt’s revolution, ranging from NYT articles to the ecstatic messages of MENA region bloggers on the Global Voices author listserv, have left me amazed and heartened by what has happened in Egypt. But as far as Cuba goes, I (oddly) find myself in agreement with the Miami Herald‘s editorial page: Cuba is no Egypt.
Last week, a number of voices in the blogosphere suggested that if Cubans had access to cell phones and social media platforms, they could follow the example of Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The Facebook group, “Por un levantamiento popular en Cuba” (In support of a popular uprising in Cuba) appeared with this wave. The group has well over four thousand “likes,” but reading the comments on their wall, you feel a Floridian breeze. Of the fourteen events they have listed, only one is meant to take place in Cuba. Several are in honor of the one-year anniversary of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s death, which is today.* My sense is that most of the members are in Cuban communities outside of Cuba. They remain hopeful for change—but they seem somewhat out of touch with Cubans on the island, those for whom they supposedly advocate.
This may sound clunky, but I think they are putting the technological cart before the horse of civil society.
If nothing else, digital communication between Cubans on the island, and those abroad, is uneven. Cubans can’t check Facebook every half-hour—most can’t check once a week. Over a few days, the Facebook group went from a simple call to action, to an actual plan for rallying, with dates, times, and locations, but it seems that this too was on the timescale of people with much greater access to technology than most Cubans. According to messages from the page, and tweets from various people on the island, the turnout has been thin (at best) at these events.
Of course, Yoani Sánchez, who is far more digitally connected than most people in Cuba, took up this call, and has been tweeting day in and day out about it. Today, commenting on Qaddafi calling opposition leaders “rats” in Libya, she tweeted about how “all authoritarians are the same.” I think she’s wrong about this—more on that idea later. But she wants change and unlike many Cubans, she wears her position on her sleeve. She also knows what her supporters want (a “free” Cuba, though it’s hard to know what this means in real terms) and she knows that their support is vital for her—if she loses international attention, she could lose her protection. As long as the world cares what happens to her, the Cuban government will probably let her keep doing what she’s doing.
There’s no doubt that these kinds of tools can help to facilitate organization, consolidate a movement, and help to bring it into action. But technological tools and social media cannot create a basis, a desire for change, or an idea of what change might look like. This has to begin with people themselves (and those people have to be Cubans in Cuba.) The tiny, reportedly fragmented, clandestine network of people in Cuba who openly advocate for a different government hardly pass for a civil society. There are spaces for debate and exchange, but most are either facilitated by state entities, or they are so informal and underground that they can hardly be called public. Although these could snowball into a large movement, they haven’t. And I don’t think this is just happenstance. With its (often loose) applications of Marxian political economics, its charismatic dictator, and its mythical status in Latin America as the one nation that said no to offerings from the powerful hand of Uncle Sam (when Castro refused aid from the US in 1959), Cuba is a fundamentally different kind of place than the countries in the Middle East and North Africa where uprisings have taken place. More on this soon.
*NOTE: Just this morning, state security has blocked several dissidents from leaving their homes to attend demonstrations or vigils in honor of Zapata, and around twenty demonstrators have been arrested, according to reports from the Miami Herald. Cubanet reported that state security officials have asked churches not to hold masses in honor of Zapata. It seems that most have complied. Remembering Zapata and attempting to overthrow the government are entirely different things. Though they certainly fall in the same political camp, I don’t think that these demonstrations should be confused or conflated with a movement to overthrow the Cuban government, unless their leaders declare this themselves. I will try to write more if there are further developments today.