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Cuban Dissidence in the Age of Political Simulacra

Coco Fusco

There have been Cuban dissidents for as long as there has been a revolution in Cuba but they have never been as visible, as vocal, or as popular abroad as they are now. A new generation of independent journalists and human rights activists has captured the attention of the global mediasphere, Miami-based exiles, and Beltway think tanks. Armed with cell phones and Twitter accounts, they are challenging the state’s hegemonic control over the country’s public image, and they have assumed a leadership role within an opposition that for decades was dominated intellectually by Cubans based in Europe and controlled politically by exiles based in Miami. Putting Cuba’s recent migratory reforms to the test,1 the country’s most prominent opponents recently toured of Europe, US and Latin America, picking up numerous awards, speaking to TV talk show hosts, meeting with politicians, posing with celebrities and managing pro-Cuba protesters with such aplomb that they have put their government on the defensive. 

The most well-known member of this new dissident wave is Yoani Sánchez, who boasts over 500,000 Twitter followers (@yoanisanchez) and whose blog Generación Y, which details the difficulties of daily survival on the island, receives millions of hits per month. The new wave of internal opponents also includes dozens of other bloggers and citizen journalists who use cell phones cameras to document police brutality, public health crises and decaying urban infrastructure; advocates working on behalf of political prisoners, proponents of new political parties, and hackers who dish up details about the lavish lifestyles on Party officials.2 They operate alongside a growing cadre of politically minded artists and musicians who are able to operate outside the domain of state sponsored culture by using digital technology and the Internet to distribute their work.3

These tech-savvy dissidents are part of a global net.based activism movement that rejects authoritarian states and embraces autonomous cultural organization, but they circulate in an unusually stark context. Cuba has the lowest rate of connectivity in the Western Hemisphere; less than 12% of the country’s population has regular access to the Internet.4 Its telecommunications infrastructure is fragile and limited, and lacks any broadband Internet access. The Cuban government treats Internet access as a national security issue, claiming that it is a threat to political stability. The state manages an Intranet system for the circulation of information primarily for scientists that also hosts domestic email accounts. Dial-up Internet access via satellite is only officially available to government officials and those tourists and foreign workers who are willing to pay unusually high rates. Most of those who do have Cuban email accounts—professionals in the sciences, medicine and culture— can only send and receive email, but do not access the web. The state monitors email fastidiously and controls Cubans’ Internet access through censorship and pricing: anything considered counter-revolutionary, which includes a good deal of foreign media, is blocked and one hour of internet access from hotels or cybercafés costs as much as half of an average monthly salary.5 Cell phones, which became legal for Cubans to purchase in 2008, are also extremely expensive, but the number of mobile telephone owners on the island is increasing rapidly, and has already surpassed 1 million. The Cuban government claims it must regulate communications to protect the Revolution from subversion, but it capitalizes on its monopolistic control of communications technology by exacting steep fees for long distance calls and cell phones charges, which are invariably paid for by exiled Cubans seeking to maintain contact with relatives and friends.

Not all Cuban activists are bloggers; however, blogging, text messaging and tweeting are the principle means of communication for Cuba’s internal opposition. At the same time, not all Cuban bloggers identify themselves as dissidents. The Cuban government employs dozens of “official” bloggers who follow dissidents’ posts and often respond vituperatively in their comment sections, as well as authoring many pro-Cuba blogs themselves. One of the best-known official bloggers is Iroel Sánchez, author of the orthodox hard-line commentary in the blog La pupila insomne6; however, the official blog domain also includes more moderate, reform-oriented professors and journalists such as Elaine Díaz Rodríguez. Cuban dissident Eliécer Ávila claims that while he was a college student he was recruited by Cuban state security to defend the Cuban Revolution in cyberspace. His job was part of “Operación Verdad” (Operation Truth), and involved insulting and attacking the integrity of dissident bloggers in an effort to undermine their credibility. It was his exposure to the dissidents through his counter-intelligence work that eventually led him to join the opposition.7

Independently produced culture and private libraries featuring ideologically suspect publications have been circulating clandestinely on flash drives for more than a decade in Cuba, expanding upon the practice of sharing censored books, films and music in which intellectuals and dissidents have engaged for decades. The risk involved in producing or possessing counterrevolutionary material is high: Cuba’s penal code includes an enemy propaganda law that criminalizes anti socialist verbal utterances as well as the writing, publication, circulation or possession of printed matter that contains “unauthorized news” or that “incites against the social order, international solidarity or the socialist state.”8 Scores of writers, independent librarians, musicians, and other artists have been arrested and given harsh sentences for such infractions since 1959. Among the most infamous cases was that of the 1991 Declaración de los intelectuales cubanos (Declaration of the Cuban Intellectuals), addressed to Fidel Castro, that called for an inclusive civic dialogue about the post-Soviet crisis on the island, a popular vote for National Assembly members, the liberation of political prisoners, the elimination of exit visas and the reinstitution of independent farmers markets. Penned by poet María Elena Cruz Varela and signed by nine other writers and artists, the declaration led to the arrest, imprisonment and eventual exile of the entire group.9 Another well-known case is that of the 75 writers, independent librarians and activists who were arrested in the 2003 sweep known as the Black Spring.10 Among them were 25 members of the Varela Project, a group effort initiated by the late Oswaldo Payá to circulate a proposal of law advocating democratic reforms in Cuba such as freedom of association, speech, press and religion, and amnesty for political prisoners.

Digital information is much easier to hide and to distribute than printed matter, and this has facilitated broader dissemination of oppositional culture and encouraged more attempts at transgression in recent years. Whereas visual artists in the 80s and 90s used impromptu performance to convey critiques that were too strong to put into forms that leave a trace, the social critics of today’s Cuba use online forums and foreign media attention as protective shields.11 In the 60s and 70s, dissident writers and political prisoners went through the long and arduous process of getting their banned manuscripts smuggled out of the country to be published abroad. Today, strident anti-Castro musicians update their YouTube accounts weekly, dissidents send Tweets within seconds of any notable occurrence and political prisoners dictate reports by phone to supporters who then relay the transcripts via SMS to blogs maintained outside the island.

Newspaper-styled blogs such as Diario de Cuba and Café Fuerte, maintained in Madrid and Miami respectively, feature hard-hitting news and commentary written by Cubans inside and outside the country. The bloggers attract an avid online readership composed largely of Cuban exiles and Cuba-philes; island-based readers must wait for posts to be relayed to them via email or downloaded to flash drives. Since openly acknowledging possession of blog posts could lead to confrontations with the authorities, few islanders admit to having read them, and that claim to ignorance, whether it is feigned or real, functions as “evidence” for Cuba-supporters of the bloggers’ lack of local impact. Outside Cuba, the dissidents’ impact extends beyond the exile communities in the US and Europe; they are watched closely by social media activists, human rights monitors, Cuba studies scholars, and State Department officials straining to find signs of imminent political transition. Western news media outlets rarely quote official Cuban media for any reason other than to disprove its assertions; however, Cuban dissidents are featured on CNN en Español, The Huffington Post and El País, as well as numerous specialized magazines.

Despite Cuba’s extensive restrictions on communication, the most recent wave of Cuban dissidents have benefitted extensively from digital technology. It has increased the speed of their communications with the outside world, expanded their potential for distribution, and enabled them to traffic in images that serve as evidence, both of their existence and the truth of their testimony about the difficulties daily life and absence of civil liberties in Cuba. Whereas Cuban political prisoners who took their grievances to various human rights bodies in the 1980s relied entirely on oral and written testimony in Spanish, contemporary dissidents are quite strategic in their deployment of images and of translation teams that expand audiences; Generation Y is available in sixteen languages, but many other Cuban blogs can be read in English. The widespread circulation of cell phone camera photos and videos of street protests, police harassment, dismal prison interiors, collapsing buildings and emaciated hunger strikers has galvanized international support while challenging the visions of a tropical socialist paradise put forth by Cuba’s tourist industry and cultural ministries.

When political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after an 80-day hunger strike in 2010, blogger reports that Cuban prison authorities had denied him water reached international media almost immediately. This led to numerous international condemnations of the Cuban government and extensive media coverage of Cuban human rights issues. That increased media presence created favorable conditions for other activists, who could take advantage of their attention to pressure the government. The Damas de Blanco or Ladies in White expanded their silent protest marches throughout Havana. Intensified protests attracted more aggressive state response in which women protestors were physically harassed in public and removed from streets by force. This was captured on camera and sent to CNN and other media outlets, sparking a global wave of copycat marches by supporters dressed in white, including Cuban-American singer Gloria Estéfan, who later made a point of showing President Obama photos of the Ladies in White under duress during a Democratic Party fundraiser that she hosted for him in Florida. Human Rights activist Guillermo Fariñas began a three-month hunger strike after Zapata Tamayo’s death, demanding the release of all political prisoners, which, together with negotiations carried out by Cuban bishop Jaime Ortega, helped to achieve a goal within weeks that has been sought after for seven years.12

Digital technology has made it easier for Cuban dissidents to disseminate their views, but economic support is also crucial to their being able to communicate with the world beyond the island. The extent to which Cuban dissidents benefit from or depend on financial support from abroad is a hotly debated and highly controversial issue. The Cuban government and its supporters label all critics of the system “mercenaries” in an effort to discredit them, and Cuban law criminalizes receiving support from the US State Department for the production and circulation of “enemy propaganda.” To focus exclusively on US government monies would lead, however, to a somewhat distorted view of how dissident activities are financed, both globally and in Cuba specifically. During the Cold War, dissidents in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe received support from the US and Western Europe. Political opponents of Latin American military dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s also benefitted from support from Western Europe . Cuban dissidents in the present receive in-kind and financial support from a broad network inside and outside the island. Locally, there are many engineers and programmers on the island who have left their state jobs to run semi-clandestine private businesses offering electronic repair services, building and refurbishing computers and occasionally hacking the same state systems that they were once paid to create. Sympathetic embassies whose country’s policies align with the US’s pro-democracy efforts provide free Internet access. Outside Cuba, there are innumerable exiled supporters who pay for dissidents’ cell phone charges, translate their blogs, design their graphics, volunteer as system administrators, provide server space and donate cell phones, flash drives, and computers. The monetary value of these donations should not be underestimated; text messaging costs from Cuban cell phones alone runs into the hundreds of dollars per month per blogger.

Some of the prizes that the most famous bloggers have received include substantial cash awards: the late Christian Liberation Movement leader Oswaldo Payá and Guillermo Fariñas have each received a $65,000 Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament. The Ladies in White leader Berta Soler was able to recoup $42,000 in award monies from The Sakharov and Vaclav Havel prizes during her recent tour to the Europe and the US, as well as $24,000 in donations from Cuban exiles. Yoani Sánchez received over $30,000 for her 2010 Prince Claus Fund award, $20,000 for the 2008 Ortega y Gasset Prize and $5000 for the Maria Moors Cabot Prize. Such sums can offset living expenses for several years in a country like Cuba, where housing and energy costs are still subsidized, and healthcare, however limited, is still provided without direct payment. The Cuban government and its supporters regularly accuse dissidents of being mercenaries who are paid by the CIA without substantiating such claims. Although the USAID has an annual budget of $20 million for pro-democracy activities relating to Cuba, Tracey Eaton’s Cuba Money Project reports that the vast majority of those funds remain in the US, going to Beltway consultants, Miami based foundations and universities, TeleMarti and Radio Marti,13 while modest remittances are sent to the family members of political prisoners, who invariably lose their jobs when their relatives are sentenced.

The presence of Cuban dissidents in the public arena is nothing if not controversial. It is impossible to speak of internal opposition movements in Cuba without encountering resistance to the notion of its very existence. There are many inside and outside Cuba who suspect that anyone from the island claiming to be an opponent is either a Cuban government agent or a paid lackey of the US State Department. For some anti-Castro hardliners, the dissidents’ calls for reform of the existing system are insufficient. Many Cuba supporters remain convinced that the government has widespread popular support and that substantive reform can occur within a one party state that has outlawed any political reforms that would bring about the end of socialism. International media coverage of Cuba remains equally polarized: conservative outlets focus on authoritarianism and dissent in Cuba while downplaying state violence in other Latin American countries, while progressive media lauds Cuban health care and education, hails all reforms as signs of the state’s political flexibility, and diminishes the significance of the governments restriction of civil liberties and repression of its dissidents. Even academic and cultural institutions that tend to eschew political extremism but seek educational exchange with Cuba have tacitly accepted the unspoken rule that cooperation from state entities Cuba entails maintaining public silence on the country’s human rights record. Strangely, the same social sectors that champion academic freedom in the US and Europe seem all too willing to value the state’s prerogative over demands for similar freedoms in Cuba. That contradictory stance among members of the international left is a source of endless scorn from Cuban intellectuals identified with the opposition.

While it is unfortunate that antiquated Cold War binarisms continue to dominate foreign media coverage of Cuba, as well as shaping the rhetoric of a diminishing but persistent cadre of revolutionary fellow travelers, the recent visits of prominent Cuban dissidents to the US have brought more significant changes into relief. The overwhelmingly positive response from the Cuban exile community to such figures as Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, activist Guillermo Fariñas, and Yoani Sánchez are signs of a rapprochement between islanders and the diaspora that has the potential to be transformed into significant political and economic capital. This apparent reconciliation follows decades of bitter strife between the revolution’s detractors and defenders as well as factionalism among its opponents. Ten years ago, when the late Oswaldo Payá journeyed to Miami to present his Varela Project, he was openly scorned by exiles, whereas nowadays dissidents are treated like celebrities. Although the dissidents are frequently accused by their government of allying themselves with the US State Department, many of them have openly express their disagreement with the US trade embargo while seeking to engage with conservative Cuban Americans politicians who support it, together with those politicians’ constituents in Miami and New Jersey. Cuba’s future may be quite precarious, but the reception of the latest wave of dissidents is making it very clear that Cubans inside and outside the island are finding each other as they look beyond the revolution to imagine a world without the Castros.


Coco Fusco is a New York based artist and writer and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow. Her 2012 video La Plaza Vacia is a collaboration with Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.

 


Notes

1 See Damien Cave, “Easing Path Out of Country, Cuba Is Dropping Exit Visas,” in the New York Times (16 October 2012) for an overview of the migratory reform. See Rafael Rojas, “El exilio y la oposición ante la nueva ley migratoria,” in Diario de Cuba (19 January 2013) for an analysis of the reforms, and Yoani Sánchez, “Reformas en Cuba: dos pasos adelante, un paso atrás,” in El País (2 January 2013) for analysis of the travel reform in the context of other economic reforms advanced under President Raúl Castro.

2 Many of these bloggers can be found through the website “Desde Cuba.” English translations of many Cuban blogs are gathered at “Translating Cuba.”

3 See the multimedio on the radical poetry-performance collective Omni Zona Franca in this issue of e-misférica for one example.

4 See Ellery Roberts Biddle/Harvard University - Berkman Center for Internet & Society, “Rationing the Digital: The Politics and Policy of Internet Use in Cuba Today,” Internet Monitor Special Report Series No. 1 Berkman Center Research Publication No. 2013-15 Issued July 10, 2013. See also estimates of Cuban internet connectivity from the CIA World Fact Book, and contrasting figures issued in the Cuban Government’s 2012 report, “Tecnología de la información y las comunicaciones indicadores seleccionados.”

5 On the recent opening of public internet salons across the island, see Victoria Burnett, “Salons or Not, Cyberspace Is Still a Distant Place for Most Cubans", New York Times, 9 July 2013; and the editorial in Diario de Cuba “A 4.50 CUC la hora de internet, La Habana dice que 'no será el mercado quien regule el acceso al conocimiento',” 29 May 2013.

6 Iroel Sánchez’s blog posts can be found on CubaDebate, an online publication whose tagline is “contra el terrorismo mediatico” or “against media terrorism”: http://www.cubadebate.cu/categoria/autores/iroel-sanchez/

7 See the November 2011 interview with Eliécer Ávila with Estado de Sats, as well as Yoani Sánchez’s February 2013 interview with Ávila; see also “Eliécer Ávila explica su evolución de estudiante revolucionario a disidente” in Diario de Cuba (14 May 2013).

8 Law Number 62 of the Cuban Penal Code, “Crimes against National Security”: Ley Nº 62 Código Penal.

9 On the 1991 Declaración de intelectuales cubanos, see Manuel Díaz Martínez, “La Carta de los diez,” Encuentro de la cultura cubana, and Belkis Cuza Malé, “La carta de los Diez: Intelectuales y disidencia,” Libre online (3 December 2008. On prior dissident projects, see the special dossier in Encuentro, edited by Rafael Rojas on “La primera oposición cubana 1959–65” 39 (Winter 2005–06).

10 See the Amnesty International report on the “black spring”: Cuba: One year too many: prisoners of conscience from the March 2003 crackdown (2004) and the special dossier of Encuentro on the same events: “Especial Primavera Negra: 2003–2011” (2011).

11 See Orlando Pardo Lazo, "Performance and the Political Police: The Cuban Short Circuit,” and Yoani Sanchez, “The X-Ray As Therapy,” in TDR: The Drama Review. 55:1 (2011) 2–3.

12 On Orlando Zapata Tamayo, see the blog he and his supporters maintained throughout his hunger strike: http://orlandozapatatamayo.blogspot.com/.

13 Cuba Money Project: Where the $ Goes?