Cuba’s Communist Party meet-up is closed door. Online, Cubans still have plenty to say

David Ovalle, Mario Pentón
·8 min read

During Cuba’s Communist Party congress, a state-run news agency posted a photo showing three of the bloc’s most esteemed members, wearing face masks and looking on intently — displaying “a vocation of service, deep patriotic love, and other qualities that cannot be measured.”

The wordy post didn’t exactly go viral: 25 people “liked” it, and five shared it to their own page.

Two hours later, prominent Cuban independent journalist Norge Rodriguez used Facebook to share photos of a parked car in Miami, its sides marked up with the words “Free ‘El Gato de Cuba!’’ ” — an allusion to activist Yoandi Montiel Hernández, who has been jailed by the communist regime. The post resonated, with 224 people sharing the images to their own Facebook pages.

The contrasting posts were a tiny, but telling, skirmish in what has become an ideological war between Cuba’s growing internal critics, buoyed by greater access to the internet, and a government clinging to old revolutionary slogans and dense pseudo-intellectual jargon.

And it’s a conflict that’s been laid bare during Cuba’s Communist Party conclave, which concludes Monday, and where leaders have devoted significant time to denouncing the “subversion” of social media and the internet. The party, in an announcement made Sunday, even passed a resolution that, among other things, denounced the effects of social media, which it claims is part of a “program of ideological and cultural influence deployed by the enemy” — the United States.

“They realize that they are being beaten at their old game of propaganda by their own journalism graduates who have started up independent news sites determined to do accountability and adversarial journalism holding those in power to account,” said Ted Henken, a Cuba expert and author of the forthcoming book “Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy.”

“This has been building for the past 10 to 15 years ... especially since a critical mass was reached after December 2018 with 3G and mobile internet. They opened a Pandora’s box of political headaches while cashing in on being the monopoly service provider.”

The ruling party congress, a carefully scripted event, takes places every five years and this year has promoted a theme of “continuity” while passing the torch from octogenarian rebel leaders to younger loyalists amid a crushing economic crisis.

Most of the attention has been on the retirement of 89-year-old Raúl Castro as the head of the Communist Party, and the appointment of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel as his successor. The event is closed to the public and is not being live-streamed. But in snippets of video on state media and buried in verbose text summaries, at least one theme has emerged: consensus that the Communist Party needs a new social media strategy.

In one session, delegate Victor Gaute López acknowledged that the ideological war has transformed radically since the last congress in 2016. He called for Cuba’s communist social media networks to beef up their tactics in “the digital space” and “go on the offensive.”

“The job of the party is relations directly with the people. The job of the party is influence,” he said, adding with Trump-like branding that “those who visit remind us that best social networks are had by you, the Cubans, had by the organizations created by the revolution.”

As if in an audience strategy session, party delegates also seemed to wrestle with why their message isn’t finding a captive readership online.

Younger members like Yailin Orta Rivera, director of state newspaper Granma, said young Communists feel stigmatized on social media, where the “culture that predominates is capitalism.” Others like 81-year-old novelist Miguel Barnet asserted that the revolution “isn’t on social media, it’s in the streets.”

“Make no mistake about social networks, no matter how immense and efficient they seem to be,” he said. “The revolution is carried in the heart.”

The Cuban government has flooded social media throughout the event: Links to stories on greetings from Communist parties across the world; historic black and white photos of revolutionaries wielding AK-47s; video clips of party officials at the congress urging “continuity.”

“Lies, manipulation and the spread of fake news no longer know any limits,” Raúl Castro said during his speech Friday, the opening day of the congress. “Through them, a virtual image of Cuba as a dying society with no future, on the verge of collapsing and giving way to the much longed-for social outbreak, is formed and disseminated to the four winds.”

The Cuban government has grappled with digital-age critics for years.

More than a decade ago, Cuban bloggers such as Yoani Sánchez began railing for change — although on the island itself, internet access was tightly controlled, limiting the audience. But in December 2018, with the economy faltering, the government allowed 3G access, which slowly allowed for more Cubans to sign up for social media services that had already transformed the political dynamics of many other countries.

Today in Cuba, social media has been crucial in organizing movements for everything from gay rights to animal protection and the expansion of civil rights. The San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists, activists and independent journalists, has also organized rare public protests — leading to widely condemned crackdowns by Cuban authorities.

“Gradually, we are seeing the hearts and minds of people are being swayed, especially the younger generation,” said Henken, who teaches at Baruch College in New York. “Not that they were fervent revolutionaries. They’d checked out. But now they’re more likely to be defending people [the government] is trying to marginalize.”

Michael Bustamante, a Cuba expert at Florida International University’s Cuban Research Institute, said Castro too simplistically blamed social-media criticism on influences from the United States.

“Talk to anyone on the ground in Cuba today, and they will tell you frustration and pessimism are widespread,” Bustamante wrote in a tweet on Sunday.

The reaction of Cubans online to the congress propaganda has been swift.

When Díaz-Canel tweeted Sunday that, “We are inspired. Many valuable ideas came out in the commissions,” Cuban activist Yoniel Suárez Guerrero replied by calling him the “PHD of the ridiculous” and “Miguel Lemonade” — a reference to when the Cuban president once said that “lemonade is the base of everything.”

Another Twitter user, known as Ernestico, ripped a Communist Party post about government officials working for more than a year to prepare congress documents. “So many people to review a document that was written in ‘75?” he tweeted. “That gives the measure of how much s--t they have done and will continue to do.“

A frequent but anonymous Cuban critic known as Battery Acid tweeted a meme Sunday showing Raúl Castro and quoting a line from his congress speech: “I retire with the satisfaction of duty accomplished.” Behind him: a market with empty stalls.

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Cubans like Battery Acid say they tweet anonymously because of repercussions.

The Cuban government passed a law in 2018 that allows for $120 fines for people who publish content that is not in accordance with “the social interest, morals, good customs and the integrity of the people.” It’s been used against dozens of activists for everything from using social media to publish a photo of lines to buy chicken to criticizing the management of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cuba has frequently blocked internet sites critical of the regime and officially prohibits any type of independent press. Journalists on the island are routinely detained in their homes, their work equipment confiscated, and demonized in the state-owned media.

As party loyalists convened, numerous activists said their internet service has been cut. On Friday, the first day of the congress, Harvard University’s Cuba Studies Program announced it had to postpone a virtual event — ironically, about censorship — with Cuban activist Tania Brugera after her internet connection mysteriously died.

Days earlier, state media reported that Cuba would be expanding its control over the internet and social media to “defend the achievements made by the socialist state,” although the details of the new law remain unclear.

“This Sunday a scene that I have lived for months is repeated. An agent of the State Security does not allow me to leave my house not even to buy bread, “ said independent journalist Luz Escobar, of the online news portal 14ymedio. “I don’t have internet or phone signal either. They cut it off early.”

Writer and former political prisoner Ángel Santiesteban said that Communist Party attacks on social media and independent journalists signal “more repression” and “more closure.” He spoke to the Miami Herald using an alternate phone line, he said, because the state telecommunications company had cut off his internet access and telephone calls.

The information war continued on social media Sunday night, as Cuba’s Communist Party delegates filed paper ballots for Central Committee members. Party supporters on Twitter re-tweeted with hashtags like #SocialistCuba and #CongressofContinuity.”

The naysayers? One tweeted a vulgarity, demanding to know why the population can’t vote. Another included a popular GIF of American actor Robert Downey Jr. rolling his eyes.