The mobile internet is a new revolution in Cuba

Since its introduction to Cuba two years ago, the mobile Internet has changed the daily life of many, with effects affecting various economic and social fields in a country where many of its residents still avoid speaking out their ideas for fear of punishment.

Last November, a group of artists and university professors, unknown to the public, called the "San Isidro Movement", carried out a sit-in that lasted ten days with some of them on hunger strike, whose frequencies crossed the borders of the island and reached Washington.

Before the police broke up the sit-in, a thousand employees were directly following the conversations that took place between these 14 activists and the doctors who came to examine them.

The next day, with the spread of images and messages from the heart of the sit-in on social networks, about 300 artists, some of them well-known, gathered spontaneously in front of the headquarters of the Ministry of Culture to demand the promotion of freedom of expression, in a move unprecedented in modern Cuban history.

On this island, dates for demonstrations are rarely announced in advance, and any attempt in this area collides with a tight security cordon by the authorities. But this move was surprising to the authorities.

Before the introduction of the mobile Internet in Cuba in December 2018, access to electronic services, since their introduction in 2015, was only possible through wireless Internet transmitters installed in parks or public squares. Many people used to share the network connection in these sites, especially in times of the afternoon, which leads to great slowdowns and interruptions in service.

However, this picture is a thing of the past. With the 3G network and then the fourth generation, 11.2 million people in Cuba use the Internet via their phones now.

Marta says the spread of the mobile internet has supported her in her food delivery business. As for Yasser, he succeeded in creating a community of bikers via the Internet, while Camila tasted freedom, but what she posted brought her trouble.

"It changed our lives, it seems very natural to us," says Marta Deus, 32, the owner of "Mandau" food delivery company. "Sometimes I remember that we did not have all of this two years ago and I say 'How was that possible? +"

On this island, where the interruption of products is a constant challenge to the population, groups on WhatsApp and Telegram have become a mandatory corridor to search for food or fuel.

Groups of selling products or bartering them between individuals also allow Cubans to find medicines cut from pharmacies, after the Cubans relied on what they heard from news circulating to find their way.

"Finding someone who has something I need has become much easier," said Ricardo Torres, a professor of economics at the University of Havana. "Without these groups, it would have been impossible to rely on chance."

The Cuban state accompanied this movement by creating money transfer or bill payment apps and an online shopping site.

The spread of the mobile internet has contributed to the strengthening of civil society initiatives, as happened in the campaigns organized by residents through social networks to provide emergency aid to those affected by the cyclone that struck the country in January 2019, without waiting for the state to act as was previously done.

Sometimes the government was forced to activate working groups in light of electronic mobilization on various issues, including violence against women or issues related to animal welfare, a subject of a law currently under discussion in the country.

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has been in power since 2018, has made promoting the spread of information services in Cuba a priority for his government, especially opening a Twitter account.

Some Cubans do not hesitate to directly criticize their president through his own account or even insult him, often hiding behind fake accounts.

Among them, Yasser Gonzalez, 35, who is the director of a Facebook group for cyclists in Cuba, went directly to the Cuban president after Havana canceled a cyclists' gathering in October under the pretext of fighting Covid-19.

"Dear Miguel Diaz-Canel, I am writing to you with the hope of saving the most beautiful event in our city during this difficult year," he wrote on Twitter.

"I have no problem writing to the president: if he wants to respond, that's wonderful," Yasir said. "Otherwise, I will be satisfied with this limit."

However, a few days after he posted the tweet, Yasser was interrogated by the State Security Service. "The police called me and I think it was related to what I wrote to Diaz-Canel," he says, adding, "They wanted to warn me that I should stop doing this."

And for the 27-year-old freelance journalist Camila Acosta, the Internet made her work easier and increased the reach of her opposition site "Cubant".

Before, it relied on wireless internet networks in public parks, but the service was "very bad". However, "the real progress has occurred with the Internet via mobile phones," according to Camilla.

But when the young woman posted a picture on Facebook mocking the father of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro, with a video of a long queue in front of a supermarket and a photo of her being summoned by the police after participating in a demonstration, the authorities imposed a fine of 3,000 pesos ($ 125) on her.

This was achieved based on Decree 370, which prohibits the publication of any "information detrimental to the social interest, morals, good customs and the safety of persons."

The ruling Communist Party said recently that "social networks have become a permanent platform for ideological debate, and our arguments in them must prevail over hostile campaigns."

Cuba's Deputy Communications Minister, Ernesto Rodriguez Hernandez, told AFP in 2019 that the Internet should serve "truth" and the revolution in Cuba.

Camilla has refused to pay the fine imposed on her, risking herself a possible six-month prison sentence, similar to ten of the nearly thirty people who have been punished by the country's authorities since January 2020.

"I have not restrained myself since then, on the contrary," asserts the young woman, saying that she goes out into the street with "constant willingness to use the phone for live photography" if she is arrested.

"This constitutes a kind of protection for us," she explains, noting that she used this method of live photography upon her arrest at the end of July, which allowed her relatives to be alerted and to create a state of mobilization to release her.

In recent weeks, many residents spoke of strange cases of interruption of Internet service that prevent communication with social networks, especially Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.

In October, Telegram went out of service in the country, with some twenty non-governmental organizations, including Reporters Without Borders, denouncing what it considered possible intentional disruption.

"The Internet allows the exercise of rights, including freedom of expression, and Cuba has a long history of suppressing this freedom," says Veronica Arupo, in charge of Latin America's political affairs at Access Now, which is based in New York.

"Cuba realizes that the Internet is an essential tool for the development of (the country), and this is their goal, but there are things that may escape from them, so they impose censorship," she added.


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