Independent journalist Abraham Jiménez was on the roof of his Havana home, trying to connect for a video interview on his cell phone. The signal is better up there than in his room.
It was Monday, and the Cuban dictatorship was intermittently cutting Internet connection on the island to block the dissemination of more reports and videos about the massive protests the previous day. They were the largest since the so-called Maleconazo in 1994. But something was different this time: the young people and protesters know how to get around the government censorship by using new technologies and social networks.
Abraham did not want to explain how he connected with me in Miami. “I don’t want to declassify my strategy, because if I reveal it I lose it,” he told me. But he did describe what happened on Sunday July 11 in more than 50 places across the island. “We had enough, and it exploded. The people got tired and went into the street … This is a country with shortages of food, of medicines. The public health system collapsed with the pandemic. That, plus an excessive increase in the repression of dissidents and civil society made the country explode … These are images reflect the annoyance and indignation of a people who have been suffering and enduring this regime for more than 60 years. And they said, enough!”
Cubans lost even their fears.
We are wrong if we believe that the problem in Cuba is just a lack of vaccines or food. The key problem is the lack of freedom. The videos flooding the social networks and reports in news media like The New York Times and El País in Spain show people shouting “down with the dictatorship.”
And it is. Cuba has been a dictatorship since 1959. First ruled by Fidel and Raúl Castro and then by Miguel Díaz-Canel, as first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party since April. He’s had the title of “president” since 2019, but in fact he is a dictator/bureaucrat hand-picked by Raúl Castro in a country where there’s only one political party, where there are prisoners of conscience, where an iron censorship reigns and where any sort of dissidence is not tolerated.
Cuba is the oldest dictatorship on our continent, and it is sad to listen to Latin Americans who ask for democracies for their own countries but not for Cubans. Cuba is not any kind of guidepost. No democracy should aspire to be like Cuba.
These liberating protests did no come out of the blue. The courageous San Isidro Movement preceded them and even has a song, Patria y Vida, that is banned from the government’s radio stations. But that does not matter. The song went viral, like the chants from the first Sunday of protests.
The fledgling Biden administration in the United States – which has maintained a trade embargo on the island for decades – is not planning a cultural or diplomatic approach to Cuba, like the one under President Barack Obama. “The political moment that existed under Obama is one that does not exist now,” Juan González, in charge of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, told me during an interview in February. Biden “has made it very clear that human rights will be key to any conversation, no matter the country.” And in Cuba, human rights are abused daily.
After living for three decades in Miami, I have often experienced the euphoria of seeing protests and possible changes in Cuba, followed by the disillusion and sadness of a brutal repression. After the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, there was a spike in the expectations for regime change in Cuba. The winds of democracy were sweeping the world. And in 1991, during the first Ibero-American Summit in Guadalajara, Mexico, I asked dictator Fidel Castro if it was time to hold a democratic plebiscite in Cuba. “I respect the opinion of those gentlemen,” he told me, at a time when he had been in power for 32 years. “But they really have no right at all to demand that Cuba hold any kind of plebiscite.”
The Soviet Union disappeared shortly after that interview and several European countries were liberated. But not Cuba. Fidel died in 2016 and was replaced by his brother Raúl. The naive idea that there would be no Castroism without Fidel was quickly discarded, and the island continued to regurgitate the death rattles of a tyranny.
Jump to 2021, without Fidel and with Internet.
If we believe that history repeats itself, we lose hope. But this time there’s something new in Cuba that did not exist in other movements for change. I know that the so-called Arab Spring, fueled by cell phones and social networks, did not wind up bringing democracy to those countries. But in Cuba, the newly opened spaces can no longer be controlled by the government and are being filled by rebel voices.
How can you do independent journalism in Cuba, I asked Abraham, who has been a reporter since 2016 and founded the digital magazine El Estornudo (revistaelestornudo.com). “I live with risk, and I have learned to overcome that fear,” he told me on his cell phone as the image went in and out. “It’s crazy. You are watched all the time. They take you to interrogations. The Web pages where you publish are blocked by the regime. They beat you. You have to cling to the responsibility to report on this country. If we don’t tell the story, people will continue to believe this is paradise, when it is a prison.”
To report the true story of Cuba and promote democratic change, the best and quickest thing that other countries can do is to provide an efficient satellite system for internet access. Cuba’s destiny should be written by Cubans themselves. No one else. But their voices must be heard.
“The Internet changed this country,” Abraham told me before our call dropped. “The Internet has empowered Cubans and made us jump from virtual space to the streets. And every day we move the fence more and more. No one knows what could happen.”
Indeed, no one knows. But as a Cuban journalist told me, “The Cayman woke up.”