Cuba faces dilemma after rare protests triggered by social media

Louis Emanuel
·4 min read
A man raises his cell phone as a group of young intellectuals and artists demonstrate at the doors of the Ministry of Culture - YAMIL LAGE / AFP
A man raises his cell phone as a group of young intellectuals and artists demonstrate at the doors of the Ministry of Culture - YAMIL LAGE / AFP

Dozens of artists have been detained in Cuba as the Communist Party struggles to quell rare public protests organised through social media.

More than 40 poets, musicians, rappers and academics have been arrested in the last two weeks as the government attempts to stamp out unrest centred around a group known as the San Isidro Movement (SIM).

The small demonstrations, led by the increasingly rebellious collective, are raising questions about how the Communist Party deals with challenges to its authority while expanding access to the internet.

The group has enjoyed success organising protests against arbitrary detentions through social media and sharing videos of police raids on Facebook and other platforms that have grown in popularity since Cuba accelerated its liberalisation of the web.

Social media sites were temporarily shut down by the government last Friday to stop the spread of images after a raid that led to a demonstration outside the Ministry of Culture.

A woman poses for a selfie during a concert organised in opposition to the SIM movement - Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A woman poses for a selfie during a concert organised in opposition to the SIM movement - Ernesto Mastrascusa/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Iris Ruiz, a 40-year-old actress and founding member of SIM, told The Sunday Telegraph: “This is the beginning of a moment for Cuba and it is not only SIM, it is also the voices of many citizens that protest and exercise democratic practices which is exactly what the government wants to repress.”

The recent round of protests began after a rapper was sentenced to eight months in prison for challenging a police officer who raided his house. The rapper, Denis Solís, called the officer a “chicken in uniform” in a video of the altercation posted online.

The artist collective highlighted his plight on social media for a week before authorities broke down the door of their headquarters in a run-down Havana colonial-era home, splitting them up for breaking Covid-19 regulations.

A protest outside the Ministry of Culture followed, where mobile phones, which are slowly becoming more attainable in Cuba, were held aloft, filming and illuminating the demonstration.

State television has labelled the group “mercenaries” and claims they are receiving help from the US government. President Miguel Díaz Canel called the protesters "Trumpistas".

Young artists protest in front of the doors of the Ministry of Culture, in Havana, Cuba - AP Photo/Ismael Francisco
Young artists protest in front of the doors of the Ministry of Culture, in Havana, Cuba - AP Photo/Ismael Francisco

The protests raise profound questions about the Cuban state’s attitude to culture and the arts, which has always been afforded a degree of liberty and protection. Fidel Castro famously told artists, writers and intellectuals in 1961: “Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing.”

The Ministry of Culture at first agreed to dialogue with the artists but on Friday night reneged on talks.

Some argue that Cuba is being forced to reconsider its position as it can no longer control the messaging of dissidents in the age of social media and internet freedom. Until last year, highly-restrictive regulations meant few private homes and businesses had access to the internet legally. But recent changes, in part driven by economic concerns, have expanded private as well as public internet connections.

Ms Ruiz said: “The Cuban government has controlled the media for 61 years and the liberalisation of the internet has allowed us to share information. The possibility of the internet has allowed Cuba to see with its own eyes how the world works, its problems, its disasters, its achievements and its opportunities.”

Louise Tillotson from Amnesty International said: "What we saw is something telling, perhaps something is changing. Whether it's people losing fear, it's hard to say."

A man plays a guitar during the protests - Yander Zamora/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
A man plays a guitar during the protests - Yander Zamora/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The protests come as Cuba prepares for a new era of relations with the US under President-elect Joe Biden.

Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s chosen national security advisor, tweeted his support of SIM. "We support the Cuban people in their struggle for liberty and echo calls for the Cuban government to release peaceful protestors. The Cuban people must be allowed to exercise the universal right to freedom of expression," he said.

While Mr Biden’s administration is expected to be hostile to the regime’s restrictions on freedom of expression, analysts say it is likely to return to a policy of engagement started under Barack Obama and ended by Donald Trump.

Christopher Sabatini, a Latin America analyst at Chatham House, said more travellers to and from the US will likely import mobile phones into Cuba, which are currently still out of reach or unaffordable for most.

“There will be an increased flow of travellers and an increased access to the tools to access the internet,” he said. "Since Obama, there have been more groups, devices, bloggers. Under Trump that has been dormant.”

Arbitrary arrests are not uncommon in Cuba but Cubalex, a human rights NGO, says there have been at least 41 in the last two weeks relating to the protests.

One analyst said one of the key reasons Cuba has chosen to clamp down on the artists is that the group's cause has been picked up and championed abroad, especially in the US.