In the U.S. today we use hashtags to hash out everything in our lives, from women’s rights to cancelled flights. But in Cuba, socialism has kept social media out of people’s lives.
In January a rare tornado hit Havana, killing four people and wrecking much of the city’s east side. In the past, state TV reports – usually aired well after the event – would have been the first most Cubans heard of the disaster. But a month before, their government had finally granted them mobile Internet access. So this time many Cubans knew about the tornado even as it was happening.
“My phone still had battery left that night, and some people started to talk about there having just been a tornado,” recalls Omar González, a professional translator who spoke to me from Havana's Vedado district.
González found about the tornado on his smartphone the same evening it struck – and about the Havana neighborhoods that had been hard hit. Early the next morning he went to one of them, Regla, where he knew friends and relatives.
“I saw an old lady sitting in what used to be her living room with nothing but the front door," says González. "And she was still sitting there because she didn’t want to lose the little things she had left.”
González and other Cubans quickly created Facebook Messenger chat groups – and mobilized aid donations. And though González supports Cuba's socialist system, he notes they did it without relying on something that’s usually required for any social effort in communist Cuba: the government.
“The special economic situation we Cubans live in has often made us concentrated on the daily struggle to survive," he says. "But being part of this large mobilization helping fellow Cubans – it was the feeling that we were making history. It was the realization that we can do a lot of things by ourselves.”
González says that doesn't mean social media is necessarily hostile to the Cuban government. He believes it can be an instrument for working with that government to effect change – and he points to the fact that the historic, positive social media mobilization he refers to prompted Cuban officials to respond more seriously to the post-tornado needs of neighborhoods like Regla, including housing improvements.
But it also seems to have encouraged something bigger in Cuba – something playing out this summer that's engaging if not sometimes challenging the country's totalitarian regime more openly.
Starting with an independent gay pride march.
In May, the government mysteriously cancelled an officially sanctioned march – perhaps because a new Cuban Constitution ratified this year did not approve gay marriage. Either way, LGBTQ activists took to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram and other apps to organize their own march.
It started in central Havana with about 20 gay rights activists. But photos and video sent out spontaneously on social media emboldened more people to come join. It grew to 300 before police stopped the demonstration and briefly detained some protesters.
On the front lines of that unauthorized effort were Norges Rodríguez and his husband Taylor Torres,who run a tech website from Havana called YucaByte. They say the experiment worked.
“This is an unfamiliar scenario for authorities here,” Rodríguez said from Havana. Unlike traditional dissident movements, "this doesn’t have an identifiable leader. The social media itself is the leader.”
Torres believes it resonated across the island: “The march was a watershed because it’s empowered Cubans to confront the government on social media in many other areas, like our food shortages and electricity outages.”
Cuban-American Reuben Rojas says he can vouch for that claim. Rojas runs a nonprofit called Other Oceans that builds social bridges between Americans and Cubans. Earlier this year he also helped Cubans hit by the January tornado; more recently he was in Cuba again and witnessed the gay pride march. But he also saw social media-fueled outbursts like a protest against chronic water outages that erupted near the Airbnb house he was renting in Old Havana.
“A friend came over to my place, and he’s like, ‘Your neighbors are protesting,'" says Rojas, who has since returned to Miami.
“I went on the Internet and I saw the video of what was happening a few blocks down from me, where they'd blocked traffic with barrels. This was a small protest, but I feel like we’re going to see more organized protests with social media, with the Internet.
"And the thing is," he adds, "the Cuban government can't blame it on Miami this time."
MORE IMPORTANT THAN FOOD
In fact, Rojas says he did see the start of a larger, more organized protest online shortly after his neighborhood's demonstration. Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and other top officials now have Twitter accounts – so thousands of Cubans last month began gathering at #BajenelPreciodeInternet – a hashtag demand that means Lower the Price of Internet.
It stems from the fact that Cuba’s mobile Internet prices start at about $7 a month for 600 megabytes of service. That’s a big chunk of most Cuban’s incomes, which means most Cubans aren’t yet in the social media mix. Rojas says the #BajenelPreciodeInternet movement reflects how important being in that mix suddenly means to Cubans.
“We can see that it’s maybe even more important than food," he says.
That's largely because Cubans have discovered social media may be the tool that gets their government to supply more food.
What they don’t know yet is just how loudly their government will let them use that tool. Cuba-watchers say it may just be a matter of time before the Cuban regime, true to historic form, begins to rein in social media usage – if not detain its more high-profile practitioners – the same way it's nervously pulled back on other new freedoms like private businesses.
But in the meantime, Cuba's experiencing a social media summer. If authorities haven't cracked down on this new revolution yet, it's perhaps because they're too busy checking their Twitter accounts for another unfamiliar phenomenon: Cubans across the island this month began creating hashtags like #ApagonesCuba (#OutagesCuba) to report the burgeoning number of prolonged blackouts.