The protests that shook Cuba earlier this month started spontaneously and spread rapidly on social media, providing a clear demonstration of the challenges the new technologies pose to authoritarian governments.
On July 11, that the midday calm was broken by the appearance of the first images showing hundreds of people demanding freedom, vaccines, medicines and food. In almost real time, they spread from profile to profile, on Facebook and Instagram.
“There was a group of people, Cubans, gathered in a park in San Antonio de los Baños, everything was very confusing,” says Norges Rodríguez, co-founder of the YucaByte project, which works to promote the development of information-sharing technologies in Cuba.
Rodríguez tells VOA that he quickly began to share the videos with his more than 15,000 followers.
Within hours, journalists José Ignacio Martínez and Daniel González Oliva – collaborators in the creation of the Diario de Cuba digital portal – had sent VOA videos of some of the demonstrations, which had quickly spread to the streets of Havana.
Videos began to emerge of other protests: one in Arroyo Naranjo, a municipality in the Southern part of Havana;
and another from Central Havana.
Those videos and others like them went viral, prompting the Cuban government to cut internet access a day after the protests began.
The official version of events broadcast in Cuba showed the arrival of President Miguel Díaz-Canel to San Antonio de los Baños in Artemias province. The president called the protesters "confused,” blamed the worsening of the crisis on the U.S. government embargo, and said discordant voices had no place in the state media.
Some of the online profiles of people who initially uploaded video from the protests have disappeared, says Rodríguez. The original video with the first Facebook Live from San Antonio is no longer on social media. He says he is unable to find some of the first videos that were published by Yoan de la Cruz and Samantha Regalado.
Sources contacted by VOA report there is pressure from Cuban authorities to remove any mention of support for the protesters from social media platforms, and some pressure to persuade residents’ relatives abroad to do the same.
"There was something contained in the Cubans after so many years of deprivation, of all kinds: economic and also freedom in general, and that day it exploded," says Rodríguez. "It came at a time when the country has one of the most critical situations, probably in its most recent history."
A challenge and an alternative
Seven years after it was founded, the independent newspaper 14ymedio saw the opportunity to cover an unprecedented event in the history of Cuba – a massive protest that ran from one end of the island to the other.
Yoani Sánchez, author of the Generación Y blog and today’s news director of 14ymedio, told VOA that the hashtag #11J popped up on Twitter and was "… a mixture of informative enthusiasm, adrenaline, but also with many difficulties and pressure."
As the Internet outages spread, the unauthorized journalists trying to report what they were seeing began turning to older technologies, by dictating over phone lines and transcribing what they were learning about protests, complaints and arrests.
Sánchez says his reporters are feeling the heat from the Cuban government. Luz Escobar, one of his regular reporters, has been under police siege for two weeks, Sánchez told VOA. She says state security forces surround the vicinity of her home and do not allow her to go out.
Right now, Sánchez says, “police operations continue, where, for example, taking a photo or a small video in the streets can get you a fine, an arrest and even a physical attack against our reporters.”
The Cuban entrepreneur Saily González, or Saily de Amarillo as she is known to some, is the owner of the Amarillo B&B hostel in Santa Clara. Since the protests began, she has published daily videos on her social media discussing the Cuban situation and inviting her followers to debate.
“Seeing that San Antonio de los Baños was on the street was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” recalls González. That Sunday, she exchanged messages with her employees and friends on WhatsApp and Telegram encouraging them to join the protests.
She tells VOA that she has received numerous messages of support. In the week after the protests started, she gained more than 2,000 followers on her Instagram account, she said with some amazement.
She does not trust the official media, controlled by the Communist Party of Cuba, and says many Cubans agree with her. “Cuba is not blind. We have access to all the true information,” she says, referring to independent Cuban news outlets, such as El Toque, 14yMedio and Periodismo de Barrio.
For the work team at the independent publication El Toque, the days after #11J marked “a complicated moment in time.” The first week was spent “trying to make sense of it and understand the magnitude,” explains its director, José Jasan Nieves.
One of his efforts was "to maintain the narrative of the importance, the scope, the legitimacy of these protests, countering a government narrative that wants to minimize them, label them as vandalism and downplay their importance and value," he told VOA.
Both the official media and senior state officials, including the president, have described the protests as riots and many of the protesters as "confused revolutionaries."
But in an unusual move, the president did offer some self-criticism. For the first time, he acknowledged the shortcomings in the country, the neglect of vulnerable sectors and the lack of opportunities for young people.
Driven by the speed with which news spreads on social media, the independent media, citizen journalists and Internet users created a unique moment on July 11.
Journalist Boris González Arenas, a Havana resident and contributor to the Diario de Cuba portal, told VOA that this moment has allowed the independent press to be seen as “a magnificently organized phenomenon in Cuba” and one which “has had the ability to reflect what is happening, which is very big."
For Arenas, this opportunity showed that there is a population that has “accepted the challenge of making themselves visible by reflecting what was happening."