Dissidence 2.0 in Egypt, Ukraine, and Cuba

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I am thrilled for Egypt, and more specifically my Egyptian friends. I have been following political developments in the country ever since Mostafa began covering Egypt on Global Voices back in October of 2005. (If you were watching CNN’s coverage of the protests last week then you might have caught Mostafa on Parker Spitzer as he described the injured protesters he treated at a makeshift hospital in a mosque near Tahrir Square in Cairo.) Mostafa’s first post on Global Voices described rising tensions between Christians and Muslims in the country because of a play that was perceived to be critical of Islam. During the protests last week, however, we saw images of this: “Christians protecting Muslims while they pray during protests.”


And yet, while I am thrilled for Mostafa, for Alaa, for Manal, for Noha, for Eman, for Abdelrahman, for Ahmad, and for some many others who have been working toward democracy in Egypt for years now, I also find myself thinking about another revolution.

From Veronica Khokhlova, writing in Kiev a couple days before Christmas in 2004:

It took Maidan about half an hour to fill up yesterday: when I was leaving after a walk through the tent city, there were maybe just a few hundred people, most of them standing by the stage; when my mama got there around 5 pm, there was already a huge crowd.

I returned to Maidan around 7 pm and the square looked and sounded exactly the way it did two weeks ago and before that: filled with people (around 80,000), various flags in the area next to the stage (Ukrainian national, orange, banned Belarusian, new Georgian, Polish), lots of light, lots of music, bursts of Yushchenko! Yushchenko! chant.


Then, a few days later, on Monday December 27: “Looks like we’ve won!!!”

A couple years ago I was sitting in a bar with Veronica where the Orange Revolution was planned and organized by youth activists. Veronica described the euphoria, the sense of a real sea change between yesterday and tomorrow, a sense that the youth have taken over and that they wouldn’t fall into the same traps of corruption, clientelism, and electoral fraud that had forever preceded them.

It didn’t last long. These days the headlines read:

You get the idea. Is this the same depressing fate that awaits Tunisia and Egypt? I’m not sure – all I know is that nothing has been won yet; rather, Egyptians are only able to start what will be a long and complicated process to bring about the vision of Egypt that inspired so many people to take to the streets these past couple weeks. My concern is that building a protest movement and building a just, representative democracy are two very different tasks, as illustrated by the evolution of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua.

There are small, initial signs that Egypt might be different. Just one day after Mubarak ceded power the youth activists returned to Tahrir Square, but this time to clean it up.


Meanwhile, Mostafa and many other Egyptian Twitter users are linking to a list of 10 concrete, intelligent proposals by Hani Shukrallah to start building a democratic Egypt.


Egypt – ever more so than Tunisia – has been an inspiration to activists all over the world. Intense protests against authoritarian governments are now taking place in Algeria, Yemen, and Gabon.

There are also some major developments taking place in Cuba that have understandably received little attention in what has been a week heavy on international news. Earlier this week it was confirmed that Voces Cubanas and Desde Cuba – two major platforms of independent and opposition Cuban bloggers – were unblocked. Then, all last week Havana hosted the 14th annual International Computer Science Fair, which highlighted the partnership between Venezuela and Cuba that lead to this week’s inauguration of a 640GB-capacity, $70 million undersea cable that will provide Cuba with its first non-satellite connection to the internet.

Commenting on the arrival of serious broadband to Cuba, Boz writes:

With a small investment and a willingness to open up, Cuba could make a major leap forward in terms of internet access within the next few months.

Unfortunately, most indications are that will not occur. Cuba plans to use much of this bandwidth for government access and voice communications that will still run through an inefficient and expensive state-run firm. The country plans to still charge high access fees to get online. It plans to restrict much of internet access and give Cuban society only slow progress over the coming years. They’ll find new excuses, in terms of equipment available or bandwidth charges or something else.

Still, in the face of government restrictions, Cuba has a black market for everything and pressures are on the government to reform. I’m hoping Cuba’s black market finds a way to make internet bandwidth much, much cheaper with the addition of this new line. I’m hoping the Cuban people pressure the government enough to force a bit greater communication. I’m hoping Hugo Chavez’s donation to the Cuban government accidentally helps open up the island and gives its people more connectivity and a bit more freedom.

Much has been made of a leaked video that surfaced in the Cuban blogosphere last week of Eduardo Fontes Suárez, a 38-year-old counter-intelligence official who was recorded making comments to Interior Ministry officers about the dangers that the Web presents to the Cuban government. As Fontes Suárez emphasizes at one point on the 53-minute video:

The technology in itself is not a threat, but the threat is what the people who use the technology can do with it.

This happens to be the very same, obvious conclusion that was drawn by Berkman Center researchers Bruce Etling, Robert Faris, and John Palfrey in a 13-page academic paper that cites all the same anecdotes that are repeated across hundreds of blog posts. Yes despite such obviousness, the media and pundits (including, unfortunately, Global Voices) keep focusing on the technical details of internet access and censorship in Cuba without taking the time to understand the individuals behind Cuba’s pro-democracy, pro-human rights movement.

Much more important than the unblocking of Yoani Sanchez’s blog, has been the release yesterday and today of dissidents Eduardo Diaz Fleitas and Hector Maseda. More political prisoners expect to be freed in the coming days. But unlike other Cuban political prisoners that have been freed in the past couple months, Diaz Fleitas and Maseda will stay put in Cuba where they plan on continuing their opposition activism. As Diaz Fleitas revealed in his interview with José Merino yesterday, he and other activists will start a five-day hunger strike on February 23 with other activists around the country.

Back in 1994, when Cuba faced food shortages after the fall of the USSR, the Havana Malecón was witness to its own Tahrir Square-like event. Just like in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of Cubans took to the streets and demanded that Fidel Castro resign.

Maleconazo2005 4

Eduardo Diaz Fleitas was one of the leaders of that movement, but security forces quickly took over and quelled the protests. Ten years later and the Cuban government imprisoned some 75 political dissidents – including Diaz Fleitas – in what is usually referred to as Black Spring. (I happened to be in Cuba just months later, and there was very little talk of the detained dissidents.) In recent years the Cuban opposition movement has become nearly irrelevant. A leaked cable by Jonathan Farrar of the United States Interests Section in Havana (USINT) from April 2009 emphasizes the ineffectiveness of the Cuban dissident movement:

Without some true epiphany among the opposition leadership and a lessening in official repression of its activities, the traditional dissident movement is not likely to supplant the Cuban government. The dissidents have, and will continue to perform, a key role in acting as the conscience of Cuba and deserve our support in that role. But we will need to look elsewhere, including within the government itself, to spot the most likely successors to the Castro regime.

In December 2009 another leaked cable from USINT describes Cuba’s bloggers as the greatest threat to the Castro regime:

The conventional wisdom in Havana is that GOC sees the bloggers as its most serious challenge, and one that it has trouble containing in the way that it has dealt with traditional opposition groups. The “old guard” dissidents mostly have been isolated from the rest of the island. The GOC doesn’t pay much attention to their articles or manifestos because they have no island-wide resonance and limited international heft. For a while, ignoring the bloggers too seemed to work. But the bloggers’ mushrooming international popularity and their ability to stay one tech-step ahead of the authorities are causing serious headaches in the regime.

Last month Bert Hoffmann published a working paper for the German Institute of Global and Area Studies titled “Civil Society 2.0?: How the Internet Changes State-Society Relations in Authoritarian Regimes: The Case of Cuba.” Hoffmann begins by outlining the evolution and impact of offline activism in Cuba during the 1990’s. He argues that the movement for civil society in Cuba throughout the 90’s failed because it was never able to build a sufficiently wide public sphere to put pressure on political leaders and state institutions. Then, turning to the history of the Internet in Cuba since it arrived in 1996 Hoffmann writes, “As the Cuban state’s approach to the public sphere is based on the state monopoly over mass media, any media beyond the reach of the nation-state’s authority signify a political challenge.” He goes on to document dozens of examples of information that is spread via email, bluetooth, internet, and usb thumb drive that would never be allowed on state controlled media. Moving on to the Cuban blogosphere, Hoffmann mentions some of the same big-name bloggers, but also notes, for example, that “no less than 170 members of the official journalists’ union, UPEC, run some type of blog.” And he describes how the Castro regime supports its own pro-government bloggers such as Yohandry’s Weblog and the various pro-government bloggers at Cuba Debate (with its tagline, “against media terrorism”).

Are Cuban government fears of the rise of bloggers justified? Do Cuban bloggers represent the same catalyst to social movements as their counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt? Hoffmann draws several conclusions, emphasizing firstly that “a precondition for civil society activism to evolve is some degree of public sphere in which it can ‘breathe’.” He goes on to, again, state the obvious. Like China, …

the [Cuban] government’s crucial concern is containment: to minimize the domestic impact, to put brakes on the contagion effect, and, most importantly, to keep the pluralism of web-based voice from spilling over into Cuba’s non-virtual public sphere.

In other words, how do you move from the blogosphere to Tahrir Square? It is already starting to happen slowly – Cuban bloggers have been trying to make alliances with more traditional political dissidents to help provide them with that transnational public sphere they have always lacked. Other groups like the web-savvy Omni Zona Franca hold protests events against censorship in Havana which are disguised as public street art.

I know that there are American activists at neocon groups like CyberDissidents.org, Freedom House, Google Ideas, the George W. Bush Institute, and Stanford’s Program on Liberation Technology that are itching to “support Cuban bloggers in their struggle for freedom.” I can’t conceive of a more stupid idea. One major difference between the failed Green Movement in Iran and the successful ouster of Mubarak in Egypt is that the Iranian government was able to successfully convince many of its citizens that the Green Movement was imported from abroad. The savvy Egyptian activists, on the other hand, are well known for maintaining their autonomy and refusing support from foreign donors and governments.

The more the US government tries to support bloggers like Yoani Sánchez the more ineffective she and her network will become as dissidents. So what should American pro-democracy activists do? Tell your representative to put an end to the US embargo on Cuba. Encourage scientific and academic collaboration between Cuban and American researchers. Engage in respectful dialog with Cuban bloggers from all sides of the political spectrum. Read up on America’s embarrassing history of relations with Cuba and its “aburd and self-defeating Cuba policy,” in the words of Jeffrey Goldberg. And stay vigilant about politically-motivated copyright infringement claims, such as those that brought down Cubadebate’s YouTube channel and Facebook page last month.

Last night a friend sent me the following quote from Greg Grandin who has been guest-blogging at The Nation this week:

I think that the history of the United States in Latin America during the twentieth century provides two relevant lessons. First, given a choice between democracy and instability on the one hand and repression and stability on the other, Washington has—in Latin America at least—always come down on the side of the latter. This is not peculiar to the United States; it represents the experience of all empires. But the stability that is generated by that repression is never permanent, for repressive rule, whether imposed directly or by proxy, inevitably generates more instability. The second lesson is that, to the fragile degree that democracy and human rights exist today in Latin America, they have been achieved not through the mercy of a US empire but through resistance to that empire

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