Cubans have lived on an information desert island for more than 50 years. Ten million people, once a vibrant part of the world — in tune with it and contributing to it, receiving information and even immigrants — were cut off soon after Fidel Castro took over in 1959. That the world has done nothing to help them after five decades of oppression is an outrage.
What is not an outrage is that the United States Agency for International Development tried four years ago to circumvent Communist censorship in Cuba by setting up a text-messaging network that Cubans could access. This “Cuban Twitter” was a ray of hope that should be celebrated.
Not apparently by the Associated Press and others who have cried foul. The news agency exposed the program last week under the headline “US secretly created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest.” This week the U.S. Senate got in on the act with a hearing at which Democrats took the agency to task. It is passing strange that journalists and legislators whose trade depends on a free flow of information should get a bad case of the vapors when Cubans are given access to each other and the outside world. Let’s concentrate, however, on why USAID’s action should be applauded, not denigrated.
Cubans have no independent press. The three national newspapers and eight television stations are under the control of the Communist party. Only 5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, according to the watchdog group Freedom House. This 5 percent is presumably the percentage the regime thinks it can count on.
What Cubans have, in other words, is 24/7 Castro propaganda. The reason is very simple. As with all totalitarian regimes, Communism cannot survive the free flow of ideas. If people under Communism were exposed to alternative viewpoints, not even the most ruthless police state could hold them back.
Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) put it succinctly at an event, on the Internet and Cuba, that the Heritage Foundation hosted with Google two years ago: “The regime is so afraid of sharing information because they can’t survive it.”
Communist governments must rely on a mixture of state terror, information blackout, and constant propaganda. It’s no coincidence that Cubans share their fate with North Koreans and the Chinese, whose countries also ban an independent press, or that the Communist party in Beijing is busily squelching the last few remnants of the free press in Hong Kong and putting pressure on bankers to stop advertising in the last truly free newspaper, Apple Daily.
I know whereof I speak. Today I take for granted my information-rich environment, my drives to work in the morning as I toggle between NPR, talk radio, and C-SPAN Radio, and my office decked out with two screens, one on which I typed this article, the other devoted to Tweet Deck, which I think of as my personal wire-service newsroom.
As a child I wasn’t as fortunate, and neither was my father. As a young Cuban in the 1960s, I saw him huddle in the evenings around the pre-Castro shortwave radio he used to receive information from abroad, his ear pegged to it because he had to keep the volume low lest he be overheard by neighborhood snitches and instantly arrested. Owning such a device was illegal, so we hid it during the day.
Even my father’s father was luckier. He could use his radio show to fulminate against the dictator Fulgencio Batista in the 1940s. Sure, my grandfather had to avoid Batista’s thugs from time to time, and once they tried to force him to drink a bottle of airplane fuel to intimidate him.
But my father under Castro had no recourse to his father’s “luxury.” He had no independent media he could use to communicate with thousands or even millions of other Cubans. Had father taken to our porch to give his thoughts an airing, he would have been heard by only a handful of people before being arrested and probably later shot.
The difference between the three generations of my family is the difference between authoritarian regimes, totalitarian ones, and freedom. Venezuela has demonstrators in the streets because there is still some vestige of independent media there. If its goonish authoritarian regime succeeds at quashing that rebellion, it will try to turn Venezuela into a version of Cuba and North Korea.
It was precisely that totalitarian control on the flow of ideas that USAID was trying to sidestep. It was trying to give Cubans access to ideas from outside and, more important, let them communicate with one another.
Was that subversive? Yes, I suppose it was. But was it noble? Yes, very much so. That 10 million Cubans today should suffer the same fate as my father 50 years ago is a tragedy.
Originally published in the National Review Online.