Ibarra on Henken and Garcia Santamaria, 'Cuba's Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy'

Author: 
Ted Henken, Sara Garcia Santamaria, eds.
Reviewer: 
Clare Ibarra

Ted Henken, Sara Garcia Santamaria, eds. Cuba's Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy. Reframing Media, Technology, and Culture in Latin/o America Series. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2021. Illustrations, tables. 348 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-68340-202-2.

Reviewed by Clare Ibarra (University of California, Berkeley & Stanford University) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (January, 2023) Commissioned by Penelope K. Hardy (University of Wisconsin-La Crosse)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57838

Cuba’s Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy is an edited volume that addresses the effects of the internet boom in Cuba on journalism and free speech, roughly since 2013. The volume focuses on the intersections of the internet, media outlets (both independent and state sponsored), citizens, and the state, and the ways these interactions effect political or social change. The actors the reader will encounter in this volume are citizens who consume, produce, censor, circulate, or otherwise adapt media and its technologies to meet a variety of needs across Cuba’s political spectrum. At the center of the volume’s five parts is the following dilemma: how does our understanding of media, the internet, and communications technology change when analyzed in the context of Cuba’s history and contemporary society? It answers this question through research in five areas: historical analysis (part 1), the politics of information flow (part 2), citizen engagement in journalism (part 3), citizens’ use of the “digital revolution” for economic gain (part 4), and reflections of the self in the digital age (part 5).

Part 1 addresses the history of media and internet technologies in Cuba. The first chapter, by Larry Press, chronicles the availability and accessibility of the internet in Cuba from the moment the Cuban government officially connected to the internet in 1996 to the present. Edel Lima Sarmiento’s chapter takes a longer chronological approach to expose the importance of alternative media (digital and otherwise) in the history of social movements in Cuba. This second chapter traces the use of independent information in social movements, from the independence wars at the end of the nineteenth century, through the republican reforms of the 1930s and ’40s and the revolutionary movement under Fidel Castro, to the present, making a convincing argument for the legacy of independent journalism as a tool to pressure the government for change.

Part 2 more forcefully addresses the role of democracy and censorship in media from a contemporary perspective. In the four chapters that make up part 2, the reader can find useful comparisons between Cuba and other state-run media models, such as Russia and China, and arguments for the role of the internet in accessing, creating, and manipulating information. The internet, public opinion, and government-approved information interact within digital spaces to produce and contest narratives of Cuban politics and news. Some authors are hopeful that a diversified digital space can chip away at the state’s monopoly over information and its circulation on the island.

Part 3 then focuses more narrowly on the role of journalism and political engagement under the state-run “digital media ecosystem.” Particularly notable in this section is the chapter by Sara Garcia Santamaria, showing how journalists navigate pressures of their own professional identity in a field whose meaning and purpose is historically linked to the state.

Though incredibly interesting, the themes to parts 4 and 5 seem somewhat tangential to the earlier parts of the volume. While the chapters on online marketing and social influencing relate to the overall theme of citizen innovation under the limitations of the Cuban state, they feel out of place when much of the volume is focused more on the politics of journalism and information, rather than the politics of living and surviving under the state. Here, an epilogue (which is missing from the volume) could have made a stronger connection between the sections and provided reasons why online marketing and social influencing should be in dialogue with the themes of information, citizen participation, and political freedoms. Part 5 offers interesting views of cultural media consumption and identity formation and expression in the digital world but similarly feels disconnected from the other parts of the volume.

All in all, Cuba’s Digital Revolution shows that the internet is used for all sorts of purposes, from the very personal, to the professional, to the political and even the seemingly apolitical. As Ted A. Henken writes in the volume’s introduction, the internet is an effective tool that is bent to the purposes of all kinds of actors in Cuban society, whether it is the citizens, the Cuban diaspora, or the government. In other contexts, like the circulation of el paquete (the packet, the "underground digital data distribution network" that circulates island-wide via flash drives), Cubans simply seek to stay connected, survive in the harsh economic realities of their country, and enjoy digital media without an intentional political purpose (p. 4). Here, an important distinction is made: to engage in the digital revolution is not an immediate sign of one’s desire to upend the Cuban revolutionary project and the government; instead, to engage in the digital revolution is simply to engage in the politics of living in an increasingly digital world.

The concept of "revolution," especially in the Cuban and socialist contexts, could have been addressed in a more critical manner. Despite the length of the volume, the purpose and usefulness of the term “digital revolution” is unclear, and the term holds many, potentially contradictory, meanings. In one sense, the digital revolution could be considered a counterrevolution to the revolutionary project of 1959, since the digital allows (under certain contexts) the ability to voice critiques of the government and demand transparency. It can also signal the inundation of technologies that allow further communication and connection, providing citizens with a form of social currency with which to live their lives from any vantage point upon a wide political spectrum. The result: Cuba’s digital revolution is both political and apolitical, a tool for mobilization and a tool for stagnation or keeping the status quo. Its many uses contradict each other; and perhaps that is the crux of it all, that the availability of the internet, its corollary technologies, and digital spaces are an important platform for Cubans to voice their visions of a Cuban future.

In Cuba’s Digital Revolution, science and technology studies (STS) scholars will find familiar themes of democratizing science, accessibility and transparency of technologies, the role of government in the proliferation of technology, and potential for innovation when technologies are adapted at a grassroots level. While the authors are mostly focused on the relationship between citizen and state (and the role of media and technology within this), I am left wondering about the relationship between technology and the user or consumer. Is it important to consider the physical technologies themselves and the ways Cubans manipulate technologies outside of the government’s intentions to meet very localized needs? The authors may have missed an opportunity here to further unpack Cuba’s unique ability to take technologies and adapt them to the needs of the user, rather than the assumptions or intentions of the creator or provider. This decolonial approach is of the utmost importance, not just in the relationship between citizen and state but also in the broader sense of technologies that flow from the Global North. Scholars of STS may be reminded of the pivotal article by Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol on the Zimbabwe Bush Pump, which helped orient STS toward postcolonial studies by illustrating how adaptive technologies can create better possibilities for the societies these technologies intend to serve.[1]

In a similar vein, scholars of the Global North must leave analysis open to alternative understandings and uses of the technologies in question. Here expectations that digital media and technologies must serve the purpose of creating democracy and promoting civil society (terms that are loaded with the legacies of colonialism and the Western gaze toward a supposedly un-democratic, un-civil society or “other”) chafe against the multiplicity of experiences, creativity, and flexibility that make Cuba's digital media ecosystem unique.

Cuba’s Digital Revolution, then, is an important addition to literature on the role of technology in Cuba’s political, social, and digital landscape and provides important perspectives on the varied ways the internet interacts with political life in Cuba.

Note

[1]. Marianne de Laet and Annemarie Mol, "The Zimbabwe Bush Pump: Mechanics of a Fluid Technology," Social Studies of Science 30, no. 2 (2000): 225–63, https://doi.org/10.1177/030631200030002002.

Citation: Clare Ibarra. Review of Henken, Ted; Garcia Santamaria, Sara, eds., Cuba's Digital Revolution: Citizen Innovation and State Policy. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. January, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57838

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