Cuban officials invite dialogue on Twitter — but only with citizens who don’t criticize

Image of a tweet saying a Twitter user was blocked by a Cuban official.
Image of a tweet saying a Twitter user was blocked by a Cuban official.

A large number of Cuban officials and institutions have set up accounts on social media, embracing a recent phenomenon in a communist-ruled island that until only a few years ago was disconnected from the digital world and where access to the internet remains limited.

The decision to open themselves up to what was once, according to the government, “technology used by the CIA for subversion” has been promoted by Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel as an avenue for dialogue between officials and ordinary Cubans.

However, unaccustomed to criticism, new users with a government title often opt to block or eliminate comments from citizens who question them.

“Beyond the political position of a public official, who holds a post presumably supported by voters, the social media networks of officials are to give an account of their management, which is paid with everyone’s money,” said Jovann Silva Delgado, a Cuban lawyer who lives in the United States and was recently blocked on Twitter by José Ramón Cabañas, the ambassador of Cuba in Washington.

Silva, 30, said Cabañas blocked him because he criticized a protest last year initiated by the Cuban delegation at the United Nations to prevent the presentation of the “Jail For What” campaign, which supports the release of Cuban political prisoners.

Internet access is relatively recent on the island and the government has not issued rules on the use of social media by government officials. Limited access began in 2008, mostly for officials and professionals, followed by Wi-Fi hotspots for the public. But mobile phone access did not start to become available until last December and is just beginning to spread across the island.

A few weeks ago, the official Cubadebate site published a list of all Cuban government representatives and entities with Twitter accounts. Díaz-Canel has launched a program for an “electronic government” and “computerization of society” that in practice simply uses social media for official dogma, including the live broadcast of programs such as the government’s “Mesa Redonda” program and official TV news.

The list of those who have been blocked by officials and institutions is long and the reasons for being shut out vary.

“Well, today I tried to mention the minister [of communications] in a tweet and I found out that I am blocked. I think I was respectful the last time I mentioned him,“ wrote Norges Rodríguez, founder of YucaByte, a project on information and communication technology.

“I hope that on Wednesday, March 6, three months after the start of the service, Jorge Luis Perdomo (minister of communications), Wilfredo González Vidal (vice minister of communications) and Mayra Arevich (president of ETECSA) will participate in Mesa Redonda to explain why the Service works so badly and what measures will be taken to improve it,“ Rodríguez said in a Twitter post aimed at Perdomo.

Susely Morfa, first secretary of the Union of Young Communists, routinely blocks journalists and anyone who dares to remind her of her role at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015, when she staged an act of protest against dissidents that generated criticism as a result of an exchange with Univisión reporter Mario Vallejo that was captured on video and went viral on social media.

Morfa at that time told journalist Vallejo that they had paid their passage with the money they earned as state workers on the island to go and protest the presence of “mercenaries” and “worms” at the summit.

More recently, the independent magazine “El Toque” documented the case of Adriana Fleites, a Cuban woman who, in an act of desperation due to the delay of a surgery her father needed, reached out to the Minister of Health, José A. Portal Miranda, through Twitter. Portal Miranda blocked Fleitas after she posted this tweet: “I’m awaiting a response about my father’s operation who has cancer in his kidney. It was detected in November and the organ has to be removed. It was scheduled for tomorrow 1/29 and they cancel until further notice.“

The Inventory project, which seeks to build a repository of open data for Cuba, has invited all its followers to list the names of Cuban officials who block citizens on social media.

Inventory invited its followers to post a tweet with the the name of the user, the blocker, the date and a screenshot of the message that was shut out.

Among the officials denounced for blocking the citizens are National Assembly member Mariela Castro, daughter of former president Raúl Castro; the University of Computer Science; former Minister of Culture Abel Prieto; Juan Antonio Fernández, ambassador of Cuba in Austria; and Gladys María Bejerano, Comptroller General of Cuba.

“Well, little by little he will be alone writing for himself. Typical of those who have ropes behind their backs,“ wrote one Twitter user with the handle @protransl after being censored by Abel Prieto.

In the United States, a judge banned the president and public officials from blocking critical people in social networks last May. In her ruling, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald wrote that “no government official — including the president — is above the law, and it is assumed that all government officials follow the law as it has been declared.”