Every Friday night for the past five weeks, hundreds of young Cubans have stayed up into the early morning to start their weekend off with a taste of something illicit: uncensored information.
They are slipping past one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes to tune into “This Week in Cuba,” a Twitter-based live audio chatroom where prominent activists and social media influencers lead an open discussion of Cuban politics and current events.
While the Cuban government does not forbid Twitter use on the island, Cubans who use the platform to tweet against the regime risk harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Yet the intimate and ephemeral nature of the live audio discussions is encouraging Cubans to speak up about the problems plaguing their country—or simply to listen to their peers.
“The purpose of these spaces is to show people that there is more out there than what the government shows you,” said Daniel Gonzalez, who organized and hosts the chats, at the opening of last Friday’s edition of “This Week in Cuba.” “The goal is simply to talk: to talk about what happened in Cuba this week, to say what you think, and to learn how to be respectful to those who disagree with you.”
With roughly 200 users attending the latest get-together, “This Week in Cuba” has thus far built a modest following. Nonetheless, the free-flowing discussions—which touch regularly on sensitive issues like political reform, anti-surveillance measures, and the conditions of “hunger, misery and privation” in Cuba, as one participant described it two weeks ago—have already attracted some of Cuba’s most high-profile dissidents and journalists. And they are poised to grow further.
The majority of mobile internet users in Cuba use Android, meaning they have never accessed Clubhouse, the iOS-based live audio application that caught fire last fall. “This Week in Cuba” is hosted on Twitter’s new live-audio platform, Spaces, which launched in March. The weekly chats therefore offer many Cubans their first taste of the live audio format that has already caused such a stir elsewhere in the world.
“This is a much more participatory and interactive medium,” said Rafael Santos, a 35-year-old based in Havana who participated in the second “This Week in Cuba.”* “It is a better platform for debate and exchange than what is available on YouTube or Facebook.”
Santos said he decided to participate in the chats because “it became impossible to ignore what is happening in Cuba.” Due to the pandemic and the foibles of state-run economic planning, Cuba’s economy has cratered over the past year, sparking some of the largest protests against Cuba’s Communist Party in decades.
While it is difficult to know for sure the demographics of the audience members who have attended each event, Gonzalez’s promotional strategy has thus far catered to the young—and not necessarily to those who are politically active. To attract a broad audience to the events, Gonzalez, who left Cuba four years ago and now lives in Miami, enlisted the support of Cuban social media influencers, many of them in their early 20s. While some frequently posted about politics, many built their followings by dint of memes about sports, video games, and pop culture.
“This … would be unthinkable in Cuba five years ago,” said 21-year-old Ariel Falcón, one such social media influencer who has participated in the chats and helped promote them to his 17,000 Twitter followers. “People live in different realities here in Cuba. Just to communicate and see what we have in common—there’s no culture of doing that in Cuba.”
Enthusiasm for the live audio medium and savvy marketing are hardly the only reasons that the chats exhibit a high potential for growth.
Cuba’s sky-high mobile data prices and its stagnant economy can constrain Cuban internet users’ browsing habits. But “This Week in Cuba,” which so far has run for three to six hours at a time, has mitigated those challenges by exploiting a quirk of Cuba’s internet economy.
By starting late on Friday nights, “This Week in Cuba” coincides with a half-price discount in mobile data that Cuba’s sole telecommunications provider, ETECSA, offers daily between 1 and 6 a.m. The audio-only chats cost far less for Cubans than other media common among activists, such as streaming via Facebook or YouTube.
In some ways, the excitement surrounding “This Week in Cuba” echoes what happened earlier this year in China, where internet users flocked to Clubhouse and spoke freely about issues censored on the country’s other social media platforms. But whereas China quickly stanched access to Clubhouse through the Great Firewall, Cuban authorities face few simple alternatives for suppressing “This Week in Cuba.”
Through ETECSA, the Cuban Communist Party routinely throttles internet access to outspoken dissidents and activists. Control over internet traffic down to the IP, HTTP, and DNS levels also enables it to block access to foreign news publications. But audio chats supported by multiple users on social media platforms lack an equivalent point of failure. Technically feasible solutions, like a wholesale ban on Twitter, would be costly politically.
Still, it would be naïve to ignore the possibility that politics might limit the growth of “This Week in Cuba.”
The open nature of Twitter Spaces, which any Twitter user can join, renders government surveillance trivial. And with internet censorship at the top of the Cuban Communist Party’s agenda during its recent party congress, many fear the government is readying to tighten the reins over online speech. Even if it cannot block the discussions directly, the government could throttle individual users’ internet access, monitor what the participants say, or intimidate and coerce the attendees offline.
One participant in a recent “This Week in Cuba” event, a woman, declined to speak on the record about her experience. Asked why she felt comfortable talking within the chats but not to the press, she explained that she did not feel safe in the chats either. “In reality, I don’t think we feel safe. But for a little you forget that you live in a dictatorship and you express yourself freely, without worrying about the consequences.”
Several participants of “This Week in Cuba,” including Gonzalez, the organizer, said they operate under the assumption that the government is already monitoring the discussions. While some insisted that the chats did not cross any line or that the ephemeral nature of live audio insulated them against punishment, it is clear that the future of the chats is precarious.
Twenty-two-year-old activist Ruhama Fernandez has participated in each edition of “This Week in Cuba.” A recipient of multiple death threats, constant surveillance, and two interrogations for her outspoken criticism of Cuba’s Communist Party, Fernandez said she now lives alone to protect her family members from being swept up in the government’s efforts to silence her.
While she is skeptical that the chats can last much longer in their current form or that serious political reform is imminent within Cuba, Fernandez said it brings her joy to see how the chats, and social media more broadly, are changing the way Cuba’s youth see the world.
“What’s happening with the young is incredible,” said Fernandez, who maintains a YouTube channel with more than 15,000 followers. “They don’t believe anymore in the lies of the revolution. They are starting to study beyond what they are taught in school.”
Falcón, the 21-year-old social media influencer, also strikes a bittersweet tone when talking about the importance of participating in open forums like “This Week in Cuba.”
“When you live in Cuba, you lose this sentiment of being optimistic,” he said. “I know the odds are a million to one that we can make a lasting change. But if we can make 10 people think in a better way, I can be happy with our accomplishments.”
Correction, April 28, 2021: This article originally misstated Rafael Santos’ age. He is 35, not 25.