By Glenda Boza Ibarra (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – MC desperately asked for a lawyer for advice in a Facebook group. She wanted to know whether her workplace had the right to reproach her or fire her because of her posts and comments on social media. She had used a frame on her profile photo with the hashtag #SOSCuba, she had shared posts about the July 11th protests (11J), and she found out that her workplace was checking every employee’s personal profiles.
This is what she wrote via Messenger, in a couple of messages. “I’m afraid to speak out. At my work, there are people who are dedicated to checking workers’ profiles and I’ve been told that they even have access to our messages.”
Persecution and punishment in the wake of these protests hasn’t been limited to the courts. Since 11J, quite a few people have received administrative sanctions, have been laid off or forced to resign because they have publicly criticized the Cuban government or a specific government measure.
A lot of the time, they justify it with “work pays for the Internet and we didn’t give it to you to do this” or “how are you going to be so ungrateful to the Revolution that has given you this job.”
However, workers who paid for their own access to the Internet are also coerced, threatened, sanctioned or let go.
Fear of giving a “like”
“I see posts, but I don’t react or comment,” a journalist tells me. “For a few years now, my director, with help from the IT guy, have been checking even the “likes” we give.
“After the 11J Protests, we were told to pay close attention to social media to “fight” and share posts by “some pro-government influencers.”
M closed down her account because she found that order cynical. “I excused myself by saying that there was a lot of hate online – which is true – and I shut it down temporarily. I talk to friends and family via WhatsApp.”
Like her, very few people agree to post their real names in complaints like these. They are afraid of reprisals. Others prefer to quietly look for other work, far from state institutions.
This is what Luis did, a worker at the Computing and Electronics Youth Club, who contacted various users on Twitter to look for a job offer with the self-employed and without any connection to the State.
“I’ve been working at the Youth Club for over five years and, in the beginning, they didn’t really pay a lot of attention to social media. In fact, some were blocked,” he says.
According to Luis, the Department of Social Communication decided to give the issue more importance and would send constant tips about which accounts to follow, which content to share, and which hashtags to use.
“This intensified to the point that every month, they counted how many posts each center had published and, if you didn’t comply, your Internet for the month, which was given to you to work, was taken away.”
Luis explans that users would lose their Twitter accounts lots of the time, because they registered via a Youth Club email account and the platform labeled it spam.
“I alerted the department about this issue and how Twitter detects when you copy and paste the same hashtags, in the same order, with the same characters and spaces. The ones we were sent by email.”
There are tools that allow you to automate tweets. “You can configure it so that every time a website publishes an article, you can tweet the link and even include certain hashtags,” the journalist explains.
Since July 11th, the government has given the order to every “cybersoldier” to use the hashtags #LaCallesEsDeLosRevolucionarios, #MiMoncadaHoy, #VictoriaPopular y #PonleCorazón, said M.
Luis confirms this. “They began to demand that we publish hashtags such as #ACubaPonleCorazon, and anyone caught with a #SOSCuba would be fired from their jobs. However, this was all done verbally so there would be no written record of this.”
Luis, who says he is known because of his frequent activity on social media, has said that his managers called him in to tell him “to be very careful with what I posted, for me not to become the leader.”
“They threatened me, telling me that I could lose my job in the blink of an eye,” he says.
Creating a fake account was Luis’ way around this, so he can express himself freely. There, he’s honest. He felt safe behind a face that wasn’t his own; but he couldn’t bear being in a place where he was being pressured to pretend to be something he wasn’t. “Now, they’ve sent us to look after parks “against the enemy”, as if that wasn’t enough,” he says disappointed, while holding onto the hope he can find a job without ties to the State. But it isn’t easy.
Changed position for sharing a VPN
On July 12th, Liset sent several workmates a VPN. After Internet access was cut because of the protests on Sunday 11th, over a million Cuban installed the application Psiphon on their cellphones that allowed them to sidestep the Government’s blockade on the Internet.
Liset shared the VPN (Virtual private network) via Zapya, or Bluetooth, and helped her colleagues to install it. She also showed them some videos of police officers repressing protestors.
“I spoke about some of the horrors I had seen in videos posted the day before and I gave my opinion on them. I believe some police officers were abusers and that’s exactly what I said.”
Liset says that her boss intervened in the conversation and justified the repression. “He called the protestors “criminals”; I couldn’t hold my tongue. I explained my point of view, which was different to his.”
According to Liset, that “strong exchange of words” stayed in the reception of their workplace, as a simple discussion between two people who think differently. However, her sincerity would have consequences.
“The next day, in the morning work meeting, my boss warned that anyone who spoke about politics at work would be sanctioned,” the engineer says. “He called me into his office and told me that he had decided to change my department.”
The sudden decision from her superior was a punishment. While Liset still has her job, she was transferred to a department where working conditions are not as good.
“Two days later, he told me that I was being transferred because he needed me there; but I know that it was because I spoke freely and supported the 11J protestors,” Liset says.
In the new office, she has no air-conditioning and almost nobody talks to her. “I’m on the verge of suffocating, but I hold out. I can’t afford to lose my job. I have a little girl to look after.”
Liset says that ever since July 12th, when she spoke her mind out loud and clearly, she feels that some colleagues are watching over her, that others approach her mysteriously to try and “get her talking” about what happened on 11J. She prefers to keep quiet, to avoid the subject, to talk about something else, pretend. Being honest hasn’t helped her.
They don’t kick you out but they force you to hand in your resignation
Robiel Vega is very interested in sports. He barely uses his social media – Facebook and Twitter – to talk about anything else. Until July 11th that is. That day, he decided “not to keep quiet any longer and to accept the consequences for his way of thinking.”
“The manipulation people are subjected to via TV and their president Miguel Diaz-Canel is unacceptable,” the IT engineer wrote on his wall after the Cuban leader’s speech. He expressed his total disagreement with the Government and the repression of dissident thought.
“I know that this post will bring drastic and definitive consequences for my life, but I’m ready to accept them without any fear,” he wrote.
Not even 24 hours had passed before his certainty became reality. The following morning, when Robiel entered his manager’s officer, he saw his Facebook post on the computer screen.
“They gave me a political trial and accused me of being a coward, traitor to the Homeland, and not being trustworthy,” he remembers.
Ever since November 2020, Robiel has been working as a specialist at the Provincial Board of Finances and Prices in Las Tunas city. He has always been responsible and never been targeted.
“They couldn’t say anything about my work during my time there,” he says. “I wanted to resign, but they told me I couldn’t, that “I had to take what came my way and to wait for the measure and the sanction.”
They finally let him resign because his employment file wasn’t there anyway.
“I preferred to step back without putting up a fight. I didn’t want to waste time, money or energy in a process like that. Plus, I wasn’t interested in still working there,” he says. “What the director did make clear was that if I didn’t resign, he would do everything in his power to fire me and make my time here unbearable.”
Robiel is disappointed when he remembers how none of his colleagues came to help him. They agreed with him being “forced” to resign. “In this country, thinking differently and dissenting is the worst crime you can commit,” this engineer from Las Tunas remembers with disappointment.
In the end, it was all a political matter, there weren’t any professional reasons; in fact, they had previously put me as my boss’s “back up” because of my good work. In short, the same old story.” Luckily, he says that his 9-year-old daughter won’t have to suffer the financial effects of her father losing his job because he is a sports writer for an independent media.
“Cases like these are more common than we think,” Robiel concludes.
I don’t agree
Many people believe that it’s best not “to put up a fight” when they are kicked out, because they rarely win. Alejandro Perdomo Garcia doesn’t agree.
He made his complaint for a sanction imposed on him public on Twitter, which forced him to leave his workplace after he posted a tweet that said: “Mr president Diaz-Canel, you can give us back the Internet now because we’re still confused.”
The Tourist Assistance student was referring, with his post, to Internet access being cut after the July 11th protests and the label “confused” used by the Cuban leader to refer to people who took part in the protests and were saying they supported the Revolution.
That was the only thing he addressed to Diaz-Canel in his post, but he was accused of expressing negative opinions and a lack of respect for the Cuban leader on social media.
On August 3rd, in another tweet addressed to the Cuban president, Alejandro made the measure of his “definitive separation from his workplace” public. “I think they took this action because of my way of thinking and expressing myself,” he said.
“Alejandro’s conduct when he spread, expressed or promoted protests with no respect for the president of the Republic is a serious violation of professional discipline as is stipulated in Order 18/2013, Domestic Order Regulations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) (…), which considers spreading, expressing or promoting any kind of subversive propaganda a serious transgression, incompatible with the nature of a FAR member,” a copy of the sanction stated, which he shared on his social media.
According to the document, “the internal disciplinary regulation for employees at the Cuban Commercial Society Gaviota Tourism Group Ltd. establishes that dishonoring, denigration, indecent assault, contempt or anything that affects the imagine or prestige of a cadre of the Cuban State, political, mass and social organizations in this country, is a serious violation of professional discipline.”
Alejandro, who prefers not to talk to the press until his appeal hasn’t been sorted, has explained that he disagrees with the sanction because he doesn’t believe his comment was disrespectful.
The sanction also indicated that, as proof, they would bear in mind the interview the company had with the student and his posts on social medial.
Taking a quick look at Alejandro’s digital profiles, you can see that he hasn’t disrespected anyone. However, maybe using the hashtags #SOSCuba, #LibertadDePensamiento or #SomosContinuidad, ironically, was also used as proof of his “serious violation of professional discipline.”
Nevertheless, Alejandro had clarified that he was fired from his job, but that he wasn’t expelled from the Tourism Department at Havana University. He also stressed that while the sanction document stated that it had been the department who had presented the information about the student’s conduct, he had been told by the institution that they were unaware of the incident.
He is now waiting for his appeal to have a happy ending and for the injustice to be recognized and reversed.
For years, state employees have been forced to use their personal profiles on social media in a certain way, openly or not. Explicitly or subtly, they are expected to share certain content and to interact according to party-line censorship rules. Amidst the landscape of political polarization in the country, and the severe crisis it is experiencing, pressure to declare one’s support for the Government has been stepped up and, in the meantime, sanctions against those who choose a different path has become more systematic.