Along with “Citizen, your ID Card please,” “Turn off your phone!” might be Cuban police’s second most used phrase today.
Mobile technology gradually entering the island has meant that a considerable number of Cubans now have smartphones and, to a lesser extent, Internet access. And as Cuba becomes less and less isolated from global logic, “communications technology as the people’s new entertainment” has firmly taken root in the mindsets of many people who don’t lose an opportunity to capture what is going on around them in a photo or video.
Meals, walks, accidents, fights, commotions, jokes, meetings… anything that is out of the ordinary is an excuse for people to pull their mobile phones out and start recording. And because Police and State Security agents are sometimes the protagonists in events that are out of the ordinary, well it’s normal that somebody (often a few) takes out their phone to record what is going on, whether out of curiosity, morbidity, to put pressure on the authority figure, to denounce a possible abuse of power or to get people talking about the wrongdoing.
Once a phone has been raised to eye level and starts recording, a “Turn off your phone!” is shouted out; followed by a threat to seize the phone, break the device or even, arrest the person recording. All of this is aggravated by public-order agents’ lack of training and manners.
Strangely enough, the Cuban Criminal Code only classifies a photo taken, without authorization, of military documents and objectives, relating to State Security, a crime in its section dedicated to espionage (Art. 97.3). Thus, it would be very hard for a recording of a public happening to put national security at risk.
Nevertheless, in a court sentence recently given to biologist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, judges ruled that the act of recording the argument he had with two Forrest Rangers was an aggravating circumstance. According to the judges, an action that “is frequently reproduced on Cuban streets and this forces judges to take more drastic measures.”
This of course sets a bad precedent for citizen defense practices, which is articulated in several countries across the world via “cop-watching” groups. Thanks to this practice, we have been able to find out about US police’s excessively violent actions against Afro-Americans, pictures and videos that Cuba’s official media reproduce over and over again. However, in Cuba, every time a cell phone is turned on, alarm bells start ringing. It seems that those who are playing the role of Big Brother in our society don’t like it when the roles are reversed.
However, it is also striking to see how this no recording practice is also firmly rooted in the mindsets of our highest-ranking public servants.
A few weeks ago, I bore witness to a vice-minster of Transportation’s visit to the Villanueva Bus Station in Havana, during an extremely tense moment.
A combination of insufficient interprovincial transport, night getting on and people needing to sleep as well as fuel checks of private truck-drivers and tickets being sold “on the side”; meant that a large number of people, including women and young children, were on a packed out waiting list for more than four days.
After several unsuccessful attempts to explain the inexplicable to a group of people who didn’t want words but solutions, and after two hours of unproductive phone calls; the vice-minister (a relatively young, polite man, who would have surely liked to have resolved that situation) entered the waiting room to talk to everyone there face-to-face. However, before he started speaking and noticing just how many phones were pointed at him and how many flashes were going off, he warned: “I’m not to going to speak until you turn off your phones.”
The police officers who were accompanying him, automatically began to repeat the order and demanded that people stop recording. Some people in the room also did the same. But… seizing one cellphone isn’t the same thing as taking dozens off a sea of people. Faced with the “recorders” stubborness and the tense atmosphere that was created in the room, the official decided to withdraw to a place without any public access to tell three people what was going on. Then, he left.
I have drawn two conclusions from that episode.
First of all, the fact that many of our officials don’t entirely understand that they are public servants, that the nature of their work is also public and that citizens who they answer to (who pay them their incomes, cars, etc.) have a right to know what they do, so they can assess their actions, criticize or praise them. If the story I just told you was simple “hallway talk”, what would happen when people demand statistics that reveal how public officials spend budget money, just to give you an example.
This is what transparency is, which only appears in the draft Constitution twice, by the way, and is only linked to the Comptroller General and the National Election Commission, as part of their duties.
Nothing appears under the term “accountability” in the draft Constitution either, which ties public servants’ work to direct popular control and not just through the National Assembly or State bodies. The only thing that is recognized is “everyone’s right to receive true, adequate and timely information from the State, according to established regulations” (Art. 56), which makes citizens passive recipients who have to wait to be informed instead of being able to actively demand it.
In this respect, Bolivia’s Constitution seems a lot more progressive in my opinion, as it dedicates a whole section to Social Participation and Control. It would be a good subject to bring up in debates that have just recently started.
Second conclusion. Many of our public servants haven’t realized that we are living in a new era of communications, news and technology and it is becoming harder and harder for them to cover up and retain information, no matter how much they want to.
Still in the dark about the legal and ethical foundations that support this right to produce, circulate and consume public information that is socially relevant, new technologies have practically done away with spatial and temporal limits.
What you have just said here, people are already listening to it there; even in Cuba with all of its technological backwardness. And once mobile data is made available on cellphones, the ability to record events will be joined by the ability to upload and share it instantaneously. As a result, the attempt to stop these things from spreading or being recorded will not only be futile, but the arbitrariness of such an action will also become public knowledge.
Even though political advertising still evokes many of its own ghosts, it’s a thousand times better to deal with them than have to live under a veil of secrecy, a lack of transparency and the excesses committed in the dark. A lot of the time, public opinion is the main defense (the only defense) of the most vulnerable.
I am not trying to defend irresponsible and abusive behavior of violating people’s intimacy and dignity though. That is something entirely different and our laws should be written up to punish this. I am talking about people’s right to access public information, to actively participate in the assessment of the management of public affairs, to be actively involved in political life, to use public complaints as a mechanism of defense and social control. In short, to not wait for others to fulfill their duties, but to take to the street and demand our rights.
According to ETECSA, there are five million active mobile lines and over two million Nauta accounts, which are mainly used on smartphones. This means that several million people have the means to produce, transmit and consume information (even if they don’t all take advantage of them). And because there are always two sides to every coin, new technologies aren’t just a tool to dominate and turn people’s minds to mush like it is presented to us here a lot of the time. They are also resources to empower civilians, to create networks and encourage participation.
If only the new Constitution and new Communications Law were to stop criminalizing turning on your phone to record something or holding it as a punishable action, instead making the order to make someone turn off their phone a crime or punishable action. Did you catch that?