Javier Gomez Sanchez
19 January 2022
Translated by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
Ernesto Estévez Rams (Havana, 1967) is a full professor at the University of Havana, a member of the Cuban Academy of Sciences and a writer on scientific, political, philosophical and social issues. This is part of the interview conducted for the documentary La Dictadura del Algoritmo, which has been included in the digital book La Dictadura del Algoritmo: Entrevistas y artículos sobre redes sociales y guerra mediática en Cuba (Ocean Sur, 2021) available for free download.
Given the massive arrival of the Cuban population to digital social networks, how is the conquest of the subjectivity of this new mass of politically significant users being structured?
Cuba is immersed in a war of ideological type, and when I say ideological I mean a war of ideas, not from now, nor from the use of digital social networks, but for 60 years. Even before that, when our country, then a neo-colony, turned out to be a field of ideological experimentation of U.S. imperialism. We were one of the first Latin American countries where radio, television and comics penetrated. We were one of the first countries in the region where television advertising was used and experiments were made to measure its effectiveness.
This made it possible to test the ways of introducing certain ideas in the population, to influence a significant mass of it with certain messages and that these became, in a “natural” way, part of the common sense of that population, becoming part of its referents.
Therefore, this is not a new phenomenon, it has been around for many years. What has been changing are the scenarios and the means, to the extent that technology has been advancing, and when I say technology I am not only referring to equipment, but to techniques of psychology, sociology, anthropology. To the extent that these have been developing, to the same extent the way of making that discourse with the same objective of producing a desired state of affairs has been changing.
But it is a phenomenon that is exacerbated when the Revolution triumphs, and also changes its nature. What was a general mechanism of ideological influence, becomes a very concrete objective, which is the overthrow of a social movement and a structural revolution in a Latin American country. This completely changed the way in which the issue was being approached and the US began to see the Cuban state as its enemy for the first time since the first US intervention.
US imperialism had been an enemy of the people as a social factor, but the Cuban State had been its accomplice, and from then on it was its enemy. Therefore, it implements all its tools against them, both physical and symbolic violence.
At a moment within this historical scenario, another very important change occurred, when Soviet socialism and its environment -the socialism that really existed, as Eric Hobsbawm called it- was defeated. That implied an important change because many of the references that had existed up to that moment collapsed. Globally, all the heterogeneous ideas that had been grouped together for years under a generic name: postmodernism, began to expand much more in the cultural and social science framework.
Because we are in an era to which many names are given and one of them is the postmodern era. Here many ideas are instrumentalized by capitalism that were being worked on mostly in academic spaces. They come out of those spaces and instrumentalize them as ideological weapons in a context of euphoria, where they had won, and in which, therefore, they considered that the superiority of capitalism over socialism had been made clear.
Then, what they proposed was a final offensive against what was left, the remnants of what those ideologues of capitalism saw as the last strongholds of resistance of that enemy they had had for many years.
Shortly afterwards came the Internet revolution, which produced a tool that had not existed until then and which allowed a socialization of information unparalleled in the history of mankind. Then the whole postmodernist ideological discourse is adapted to the nascent reality of the Internet, and then to the apparently global dynamics of social networks.
Digital social networks – I like to point out that social networks have always existed – give the illusion of being global, but in reality they are not, although they bring together millions of people who otherwise would not have had communication between them, nor would they have known each other, and make them find points of convergence in common aspects that make these people identify themselves in certain areas, such as fashion, music, literature, as well as politics.
As it is a difficult tool to prevent it from reaching people, because censoring the Internet is something that obviously does not make any sense, that old ideological war then puts its fundamental weight on the networks.
Nor can one forget the fact that behind this there is a machinery, which in the case of Cuba is financed, with very specific objectives. Sometimes we say: “The United States in its budget has put a certain amount of money for subversion in Cuba and has created a task force for the issue of the networks”, but we leave it in the abstract. Well, where does this money go? What is done with it? They don’t tell us that. But what is clear is that this money is not to buy water bottles. That money is to create particular products, to reach particular people.
The use of algorithms -although on more than one occasion their political use has been revealed-, in the case of other countries could be aimed at a commercial advertising use, to sell a soccer jersey or a trip on a cruise, what would they sell us Cubans?
What are they selling us? They sell us the defeat of our social system. What they want to sell us is that our social system is inoperative, that our State is inoperative, and that the objectives of the Revolution are meaningless. Therefore, what they want to defeat is the illusion.
The collapse of a national project that Cuba has been building for 60 years. That is what they want to sell us. And look, you were talking about the fact that in other places what they sell is a certain commercial product. Part of that ideological message also goes through there.
They sell us commercially certain symbols, such as success, prosperity. They sell us that the goal in life is reduced to those things on the basis of the exacerbation of individualism, of personal success as the summun of human aspirations. The message that any social illusion is dangerous, any illusion that is not an individual illusion.
The idea that all human narratives and aspirations that have been on the basis of grand aspirations, on the basis of universal social values are dangerous and are also failures, they lead nowhere. There is one element on which I always insist and that is that capitalism as a system stopped selling itself a long time ago.
Since the 18th Brumaire, Marx said it: Capitalism stopped selling us that a better world is possible. Now it is selling us the idea that there is no better world than the one we have: the capitalist one. Therefore, it is insisting on showing us that any alternative is worse than what we have today.
Capitalism has managed to perfect its working tools a lot, they are always hijacking the things that are happening in their environment to take away the transforming edge and to turn it into an instrument of the reproductive system. They did it with the famous Arab Spring, which is something they are desperately trying to reproduce in Cuba, taking the successful example of what happened in other countries, a kind of spring that will destroy the State and the Revolution.
They want to send us the message that a society is possible, which is not ours, a society which, of course, they do not call capitalist, because capitalism does not like to be mentioned. That a society is possible in Cuba that has the social benefits that our society has, but in a context that is not socialist. This idea is constantly sold to us. It is an illusion. It is false.
That has not been achieved in any country in Latin America, in any country in Africa. If it were possible to maintain the education indexes, if it were possible to maintain the health indexes, our social services, and we could make a longer list. If that is possible, why haven’t they done it in other places, why haven’t they done it in… Honduras? But they sell us the idea that it would be possible in Cuba.
That brings us to one of the most common things today in this war against Cuba: the creation of extremes. They want to create the idea that there are two extremes: One, the recalcitrant right-wing extreme that would like to collapse this in a crude way and take us back to a semi-feudal reality or something like that, and therefore frightens people; and the other, a radical left-wing extreme, which is also an enemy and touches the other extreme.
And that therefore the truth is in the center, the way is in the center. It is precisely that center who says: “We could take the good of Cuban socialism, combine it with the elements of bourgeois liberal democracy and create an ideal society that has all that”.
I already told you the first lie to that: Why have they not done it? No country has done it, every time a country has proposed something like that it has had no result. The developed capitalist countries that have achieved high standards of living have done so in contexts that no longer exist and on the basis of inserting themselves in world systems of inequality. No developed capitalist country is alien as a product of global capitalist exploitation of the underdeveloped world.
Check the financial flows, to which banks the financial flows go; check where the global arms export companies are from; check who are -apart from the US banks- the creditors of Third World debts; check where some of the most predatory companies acting in Africa or Latin America are from; check the NATO members and US allies in their adventures since the fall of the Soviet Union. There are many surprises to be found there, among them several countries that like to present themselves as free from exploitation and as havens of social fulfillment.
The role of the “opinion leaders”, of the “independent journalists”, who present themselves as a supposed alternative, would then be to act as transmitters and spokespersons of these ideological messages?
There is a media construction in Cuba of things that were tried in other places, for example, the opinion leaders in the color revolutions, virtual leaders, who called for certain social and political action in the networks, but many of them were not real actors. Many times they are only virtual leaders, because that leader of the networks, in real life and in the daily context of what is happening, that person is not a leader. It is a false leadership constructed in the networks.
How do I build that alternativity? One of the curious things about alternativity is that it is constructed in terms of opposites, that’s why you need the two extremes. They need to build their alternativity based on the construction of enemies, firstly, to victimize themselves: “I am the victim of the extremes”, secondly, because they need those extremes to be able to place their discourse, if the extremes do not exist, that discourse is completely empty.
Today there is a phenomenon that had never happened before in this way, which is unprecedented, and that is to naturalize what until a few years ago in this country had a tremendous stigma: counterrevolutionary. When someone received financing from abroad to influence Cuba, to influence public opinion, to carry out counterrevolutionary activities, that carries a tremendous stigma in this country.
They are trying to erase that stigma, to present that it is no longer important to receive money from private and public entities from the United States, or from other countries – because they have also diversified the sources, the money no longer comes directly from the US, it comes from NGOs from European or Latin American countries, and so now we want to naturalize it: “That is not important, that has not taken away my independence” and one hears it and asks oneself: “From when did he who pays not rule? But you see how they make the discourse that this does not take away their independence: “They never tell me what I have to say”. Of course not, because they don’t need to be told, nor do they need to force them, they simply know that if they don’t follow that editorial line they won’t have the financing.
Nowadays it is often said that “Cuban society is very diverse”. What situations inherent to that diversity have helped the expansion of this type of war?
We have to be very clear and honest about these things, that is why I have to say that many of these phenomena occur and have developed on the basis of our own mistakes. On the basis of not realizing that there is a different context, that many times we have not worked in the right way to win over and to keep people, certain groups, on the side of the Revolution and what we have done is to scare them away because of the attitudes of people who have been incorrect, who have been sectarian, this has happened and one cannot turn one’s back on that.
But also, within all this sea of ideas, there is an intentionality to make contentious speeches that can be very revolutionary, very correct at a given moment, end up being speeches that are passed on to the enemy and in those battles we have lost a few of them.
We have not lost them because the enemy has been more effective than us -which it has been-, we have lost them because we have not known how to face those battles. So, gradually they pass it to the enemy and something that emerged as a possible alternative not channeled through the mass organizations or political organizations of the country, which is a valid alternative independent from them -if we are going to see independence in that sense-, ends up being something that falls into the nets of another officialdom, of the officialdom that finances you, which is not Cuban, it comes from somewhere else.
Thus there are blogs and digital media, in which the discourse is transformed little by little, sometimes in a very calculated way, their transformation process has been designed, they are transformed until they reach a certain editorial line, because the people who run these media already have a clear purpose of going over to the enemy.
And the fourth generation war sometimes we see it as the enemy, the enemy, the enemy. Look, that enemy can’t get its head in if we don’t let it, but it succeeds because we have vulnerabilities and we make mistakes. We will continue to make them because making mistakes is something inherent to the fact of acting. The biggest mistake is to do nothing.
We make mistakes in the functioning of society, facing very complex social dynamics. This occurs in the midst of the tension in which we all live on a daily basis, including the people who have to make decisions. The vast majority of our civil servants, those who are so vilified, are subjected to the same levels of daily stress that we are subjected to.
They are people who, when they leave work, have to stand in the same queues, face the same problems, their electricity goes out as it does for anyone else, therefore, many of these errors are part of the fact that there is no ideal social dynamic and that people are individual beings who arrive at a certain moment in their lives with a whole cultural backpack behind them.
We have worked badly on what is called – I do not like the word, but for lack of a better one I repeat it – political-ideological work. In the first place, because we mix the political and the ideological, to begin with, in the same sentence we are mixing them as if they were the same thing and they are not. Secondly, because we codify it, we think, for example, at the level of formal education, that the political-ideological work has to be transferred and translated into the number of hours we teach in universities, in other levels of teaching of certain subjects, such as History, Social Sciences, etc. We think that this is a mechanism to reach us with political-ideological messages.
But I am often amazed to see students who have passed a degree course and have received dozens of hours of Marxism, History of Cuba, etc., and then you see them on the networks repeating amazing ingenuities and one wonders: “But did they really pass the courses? Yes, they passed the courses and passed them, and one wonders, “And where did that leave them?”, “What is the result of this that we have given them?”. Look, the result seems to be minimal. We must realize that there are dynamics that it is necessary to adopt in this political-ideological work, that we have to convey our message in new ways without simplifying it, without making it superficial. We do not have to give in to the enemy, we have to create our own discourse, sometimes you hear: “Nowadays you have to give short messages to the youth”, but that is a sacrifice according to what the hegemonic discourse is imposing.
Would this hegemony of simplification be the greatest intellectual and political challenge in the face of social networks?
The problem we have had is that the importance of the networks was not sufficiently appreciated. We thought that the traditional means we had to reach the population were enough and that we were not going to lose that hegemony. But hegemony is at stake every day.
The good thing about these battles is that they make us become active, hegemonies are built every day, because let us begin with a concrete fact: the greatest hegemony that exists today is the world hegemony of capitalism, let us not deceive ourselves, and to think that Cuba can escape from that hegemony is an illusion.
What we have to build is a counter-hegemony, because despite the fact that this counter-revolutionary discourse wants to present us that the hegemony of ideas in Cuba is the one managed by the State, as a dictatorial and totalitarian element, that is not the reality. The totalitarian hegemony is the global capitalist hegemony. We are paying in some way the consequences of being a rock of resistance in a global capitalist hegemony and the consequences that the socialism that really existed collapsed, and that suddenly the balance of the hegemony of ideas at world level was no longer that of socialist ideas. That is our context. In which the offensive in favor of capitalism is assaulting our socialist rock with everything.
So we cannot reproduce the discourse of “The message has to be brief” or “The youth is only interested in the brief”, we want the youth to read and to go deeper. We do not make our ideas superficial as much as the contrary ideas are superficial.
We must always remember Fidel’s phrase: “We do not tell people to believe, we tell them to read”. Let us translate “read” to mean that we tell people to think, to go deeper, that their conception of the world is based on having thought.