Economic and media war against socialist societies: The case of US–Cuban relations

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Mark Ginsburg is a Visiting Scholar in the International Education Policy program at University of Maryland (USA). Although he is now retired, he continues to work with graduate students on their research. He has also served on the faculty at the University of Aston (Birmingham, England); University of Houston; University of Pittsburgh; University of Oslo (Norway); Teachers College, Columbia University; Kobe University (Japan); George Washington University; and Universidad de Ciencias Pedagógicas “Enrique José Varona” (Cuba). Previously, he was president of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES, 1991–2) and coeditor of the Comparative Education Review (2003–13). He has (co)authored or (co)edited eight books, six special issues of journals, and over 150 journal articles and book chapters.


This article examines the US’s use of sanctions or unilateral coercive measures (economic war) and the US’s support for propaganda communicated through its own organised mass media and the supposedly “independent,” corporate mass media as well as through social media to instigate anti-government sentiment and action (media war). The US’s economic war against Cuba began soon after Cuba’s 1959 revolution, although the US’s hostile actions as well as desires and efforts to shape Cuban society go back to the 19th century. This economic war has had tremendous negative impact on Cuba’s economy and the daily life of Cubans. In terms of the media war, this article focuses on how propaganda distributed through mass, corporate media as well as social media, often paid for by the US government, was directed at misleading Cubans and others, including those in the US, about the situation in Cuba. Such distortions were designed to provoke alienation and anti-government action by Cubans in general and, in more recent years, particular subgroups of artists, musicians, Afro-Cubans, and youth. And while some successes can be noted (specifically the sparking and broadcasting of protests on 11 July 2021), more generally the media war has failed in its goal of regime change. The non-event of 15 November 2021 is a clear example of this.


Peace educators generally agree that peace is a broader concept than the absence of war. They recognise that there are other forms of violence besides macro-level physical or direct violence (e.g. international military engagement), such as micro-level physical violence (i.e. beating of spouses or individuals who are different in terms of race ethnicity or sexual orientation) and macro-level structural or indirect violence (i.e. governmental or other institutional policies and practices that within a given society create or perpetuate illiteracy, poverty, ill health, shortened life span and environmental degradation) (e.g. see Brock-Utne 1985Reardon 1988). What has less often been highlighted is how at the international level countries can engage in structural violence.

In this article I will examine the use of structural violence in US–Cuba relations, specifically looking at the US’s use of sanctions or unilateral coercive measures (economic warfare) and the US’s support for propaganda communicated through its own organised mass media and the supposedly “independent,” corporate mass media as well as through social media to instigate anti-government sentiment and action (media war). 2 One could also discuss these phenomena in relation to US actions toward other “socialist” countries in Latin America, Nicaragua (e.g. Goett 2019) and Venezuela (e.g. Emersberger and Podur 2021Vaz 2022), but the case of Cuba as an example of 21st-century socialism (Ginsburg 2021) will suffice for purposes here, because of the 60+-year history of US government hostile actions toward Cuba. As Bolender (2010: 3) observes, the United States “continues to hold Cuba up for special punishment. The travel restrictions, the economic blockade, the propaganda war and the terrorist acts 3 have persisted against this small island nation” (see also Bolender 2019de los Santos & Prashad 2021aPérez 2015). 4

Lamrani (2013: 74) reports that, since Cuba’s revolution in 1959:

The diplomatic rhetoric used to justify US hostility toward Cuba has changed over time. Initially, nationalization and compensation constituted the bone of contention. 5 Subsequently, it was Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union that became the main obstacle to normalizing relations between the two countries. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was Cuban intervention in Africa, specifically in Angola and Namibia, actions undertaken to help national liberation movements gain independence and to fight against apartheid in South Africa, that aroused the ire of Washington. Finally, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington has flaunted the argument of democracy and human rights 6 in order to maintain its economic stranglehold over the Cuban nation. (See also LeoGrande 2022)

Bolender (2010: 3) mentions that from “the earliest days of Fidel [Castro Ruz]’s victory, America has obsessed over this relatively insignificant third-world country, determined to eliminate the radically different social-economic order instituted by the revolution.” 7 However, as Chomsky (2010: xv–xvii) explains in the introduction to Bolender’s book:

the 50-year crusade to overthrow the Cuban government has deep historical roots. 8 The great grand strategist John Quincy Adams [1767–1848], the intellectual author of the Monroe Doctrine, wrote that “the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.” … Adams understood that the indispensable conquest of Cuba would have to wait. The British were a powerful deterrent, just as they blocked repeated efforts to conquer Canada. But Adams wisely observed that as US power increased, and Britain’s declined, the deterrent would vanish and Cuba would fall into Washington’s hands by “the laws of political gravitation,” as an apple falls from a tree. By 1898 the laws of political gravitation had worked their magic, and the US was able to carry out the military operation known as “the liberation of Cuba,” in reality the intervention to prevent Cuba from liberating itself from Spanish rule, converting it to … a “virtual colony” of the US. (See also Bolender 2010: 5–6; Pérez 2019) 9

We will now turn to examining in more detail the US’s economic war and media war targeting Cuba, Nevertheless, we should note, as recently did Carlos Fernández de Cossío, head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s Department for US Affairs, that “for more than six decades, … despite the enormous resources devoted to trying to overturn Cuba’s revolutionary government and reestablish capitalist property relations, the US rulers have failed in that goal” (quoted in Koppel et al. 2021).

Economic War: Sanctions or Unilateral Coercive Measures

Since Cuba’s 1959 Revolution, US policies toward Cuba have been based on the idea first articulated by Lestor Mallory, who in April 1960 wrote a US State Department memo proposing that “every possible means should be undertaken … to weaken the economic life of Cuba … [by] denying money and supplies to Cuba … [in order] to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government” (Mallory 1960). 10 This idea produced within the Eisenhower Administration just over a year after Cuba’s Revolution appears to be one of the inspirations for President Kennedy’s executive order in February 1962 (Chomsky 2010: x). 11 The executive order stated in part that:

[T]he United States … is prepared to take all necessary actions to promote national and hemispheric security by isolating the present Government of Cuba … Now, therefore, I, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States of America … 1. Hereby proclaim an embargo upon trade between the United States and Cuba … 2. Hereby prohibit … the importation into the United States of all goods of Cuban origin and all goods imported through Cuba. 12

And LeoGrande (2022) reminds us that “a year later [Kennedy] invoked the [1917] Trading with the Enemy Act to extend the embargo to prohibit all transactions (trade, travel, and financial) unless licensed by the Secretary of the Treasury (at the president’s direction).” The evolving set of economic sanctions or, more appropriately, unilateral coercive measures, 13 by the US against Cuba has been authorised by executive orders as well as federal laws (e.g. the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, 14 the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, 15 the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000), but derive authority from the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 (Flowers 2021; Kornbluh 2022Kornbluh & Gelzer 2022Lamrani 2013). 16 As noted above, Kennedy’s initial executive order proclaims “an embargo upon trade between the United States and Cuba,” 17 but has also been used to limit travel to Cuba by US citizens (i.e. by restricting their spending money when in Cuba). However, the embargo (or blockade), including the 243 measures implemented by the Trump Administration, is viewed as violating international law and has been condemned by the vast majority of countries at the UN 30 times, in part because it is unilaterally imposed by the US and because it has been used extraterritorially to restrict banking and other business activities of individuals, organisations and companies based in other countries (Bolender 2013; Cabañas 2022Telesur Staff 2021bYaffe 2021). 18 Moreover, “a significant majority of the US population would like to see the economic sanctions lifted and relations with Cuba normalized” (Lamrani 2013: 14).

The impact on Cuba and its people has been extensive (Banks 2021). For example, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cuba, in his presentation to the United Nations General Assembly regarding the resolution entitled “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba”, on 23 June 2021, commented:

In 2020, Cuba, like the rest of the world, had to face the extraordinary challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The US government has made the virus an ally in its ruthless unconventional warfare, deliberately and opportunistically increased the economic, commercial, and financial blockade, and caused the country record losses of about $5 billion.

President Donald Trump has applied 243 unilateral coercive measures to limit the arrival of US travelers and harm tourist markets in third countries, he has taken wartime measures to deprive us of our fuel supplies, he has hunted down the health services that Cuba lends in many countries, it has intensified the harassment of our country’s commercial and financial transactions with other countries, and has … activat[ed] Title III of the [1996] Helms-Burton Act, 19 to intimidate foreign investors and commercial enterprises. …

The US authorities have cynically tried to spread certain ideas: … that coercive measures do not affect the Cuban people … Let’s look at the numbers. From April 2019 to December 2020, the blockade caused damages calculated at [US]$9,157,000,000, at current prices of this currency, or, on average, $436 million per month. Over the past five years, Cuba’s shortfall in this regard has exceeded $17 billion. The cumulative damage during these six decades amounts to $147,853,000,000 at current prices of this currency and $1,377 billion at the price of gold. (See also Garcia & Maranges 2021bPérez 2021.) 20

The following excerpts from various authors’ publications illustrate the impact of the US blockade on Cuba and its people:

The blockade has cost the island $900 billion, comprising of hundreds of tallies such as the $80-million-plus owed Cuba by AT&T. Officials estimate the island’s per capita GDP would be roughly double if the siege [i.e. blockade] was lifted, increasing its ranking from 109th to 63rd in the world. More symbolically, the courts have taken up the blockades financial battle – Cuban magistrates in 2000 ordered the United States pay $121 billion in damages … (Bolender 2012: 134)

Cuba’s ability to conduct normal business practices through the internationally connected banking systems is under threat. … [For example,] the Bank of Nova Scotia reportedly backed off loaning to Canadians wanting to invest in Cuba. … [Additionally,] Cuba is forced to pay high interest rates of up to 9 percent to the few banks that are willing to extend credit. (Bolender 2012: 149)

In 2020, the Department of Transportation denied two US cargo flights scheduled to deliver humanitarian aid to Cuba – including food, medicine and medical supplies – because it was not “in the foreign policy interests of the United States.” (ACERE 2021a)

In the book “A Sacred Oath” published in early May [2022], Mark Esper, who served as US Secretary of Defense during President Donald Trump administration (2017–2021), made revelations about the US policy of aggression towards Venezuela and Cuba. … The former Secretary’s book reveals that, during a meeting with all the heads of the US intelligence community held in March 2020, the Trump administration was willing to suffocate the Cuban and Venezuelan economies through a total maritime blockade … As an alternative to the total military blockade, however, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien proposed to stop and confiscate all ships carrying Venezuelan oil to Cuba. (Telesur Staff 2022)

President Trump severely restricted the possibility for most Cuban Americans to send remittances to family members in Cuba, a significant source of income for many Cubans. In 2018, remittances totaled $3.7 billion. By adding FINCIMEX, a Cuban financial institution, to the Restricted List, international remittance services, including Western Union, halted all services to Cuba. (ACERE 2021a)

In March 2020, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food said that sanctions against Cuba “severely undermine ordinary [Cuban] citizens’ fundamental right to sufficient and adequate food” and that “it is now a matter of humanitarian and practical urgency to lift unilateral economic sanctions immediately.’” (ACERE 2021a; see also DePalma 2022)

The embargo currently affects the ability of Cuban citizens and tourists, including US citizens or residents, to access nearly 50 platforms, websites and social media applications. These sites include broadly accessed ones like Zoom, Snapchat and at least 20 Google platforms. (ACERE 2021a)

Imagine a country developing and producing its own Covid-19 vaccines, enough to cover its entire population, but being unable to inoculate everyone because of a syringe shortage. … Because of the 60-year US embargo, which punishes civilians during a pandemic, the country is facing a shortage of millions of syringes. 21 (Glover 2021)

Today, Cuba is gradually returning to a level of normality, thanks to [its] vaccination campaign, which inoculated 90% of the population in record time. But this normality will not be the same as that experienced by most countries in the world because the shadow of the economic blockade hovers above all of [its] endeavors and interactions with the world and does not allow [Cubans] to live our lives to the fullest, especially the youngest. But [Cubans] are resilient people and [they] know the vast majority of the people of the world stand with [them], not with the barbarity of the blockade where cracks are appearing. [Cubans] will prevail. (Garcia 2022a)

Examples of the extraterritorial impact of the US’s unilateral coercive measures are described in the quotes below:

Canadian citizen James Sabzali, while living in the United States, faced a 12-month conditional sentence and a fine of $10,000 for selling resins used to purify water. French shipping company CMA CGM was penalized $370,000 when its subsidiary in Norfolk, Virginia, accepted payment for facilitating cargo services to the island. OFAC even took on the United Nations, seizing $4 million from the Foundation Fund for Cuba’s fight against AIDS and tuberculosis during the first quarter of 2011 … (Bolender 2012: 149)

In 2011 [PayPal] closed down the account of the German firm Rum & Co. for selling habanos cigars, rum and other products of Cuban origin through its website. …. Two years later, also in Germany, PayPal blocked the rock group COR’s account, from which they had launched an internet campaign for donations to go on tour in Cuba. … [And] in January 2015, two Canadian accounts were frozen for having been used to pay for a trip to Cuba … for the marriage of two gardeners from Alberta who came to the island to learn about urban agriculture. (On Cuba Staff 2016)

Calls by the United States to other countries to refuse medical brigades of Cuban doctors impeded Cuba’s COVID-19 global response, as well as interfered with an important source of income for the country that had helped to offset the impact of sanctions, as noted by a United Nations independent expert. (ACERE 2021a) 22

United Nations Special Rapporteur … condemn[ed] the US embargo against Cuba, noting in particular that Swiss companies could not ship medical equipment to Cuba after being acquired by a US company, nor could Swiss humanitarian organizations transfer money for medical collaborations and support in Cuba as a result of the extraterritorial application of the embargo. (ACERE 2021a)

Progressive International recently asked for contributions so they can send a delegation to Havana next week to promote Cuba’s effort to vaccinate the world against Covid-19. But in an apparent genuflection to the illegal US embargo against the island, Dutch multinational bank ING has blocked all donations supporting the trip, the group said Tuesday. (Stancil 2022)

Media War: Propaganda via Mass Media and Social Media

In this section we will first discuss US efforts to fund and organise broadcast media operations. Then we focus on the anti-Cuban role of the so-called “independent” corporate media (newspapers and television). Finally, we examine efforts to employ social media platforms to transmit messages to try to convince those living in Cuba to criticise, reject and perhaps revolt against their revolutionary government.

Radio Swan and Radio & TV Martí

For almost 40 years, the US has underwritten the costs and helped to organise two media outlets, Radio and TV Martí. However, this effort is not the first or only one by the US government to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. For instance, Radio Cuba Libre or what came to be known as Radio Swan 23 was initiated in the early 1960s. The concept was discussed during a meeting that took place on 17 April 1960, a little over a year after Cuba’s 1959 revolution and one year before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs mercenary invasion. At this meeting David A. Phillips was briefing CIA Director of Plans, Richard Bissel, who headed the operations to overthrow the Cuban revolution, about how he would carry out his assignment, including the creation of Radio Cuba Libre (Free Cuba): “I intend to organize exile groups of women, workers, professionals, and students to act as propaganda fronts. I would support a number of exile publications. Radio broadcasts and, eventually, leaflet drops would be the vital operations” (quoted in Rodríguez 2009: 53). Rodríguez (2009: 53) also notes that “for a year, [Phillips] worked with a team of propaganda experts, eighteen hours a day … All resources he requested had been granted; millions of dollars had been provided to pay hundreds of journalists, writers, technicians, radio announcers, and editors.”

With regard to Radio Martí, 24 this station began broadcasting news and entertainment in May 1985 during the Reagan Administration, originally from Washington, DC, but subsequently from Miami, Florida. “Radio Martí still broadcasts 24 hours, seven days a week. Its studios, along with TV Martí’s, are in Doral surrounded by prison-like security that includes barbed wire and a security checkpoint. Its broadcasts are sent down to a transmitter in the Keys which then beams them across the Florida Straits” (Trainor 2015). With respect to TV Martí, it initiated its broadcasts on 27 March 1990, “beaming daily programs in Spanish via a transmitter affixed to an aerostat balloon – nicknamed “Fat Albert” by people in the area – tethered 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) above Cudjoe Key, Florida” (Walsh 2012: 116). After the aerostat’s destruction by Hurricane Dennis, TV Martí in October 2006 began to use fixed-wing aircraft to transmit its signals” (Fahrenthold 2013).

Radio and TV Martí are organised under the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which is now incorporated into the US Agency for Global Media (Bolender 2019: 5). Over the years the US government has spent $1 billion to fund Radio Martí and TV Martí in a largely unsuccessful attempt to transmit propaganda to Cuba (Macleod 2021b). According to ACERE (2021a):

Every year the US … spends about $28 million for the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which runs Radio & TV Martí, and has 117 employees. These stations, which are barely heard in Cuba because of [Cuban] government blocking, have become merely a cash cow for its managers and staff in Florida. (See also Bolender 2019: 136)

As noted above, the listening and viewing audiences are very limited. For instance, Farenthold (2013) reported that the US government telephone surveys in 1990, 2003, 2006, and 2008 reported Cuban viewership of TV Martí of less than 1 percent.

“Independent” Mass Media

In his book, Manufacturing the Enemy: The Media War Against CubaBolender (2019: 1–3) discusses how the US-based, “independent,” 25 corporate media (newspapers and television)

has enthusiastically endorsed the [US] government’s counter-revolutionary objectives to end Cuba’s socialist experiment and force the country to return into America’s embrace. The media’s role has been foremost to propagandize the revolution in the most negative forms, resulting in the normalization of the demonization of the Cuban revolution and its supporters. Media has led the inexorable march toward creating a critical narrative that does not stand up to honest scrutiny. Misinformation has been responsible for the preponderance of negative myths about Cuba.

According to Maranges (2022c), “mainstream media has worked overtime to display Cubans as unhappy people suffering the consequences of a ‘failed’ social and political project, while they deliberately hide the causes of these problems.” This function of mass media, of course, contradicts Michel’s (2021) optimistic account that “investigative journalism is a key tool in the fight against disinformation and influence operations. Investigative journalists … serv[e] as the ‘white blood cells’ within the democratic body politic that hunt disinformation networks and counter their negative impact” (see also more general critique of mass media’s role in Herman & Chomsky 1988). Nevertheless, in the case of coverage of Cuba, in addition to purveying misinformation, using mainly biased sources, and omitting fuller, contextualised accounts, mass media have employed a double standard. 26 The latter is illustrated by the fact that although in recent months “protests against scarcity … erupted … [in many countries] in Latin America[, they] rarely merited notice in the US news media – until they happened in Cuba” (Chomsky 2021) – a topic that we will explore more fully in the following section.

Bolender (2019: 12) identifies some of the mass media outlets that participate in the demonisation of Cuba:

The Washington Times remains the most stringent proponent of right-wing ideology, while Fox News is basically the media arm of the Republican Party. The two are consistently negative in their coverage of Cuba. But even the most recognized of the left-leaning national newspapers, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, reliably show an anti-Cuba partiality, as do the television networks that claim to represent the middle ground in the political spectrum – MSNBC, CBS and CNN. All reveal the same disregard, with varying degrees, toward recognizing America’s historical imperial designs on Cuba and the realities of revolutionary society.

The correspondence between US policy toward Cuba and the type of coverage provided by mass media derives in part from the political and, sometimes, ideological alignment of political and economic elites in the US. However, Bolender (2019: 136) explains that the correspondence also appears to result from more direct monetary interventions by the US government:

[J]ournalists in Miami were alleged to have accepted payment to write damaging reports leading up to the trial of the Cuban Five, 27 including Miami Herald/Nuevo Herald reporters Pablo Alfonso receiving $58,000 and Wilfredo Cancio Isla $20,000. It was indicated these journalists and others in the media had been on government payrolls to promote antirevolutionary propaganda, one example cited in a story by Cancio claiming Cuba used drugs to train its spies.

Whitney (2022), in his online article titled “US government pays big money for bad news about Cuba,” presents further details:

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is one of two big US paymasters. … The projects funded by the NED are similar to those formerly undertaken by the CIA. … The … Granma newspaper on Jan. 18, 2022 presented a list published on the NED website on Feb. 23, 2021. … The list includes 42 groups; the total amount dispensed was $5,077,788.

The State Department’s US Agency for International Development (USAID) is another paymaster. On Oct. 23, 2021, journalist Tracey Eaton’s “Cuba Money Project” website reported on disbursements USAID announced during the previous month. The total being delivered to 12 organizations was $6,669,000.

Bolender (2019) provides many illustrations of mass media’s role in distorting portraits of Cuba in ways that reinforce the tenor of US government policies toward that nation. Importantly, Bolender (2019: 31) calls attention to the longer history of such coverage of Cuba, beginning decades before the Triumph of its Revolution in 1959:

Historically the media’s coverage of Cuba has been able to easily traverse the widest range of narratives based on shifting state necessities. When Cuba was fighting against Spanish colonialism [1895–1898], it was the media that created an image of a helpless native unable to gain independence due to incompetence, immaturity or ignorance. America had to step in. When it did, the press then informed the public the Cubans were happy, subservient and indebted to the USA for achieving what they could not. … When the [1959] revolutionaries told the Americans to leave, it was the media that led the outrage – comforting the reader that the USA had done nothing wrong, that Fidel Castro and his lot were mentally unhinged, ingrates that turned against their benefactors with no justification. And then worst of all – they became communists. 28

Bolender (2019) also describes how “independent,” corporate, mass media (mis)informed readers and viewers about other, more recent events in Cuba: 29

There was virtually no news of Havana’s constant complaints to Washington to prevent the illegal overflights of Florida-based Brothers to the Rescue (BTTR) during the rafter crises of 1996. 30 When Cuba took action and shot down two small aircrafts after more than a dozen incursions over national airspace, the only reporting would lead one to believe it was an unprovoked attack based on a single incident. 31 (p. 4)

Coverage of the Cuban dissidents’ arrests in 2003 lacked information regarding their accepting funds and aid from the USA in violation of international laws of diplomacy, nor was there any recognition of Cuba’s right to arrest nationals working in support of America’s hostile policies. (p. 28)

When US contractor Alan Gross was detained [in 2009] for bringing … illegal military grade, high-tech communication equipment [into Cuba], the mainstream media simply denounced the arrest as proof of Cuba’s anti-American rigidity. Little was said of Gross knowing he was aware what he was doing was illegal, lied about it being for Havana’s Jewish community, and then admitted he was being paid by USAID … The media, with a few noticeable exceptions, tried to diminish the crime by dutifully, and incorrectly, reporting that Gross was just conveying “cellphones” into Cuba, and that the arrest was completely arbitrary. (p. 45)

A fact-free article was rapidly turned into accepted evidence in 2015 with a report on Cuban military in Syria. Both Fox News and Daily Beast claimed hundreds of Cuban military personnel were assisting Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war. The report was substantial in details and expert opinion. The only thing lacking was evidence. That didn’t stop the lie from spreading across both traditional and social media … (p. 6)

Finally, we should mention the US government and mainstream corporate media’s allegations regarding the so-called “Havana Syndrome,” which was said to have injured US (and Canadian) personnel in 2016–17. While the evidence of the “sonic attacks” was disputed and the Cuban government’s role was never proved, the syndrome was one of the main rationales that President Trump used to dramatically reduce staff at the US Embassy in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in the US (Bolender 2019LeoGrande 2021). However, as Garcia (2022b) reported in January 2022:

On Thursday, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) admitted that its allegations against Cuba for the so-called “health incidents” against its diplomats in Havana back in 2016 were not caused by “a deliberate attack.” A report released by the CIA on the events confirms what the scientific community in Cuba and the rest of the world has said to exhaustion, “There is no evidence that an attack of such magnitude was planned by a government.” … The information dismisses the “attacks” being perpetrated by Russia or other enemy foreign powers, as US politicians have tried to make them seem during the last five years.

Social Media as Vehicle to Promote Anti-Government Sentiments and Actions

US government “regime-change” funding has focused on using social media as well as broadcasting its own radio/TV programming and supporting mainstream, corporate media outlets (ACERE 2021aWhitney 2022). 32 Below we will discuss how social media was used to encourage, organise and publicise anti-government protests in 2021, but it is important to note that there is a longer history of such social media-focused efforts by the US government. 33 Macleod (2021b) recounts the history of ZunZuneo, “a Twitter-like app launched in 2010 … [which] quickly gained a wide following in Cuba, attracting 55,000 people by 2012”:

However, at the height of its popularity, [ZunZuneo] was abruptly shut down. Unknown to either the Cuban government or its public was that the app had actually been commissioned and paid for by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Washington’s regime-change front group. The US government’s plan was to first capture the Cuban market and gain the trust of the people, then to slowly drip-feed users anti-communist messaging, making it appear as if there was a groundswell of resentment. Then, one day, users would be alerted that a huge protest was happening and that they should all attend. … An Associated Press investigation later found that the NED chose to pull the entire project rather than risk being caught in the act. (Macleod 2021b)

Moreover, Blumenthal (2021) discusses related initiatives funded by USAID during the Obama administration:

In 2009, USAID initiated a program to spark a youth movement against Cuba’s government by cultivating and promoting local hip-hop artists. … USAID outsourced the operation to Creative Associates International, 34 a Washington DC-based firm … Creative Associates found its point man in Rajko Bozic … Posing as a music promoter, Bozic approached a Cuban rap group called Los Aldeanos that was known for its ferociously anti-government anthem, “Rap is War.” The Serbian operative [i.e. Bozic] never told Los Aldeanos he was a US intelligence asset; instead, he claimed he was a marketing professional and promised to turn the group’s frontman into an international star. To further the plan, Creative Associates rolled out ZunZuneo, a Twitter-style social media platform that blasted out thousands of automated messages promoting Los Aldeanos to Cuban youth without the rap group’s knowledge. … [However,] Cuban intelligence discovered contracts linking Bozic to USAID and rolled up the operation. 35

Protests on 11 July 2021

Moving now to the situation in 2021, on 11 July, several hundred Cubans, including artists and musicians, engaged in protests, sometimes involving violence and property destruction, in different cities across Cuba (Elizalde 2022). 36 These protests were reported in US corporate media as being spontaneous. 37 However, although certainly Cubans were suffering economically, 38 due in large part to the embargo as well as the COVID-19 pandemic (Blumenthal 2021Karo 2022Koppel et al. 2021La Tizza Collective 2022Nahem 2022), the protesters’ discourse, articulated by the “San Isidro Movement,” 39 emphasised critique of Cuba’s political system and calls for regime change. 40 The strong focus on the political dimension (regime change) may be because “the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and the US Agency for Global Media have all financed programs to support Cuban artists, journalists, bloggers and musicians” (Macleod 2020a; see also Blumenthal 2021Eaton 2021; Macleod 2020b). Yaffe (2021) discusses the immediate historical context of the 11 July protests:

Another key tool in recent years has been social media. In 2018, Trump set up an internet taskforce to promote “the free and unregulated flow of information” to Cuba, just as the country expanded facilities enabling Cubans to access the internet via their phones. During this summer, the social media campaign, which sees Miami-based influencers and YouTubers encourage Cubans on the island to take to the streets, was ratcheted up. As spontaneous and authentic as [the 11 July protests] may seem, behind it lies US funding and coordination. 41

As noted above, the 11 July protests were catalysed “by pro-US social media prompts, with some Cuban citizens joining in for legitimate reasons in the context of the current system and not against it” (August 2022; see also Elizalde 2021aPichardo 2022). The operation made intensive use of robots, algorithms, and accounts recently created for the occasion … [For example,] the first account that used the HT #SOSCuba … posted more than a thousand tweets on July 10 and 11, with automation of 5 retweets per second” (Pillager 2021; see also Garcia and Maranges 2021a). As Macleod (2021b) explains:

The group, La Villa del Humor, is widely credited with providing the initial spark that ignited nationwide protests on the Caribbean island … [on 11 July], the most significant demonstrations since the 1990s. … News and images of the demonstrations were immediately signal-boosted by individuals and groups in the United States, including the large and vocal Cuban ex-pat community in Miami, politicians, celebrities, and even US government officials, to the point where even President Joe Biden put out an official statement endorsing events.

It should be noted that the number of pro-government or pro-Revolution supporters who went out into the streets during this time was substantially larger than those protesting against the government (Betto 2021Resumen Latinoamericano Staff 2021). Yaffe (2021) reports what some US-based media criticised, that in a Cuban television broadcast discussing the 11 July protests, President Miguel Díaz-Canel “ended the broadcast by calling for revolutionaries to take to the streets. Thousands of Cubans answered his call.” While I believe the president’s encouragement was important, I have some anecdotal evidence that at least some Cubans were already geared up to demonstrate in support of the government and the Revolution on 11 July. During my trip to Cuba in April–May 2022 – to attend the May Day Parade, the International Solidarity Meeting and Guantánamo Seminar on Peace and Abolishing Foreign Military Bases – I spoke with four youth (18–24 years old) during a block party organised for our delegation by the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution in a town outside of the provincial capital of Atemisa on 30 April. I confirmed that they connected with social media and asked whether they had seen messages prior to 11 July calling for people to engage in anti-government demonstrations. They told me that they had, but, for them, these messages had the opposite effect – they rejected such calls and instead organised a pro-government (or, as they called it, pro-Revolution) demonstration in their town.

Projected Protests on 15 November

Following the perceived “success” of the 11 July protests, 42 some Cubans on the island and, perhaps more so, members of the Cuban exile community decided to organise “two new actions: a planned general strike in October and a larger set of nationwide demonstrations for November [2021]” (Macleod 2021b). They specifically made use of a recently established Facebook group named Archipiélago (August 2022). According to LeoGrande (2021):

In September [2021], a group of Cuban artists and intellectuals calling themselves the Archipelago Project joined with traditional dissidents to call for nationwide “Marches for Change” on November 20, later moved to November 15, 43 the day Cuba [was] scheduled to reopen its tourist industry [and have students return in-person to school]. The government responded to this challenge by declaring the proposed marches illegal and threatening criminal charges against the organizers. (See also de los Santos & Prashad 2021a.)

Macleod (2021b) further explains:

An announcement shared on social media (including on La Villa del Humor) state[d] that organizations across the country are gearing up for a [general] strike [on 10 October], with hashtags like #ParoNacionalCuba and #SOSCuba trending. … It is, however, the actions scheduled for November 20 that appear to be generating more excitement in the community. Marches across the island are planned, including in Guantánamo, Holguin, Camaguey and Havana … The movement is being outwardly advertised as a “peaceful 44 march in favor of human rights and against violence,” and already has a who’s who of US-backed figures, such as the San Isidro Movement rap group and politician Manuel Cuesta Morúa signed on. 45

Furthermore, Maranges (2021) reports that the November action

was announced on September 21, after a group of 15 people delivered an authorization request for a march to the Old Havana’s city hall, something that was [to be] replicated in over 5 Cuban provinces. … The march proposal came from a Facebook group named “Archipelago” whose main voice is the theater screenplay writer Yunior Garcia [Aguilera], who is very well-known for openly criticizing the government through his plays … On October 12, all requests were denied by the local governments arguing that the march was part of a regime change strategy, which is clearly stated as illegal in the Cuban Constitution. (See also de los Santos & Prashad 2021bLonas 2021Telesur Staff 2021a.) 46

Despite the flurry of social media posts and public statements, however, “almost nothing came of the much anticipated and internet-hyped protests in Cuba on November 15th” (