The Apocalyptics and The Informed / Yoani Sánchez

An onlooker passed by the corner of Infanta and Manglar on Friday, September 9, and stayed awhile looking at the police deployment in front of the Pentecostal Gospel Temple, the closed street, the muttering neighbors. After a few minutes he took out his cellphone and sent a message with the news to his entire address book. Within several pockets, on the tables of certain houses, in women’s purses, the tone announcing the arrival of a text message began to sound. The “gossip” network had exploded. Filled with rumors, the cellphone network is, in Cuba today, a speedy way of spreading news of events that the official press silences. Twenty-four hours after cordoning off the block around the church where Pastor Braulio Herrera and some of his faithful have retreated, Havana whispered the particulars, gave in to gossip, reveled in the details.

Beyond the ethical and theological issues raised by this voluntary “sit-in” of some of the faithful along with their pastor, it is impressive to find how efficiently alternative mechanisms have helped to shine a light on the event. It is possible to trace the track of the information, the steps it follows to open a path: an ordinary citizen, an “upstart” without journalistic credentials, comes across a place where something is happening. He takes this gadget with keys and screen in hand and tells his acquaintances. Perhaps, among his friends, there is a nervous Twitterer with nimble fingers who uploads the story to the Internet in 140-character blocks. Meanwhile, in cyberspace, readers speculate and wonder about the particulars, while the scene begins to fill with more and more people. Someone else appears with a camera; the photo of the police blocking traffic travels via MMS* — text message — to the web, and minute by minute the hashtag #infantaymaglar sparks more interest.

By the time the foreign press agencies are aware that something is happening, the independent journalists and bloggers have already told the story in various ways. Between one thing and another, certain “locals,” with all the hallmarks of plainclothes police, throw out apocalyptic rumors to sway public opinion against the pastor. They say they think the church will fly to pieces, that they are demanding a plane to leave the country, or that they’re waiting — there inside — for the end of the world which will come with a tsunami. Up to this point the national media remains silent, but it can’t handle the pressure of a city where everyone is talking about the same thing. The itinerary is completed when a scowling announcer reads an official notice on the night’s prime time news to an audience that spends days wondering if this time, as well, they are hiding the reality. It has been over 72 hours since that individual lacking a journalism degree but not lacking daring, typed the news into a little cellphone he took from his pocket.

MMS: An acronym for Multimedia Messaging System. It refers to messages with photos, audio, video or other multimedia material that can be sent via cellphone. In Cuba, despite the fact that the service works very poorly, it has become a way to publish small-format files (max 260kb) on the Internet. We bloggers and Twitterers use it to make up for the absence of a connection to cyberspace as it lets us send files to another phone or email. Details of activating and using Text Messaging on Cubacel cellphone can be read here.

14 September 2011