SAGUA LA GRANDE, Cuba — A growing number of Cuban internet users are using YouTube to document LGBTI life and issues on the Communist island.
Nelson Julio Álvarez Mairata, who lives in Sagua la Grande, a small city on Cuba’s north central coast that is located roughly three hours east of Havana, launched his YouTube channel, Nexy J Show, in 2016.
Álvarez in a video he uploaded on May 20 discusses his efforts to quit smoking. Álvarez in a video he uploaded on Oct. 6, 2017, was wearing a tank top with an American flag on it as he criticized President Trump and his administration’s policies towards Cuba.
“This president has me by the balls,” proclaimed Álvarez in the video’s caption. “The White House has become a true reality show. It leaves the Mexicans alone and it is now the Cubans’ turn to be the focus of their barbarities.”
Álvarez in one of his videos acknowledges the 2016 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead and more than 50 others injured.
His most recent video, which he uploaded on Tuesday, discusses a member of the Cuban National Assembly who reportedly came out as gay last month during the debate over the country’s new constitution with an amendment that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples.
The Cuban government is currently holding meetings that allow members of the public to comment on the new constitution. The National Assembly at the end of the year is expected to finalize it before a referendum that is scheduled to take place in February 2019.
Álvarez in his video includes a picture of a poster that refers to a labor camp — known by the Spanish acronym UMAP — to which gay men and others deemed unfit for military service were sent after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power as “the Castro gulag.” Álvarez also references Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro and niece of Fidel Castro who spearheads LGBTI-specific issues as director of Cuba’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), and says the Cuban government is talking about “accepting homosexuality to clean up its image.”
“We are certainly totally restricted in various aspects in Cuba,” Álvarez told the Washington Blade on Aug. 3 during a WhatsApp interview from Sagua la Grande. “(But) we are not censured in any way at this moment.”
Jhans Oscar Alonso González, who lives in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, in February launched his YouTube channel.
Alonso in a video he uploaded on May 14 talked about his experience participating in the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia march that CENESEX organized in Havana. The clip included videos of the event and interviews with participants and spectators.
Alonso told the Blade last week in an email that his YouTube channel is “inspired by my own experience as an LGBT+ person” and “the difficulties with which we are unfortunately forced to live because we belong to a community that suffers so much hatred.”
“All of my videos have themes that are specific to the LGBT+ community,” he said.
Alonso told the Blade he plans to upload videos from other LGBTI activists and drag queens.
The Cuban government in 2014 agreed to expand internet access on the island as part of the agreement it reached with the Obama administration to normalize diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington that ended after the Cuban revolution.
Trump in June 2017 reinstated travel and trade restrictions with Cuba, even though previous reports indicate his company and four of his associates violated the U.S. embargo against the Communist island twice since the late 1990s. Miguel Díaz-Canel, who, among other things was born after the revolution and supported an LGBTI cultural center in Santa Clara when he was secretary of the Communist Party in Villa Clara Province, in April succeeded Raúl Castro as Cuba’s president.
ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, on its website notes there are now 725 public Wi-Fi hotspots across the country. ETECSA has also launched a pilot program that allows Cubans to have Internet connections in their homes.
The introduction of 3G technology on the Communist island now allows Cubans to access the Internet anywhere on their smartphones.
PlanetRomeo, Grindr and other apps are becoming increasingly popular in Havana and across the country.
The Blade in May was able to use Facebook Messenger and FaceTime to call the U.S. from public Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. It has also previously recorded Facebook Live reports from Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Las Tunas and Santa Clara.
The Trump administration earlier this year announced the creation of a task force that is designed to expand internet access in Cuba.
The International Telecommunications Union’s 2017 report notes 43 percent of Cubans now use the internet.
Users who use the internet at public Wi-Fi hotspots purchase cards from ETECSA that cost 1 CUC ($1) an hour. They can also add money to their accounts without purchasing them.
People selling internet cards on the street for 2 CUC ($2) are common sights in Havana, Santa Clara and other cities across the country. Internet access at hotels tends to cost a bit more.
Cuba remains one of the least connected countries in the world, in part, because many Cubans simply cannot afford to access the internet. The State Department’s 2017 human rights report also notes the Cuban government “restricted access to the internet, and there were credible reports that the government monitored without appropriate legal authority citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, Internet chat rooms and browsing.”
“The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small but increasing number of underground networks,” it says.
Álvarez told the Blade that access to the internet in Cuba has improved “a lot” over the last several years, but the bandwidth remains slow.
He said the internet centers that ETECSA operates have a connection that is “a bit better and a bit faster.” Álvarez told the Blade he is now able to use the Internet from his home, but the connection has a “very low bandwidth.”
Alonso said internet access in the country remains “quite bad” and “a privilege to be able to connect” because it remains expensive for many Cubans.
He said he spends a lot of money to go online. Alonso told the Blade he also uploads his videos early in the morning because the connection is better because there are not a lot of people online.
“As a YouTuber I have to sacrifice a lot,” he said.