Cubans are flooding the streets to demand better access to food, water, medicine, and COVID-19 vaccines, calling for government reforms. But as they post videos and images using the hashtags #SOSCuba and #PatriaYVida, the government has responded by blocking access to the internet and popular communications platforms. In November, the Cuban government had already shut down the internet to cover its repression of protests and a hunger strike organized by the artists’ group San Isidro Movement.
Internet traffic in Cuba went down this past Sunday at 4:05 pm local time, according to IODA, Kentik, Google, and local reports. ETECSA, the only internet service provider in the country, is owned by the government — which makes stopping the flow of communications extremely easy. Through these shutdowns, it appears the Cuban government aims to block protesters from sharing what is happening across the country. Later in the day on Sunday, the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights stated it had received reports of internet disruptions, and called for Cuba to fulfill its human rights obligations. To date, authorities are still interfering with internet access by blocking communications platforms, in contravention of international human rights standards. Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition are urging an immediate end to the shutdown.
Why the protests are happening
Despite the many economic, political, and infrastructural barriers to getting online in Cuba, independent media organizations and some of the country’s more vocal arts collectives have used the internet to establish their voices and build solidarity both within the country and abroad. The San Isidro Movement began holding public demonstrations last November, and documenting them online. These acts sparked further street demonstrations and other public gatherings where people have voiced opposition to the government and the party in ways that are all too rare in Cuba. In February, the release of a viral music video featuring some of the country’s most prominent rappers and reggaeton artists openly speaking out against the regime threw more fuel on the fire, and brought the conversation into the mainstream.
Tragically, authorities are cracking down violently on protesters who are speaking out. The internet shutdown on Sunday came as protests escalated, and police arrested over 5,000 people, including 120 journalists and activists, according to 14ymedio, a Havana-based independent media outlet. Citizens had been using social media apps and messaging services to communicate with each other during the demonstrations, reach out to their families in other parts of the country or abroad, and share photos and videos of the protests and acts of repression using #SOSCuba and #PatriaYVida. This last hashtag is a reference to the song of the same name that has become an anthem, playing a crucial role in galvanizing the movement over the past several months. Both the name of the song and the hashtag, which means “Homeland and Life,” are a flip of the Cuban government slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”), a nationalist slogan that for many represents a call to live in poverty and scarcity in the name of the revolution. To document the protests, the civic technology initiative Inventario published a map that shows where they have taken place across the country, revealing that they are in the same areas where the internet has been most severely restricted.
The shutdown extends to blocking apps and VPNs
According to data from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), by mid-afternoon on Sunday Cuban authorities were blocking WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal. They have also persisted in disrupting internet traffic, and as Cloudflare’s data shows, they have focused on blocking mobile connections — the way that most Cubans access to the internet. As of Wednesday this week, internet services have reportedly been restored in many areas, but social media platforms remain blocked. As Facebook’s Human Rights Policy Manager Alex Warofka told us when we reached out, “We’re aware that access to our services has been restricted in Cuba. We’re working to understand more and hope that our community on the island will have their access restored as soon as possible.” (See his tweet on the shutdown.)
Most VPNs are also reportedly blocked, which betrays the government’s clear intention of preventing people from accessing the open internet. People have been using VPNs that are not blocked, such as Psiphon and TunnelBear. However, for many activists and journalists, this is altogether impossible, as they have been cut off from the internet entirely — be it in the past few days or months ago — because the ETECSA has revoked their SIM cards in evident reprisal for their activities. That means that Cubans are forced to find solutions to get online for even a few minutes. Fortunately, Cubans are resilient. They are familiar with having no access to the internet, phone, electricity, and many other goods, and finding ways to circumvent censorship is something many are skilled at.
The shutdown deepens existing tensions over lack of internet access
All of this has been accompanied by electrical outages in many parts of the country, a phenomenon that is a frequent occurrence and one of the many causes of the protests. The internet in Cuba has been unstable and difficult to access for a long time, becoming more broadly available only in December 2018, when it was first open for ordinary citizens. It remains very expensive to the point of being prohibitive for many, and only available using mobile phones and through a single provider: ETECSA. The government-owned telecommunications firm provides all connections in the country, including WiFi areas in public squares and the NautaHogar service, the ADSL that is available only in some places, and is the only form of fixed-line service in the country. People who have this type of connection either work in the upper echelons of the government or tourism industry, or they’re academics. According to the portal YucaByte, in some places, people can access either NautaHogar or WiFi, but accessing the WiFi areas requires going out to the streets, which are militarized. None of this deprivation is reducing tensions or stopping the protests.
How civil society is fighting to end the shutdown and #KeepItOn
Organizations fighting for digital rights are supporting the push by Clément Voule, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, to end internet shutdowns in Cuba and around the world. On July 1, Access Now joined ARTICLE 19 and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) in an oral statement at the 47th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. We called attention to restrictions carried out through ETECSA, the government-owned Cuban telecommunications provider, and urged “all states to immediately and unconditionally cease shutting down, throttling, or blocking the internet,” and asked U.N. states to “hold all states accountable” for violations of their commitments to uphold the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.
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