Cubans facing the country’s worst economic crisis in decades took to the streets over the weekend. On the other hand, the authorities blocked social media sites in a visible attempt to stop the flow of information inside, outside and inside the besieged nation.
Restricting internet access has become a proven and true method of resolving disputes by authoritarian regimes worldwide, along with government-backed disinformation campaigns and propaganda. Extremely, regimes like China and North Korea exercise strict control over what regular citizens can access the Internet. Elsewhere, service blockages are more limited, often disrupting common social platforms around elections and the timing of mass protests.
There was no formal organizer of Sunday protests; people learned about rally points on social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook, the most used platforms by Cubans. Thousands of Cubans who took to the streets – protesters and pro-government activists – had smartphones to capture images and send them to relatives and friends or post them online.
On Monday, Cuban authorities were blocking Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based Internet monitoring firm. “This seems to be a response to the social media-driven protest,” he said. Twitter does not appear to be blocked, though Toker noted that Cuba could discontinue it if it wishes.
While the recent facilitation of Cuban authorities’ access to the internet has increased social media activity, Toker said, the level of censorship has also increased. He said it not only blocks out external voices, but also “the internal voice of the population that wanted to speak.”
Internet access in Cuba has been expensive and relatively rare until recently. The country was “essentially offline” until 2008, then gradually entered a digital revolution, said Ted Henken, a Latin American expert at Baruch College, City University of New York. The biggest change, he noted, came in December 2018 when Cubans gained access to mobile internet for the first time through data plans purchased by the state-owned telecom monopoly. These days, more than half of all Cubans have access to the internet, Henken said.
Many Cubans now have real-time internet access wherever you are and the ability to exchange information with each other, he added. Since the beginning of 2019, this approach has facilitated regular events and protests, if smaller, on the island. In response, the government has periodically shut down access to social media, largely to hide its repressive tactics from both citizens and foreigners, he said.
The Cuban government also restricts independent media in Cuba and “regularly blocks access within Cuba to many news websites and blogs,” according to Human Rights Watch.
Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis in decades, along with a resurgence of coronavirus cases, as it suffers the consequences of US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. The protests, now the largest in decades, have been “absolutely and ultimately driven by the rise of internet and smartphone access in Cuba,” said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at the International University of Florida.
Posts on social media from inside and outside Cuba are not “the main causes of the rebellion, but they are a factor in linking the despair, the dissatisfaction that exists on the island,” said Arturo López-Levy, an assistant professor of political science at Holy University of Names in California.
López-Levy, who grew several blocks from Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, said the country’s current leader has embraced the economic potential of digital technology far more than his predecessors, but may have calculated that a large segment of Cubans will accept a temporary internet shutdown if it helps restore order on the streets.
Elsewhere, government internet shutdowns after or before protests have also become commonplace, either for hours or months. In Ethiopia, there was a three-week closure in July 2020 following the civil unrest. Internet outage in the Tigray region is extended for months. In Belarus, the internet was cut off for more than two days after the August 2020 elections considered manipulated that sparked mass protests. The mobile internet service crashed continuously during weekend protests for months later.
A decade ago during the Arab Spring, when social media was still in its infancy and Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the Middle East faced bloody uprisings that aired on social media, headlines proclaimed the movements “Twitter Revolutions” and experts debated how important the role of social media was in the event. Ten years later, there is no doubt that social media and private chat platforms have become an essential tool of organization. Restricting them, on the other hand, is a routine move to suppress objections. Internet service was down in Cali, Colombia during anti-government protests in May.
This year has also seen outages in Armenia, Uganda, Iran, Chad, Senegal and the Republic of the Congo.
But authoritarian regimes are not the only ones taking action. India routinely shuts down the internet during riots. NetBlocks Toker said the imposition of internet restrictions in Cuba follows an evolving global pattern and not always in the countries you expect most, such as the recent Nigerian termination of Twitter. On the positive side, he said, the world is much more aware of these incidents because it is easier to monitor and report them remotely.
On Sunday, all of Cuba went offline for less than 30 minutes, after which there were several but major outages, said Doug Madory of Kentik, a network management company. He said major internet outages were very rare in Cuba until recently.
“There was a cut in January only for mobile service after the ’27N’ protests,” Madory said, referring to a movement of Cuban artists, journalists and other members of civil society. who marched on the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020, demanding freedom and democracy.
Henken said he does not believe the government would close access for an extended period of time, even though this is its ongoing tactic for dissidents and activists.
“The problem they have now is that they are not a handful of activists or artists or freelance journalists – it is now a massive percentage of the population across the country,” he said. “So the genie is out of the bottle. They are trying to bring it in again. “
AP Havana correspondent Andrea Rodriguez and AP technology reporter Matt O’Brien contributed to this article.