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Cuba darkens its internet during biggest protests in decades

Cuba follows the new authoritarian handbook in imposing internet blackouts during anti-government demonstrations

A series of internet outages has coincided with Cuba’s largest protests in 30 years as hundreds took to the streets in cities around the country on Sunday chanting anti-government slogans and voicing their discontent at severe food and medicine shortages. 

Videos posted to social media by protesters on Sunday have shown hundreds of people marching through Havana and elsewhere in anti-government demonstrations sparked by a worsening economic crisis. Food and medicine shortages, rising prices and Covid restrictions have seen ordinary Cubans unable to work in the island nation’s tourism industry and led to lengthy queues for basic food items. 

One video uploaded to Twitter showed protesters overturning a police car in Cardenas, 90 miles from Havana. 

Recently, shutting down the internet has become the repressive tool of choice for authoritarian governments. In countries throughout Africa, popular elections have occasioned nationwide internet closures. Russia has broadly cracked down on internet freedoms in tandem with attacks on the media. And since the internet was introduced in the country, the Chinese government has used its vast powers to control its digital spaces and censure online speech.

The three or four internet outages began at around 4pm local time on Sunday, according to Marianne Díaz Hernández, a Chile-based Fellow at the digital rights group, Access Now. “This means that there are some places where there is no internet. It is too early for us to know precisely which places are affected but we do know that Havana and places where the protests were more significant yesterday were most affected.”

The rollout of digital connectivity across Cuba has been painfully slow since President Miguel Díaz-Canel took office in 2018. Díaz-Canel, the first Communist Party leader to hold the post outside of the Castro family, looked to increase access to the internet for ordinary Cubans. Since 2018, all Cubans have had access to mobile and Wi-Fi internet services via the state-owned telecommunication company ETECSA.  

The state tightly monitors Cuba’s digital spaces — the island has one of the lowest internet connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere and connections are poor. The internet is also heavily censored and sites are blocked by the government. Freedom House, an organization that ranks political and digital freedoms around the world, gave Cuba a 22 out of 100 in its 2020 “Freedom on the Net” report. 

Díaz Hernández said the Cuban government’s grip on the internet mirrors other aspects of the Communist Party’s control throughout the country. “We need to remember that this is a small part of a larger structure of control,” she said. “That it is not just that the internet is controlled by the government, it’s that everything is controlled by the government. Cubans cannot have independent businesses, they cannot make many decisions by themselves.” 

Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik Technologies, a San Francisco-based provider of digital network solutions and intelligence, said he first saw declines in internet traffic on Sunday afternoon. He tweeted a graph showing a reduction in internet traffic in and out of Cuba. He said he initially wasn’t sure whether to ascribe the outages to technical difficulties being experienced by the Cuban government. 

“I don’t know if they are having technical problems or if they are trying to shut down portions of the country,” said Madory, who first began tracking internet availability in Cuba in 2013. “This year there have been a number of outages, nothing quite like this. All these shutdowns are new to Cuba. In Cuba, the internet has long been inaccessible, not a lot of people have had access to it, it’s censored.”

In a televised speech on Sunday afternoon, Diaz-Canel, who heads the Communist Party, blamed the unrest on the United States, which in recent years tightened its nearly 60-year-old trade embargo on Cuba. Diaz-Canel said that the protests were a form of “systemic provocation” by dissidents working with the U.S.

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