Cuba Took Away Protesters’ Biggest Weapon: The Internet

It’s become a predictable move in the repressive regime playbook.
July 14, 2021, 12:42pm
A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Arroyo Naranjo Municipality, Havana on July 12, 2021. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP) (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Arroyo Naranjo Municipality, Havana on July 12, 2021. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP) (Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images)
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At around 11 a.m. Sunday morning, protesters took to the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, a town of 46,000 people situated 20 miles southeast of the Cuban capital, Havana.

Isolated protests against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the worsening economic crisis in the country and shortages of food and medicine, were not unusual.

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But then one of the protesters took out their phone and began streaming a live video—known in Cuba as a “la directa”—and broadcasting it on Facebook. 

Government censors strictly control Cuba’s online space, but “la directa” has become an important tool for protesters and opposition forces seeking to undermine the government. And what happened next clearly demonstrated its power. 

There was nothing the government could do to stop the live stream, and soon protesters in Havana and dozens of other cities and towns across the country were watching the footage unfold in real time and finding the courage to do the same. 

It was like a domino effect.” Alfredo Martínez Ramírez, an activist from Havana, told BBC World News. “We saw a spontaneous protest in San Antonio and that spread. It is not the same seeing people throw themselves into the street as to be told about it. That gives you courage.”

The result was an unprecedented wave of protests in over 70 locations on Sunday, the largest show of dissent in decades in a country where unauthorized public gatherings are illegal and demonstrators are often imprisoned for attending them.

Then, the government did what many other repressive regimes have done during times of crisis: They turned off the internet.

The first blackout happened at 4 p.m. local time in Havana, according to Kentik, a company that monitors internet traffic. That complete blackout last for just 30 minutes, but several hours of intermittent outages followed.

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Then on Monday, the government began blocking access to specific services, including Facebook, which is Cuba’s most popular platform, as well as messaging services WhatsApp and Telegram.

“The targeted restrictions are likely to limit the flow of information from Cuba following widespread protests on Sunday as thousands rallied against the socialist government’s policies and rising prices. The restrictions are ongoing as of Tuesday night local time,” Netblocks, a London-based group that tracks internet outages globally, said on its website.

When asked if the government had intentionally cut access to the internet, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told reporters on Tuesday that the situation was “complicated.”

As protests continued in more than a dozen locations on Monday and Tuesday, the government’s actions denied protestors the main weapon in their arsenal.

“Our weapon is the internet. If they take away the internet we are unarmed,” Gino Ocumares, a Havana resident, told Reuters as he tried but failed to get online at a government Wi-Fi hotspot. “The government does not want people to see the truth.”

The Cuban government only gave its citizens widespread access to the internet in late 2018, allowing people to get online through mobile connections. But the space remains extremely tightly controlled and only accessible through government-run entities.

Prior to Sunday’s shutdowns, Cuba already had the world's fourth most restrictive internet freedom environment, only ranking better than China, Iran, and Syria in the annual Freedom on the Net report produced by Freedom House.

The result of the blackout in Cuba is that information about how the government is responding to the protests is hard to track, as activists are unable to share information about their locations or safety.

At least one protester has been killed in clashes with police, and according to Amnesty International, over 140 people have been detained or disappeared since the protests broke out on Sunday.

“Nearly all my friends are without internet,” Ramírez, the activist in Havana said. “And we don't know where many of them are.”