Anti-government protesters gather at the Maximo Gomez monument in Havana, Cuba, Sunday. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in several cities in Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs. (File photo by The Associated Press)

Anti-government protesters gather at the Maximo Gomez monument in Havana, Cuba, Sunday. Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in several cities in Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs. (File photo by The Associated Press)

Cuba’s internet cutoff: A go-to tactic to suppress dissent

Cuba’s internet cutoff: A go-to tactic to suppress dissent

Cubans facing the country’s worst economic crisis in decades took to the streets over the weekend. In turn, authorities blocked social media sites in an apparent effort to stop the flow of information into, out of and within the beleaguered nation.

Restricting internet access has become a tried-and-true method of stifling dissent by authoritarian regimes around the world, alongside government-supported disinformation campaigns and propaganda. On the extreme side, regimes like China and North Korea exert tight control over what regular citizens can access online. Elsewhere, service blockages are more limited, often cutting off common social platforms around elections and times of mass protests.

There was no formal organizer of Sunday’s protests; people found out about the rallying points over social media, mostly on Twitter and Facebook, the platforms most used by Cubans. The thousands of Cubans who took to the streets — protesters and pro-government activists alike — wielded 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 does seem to be a response to social media-fueled protest,” he said. Twitter did not appear to be blocked, though Toker noted Cuba could cut it off if it wants to.

While the recent easing of access by Cuban authorities to the internet has increased social media activity, Toker said, the level of censorship has also risen. Not only does the cutoff block out external voices, he said, it also squelches “the internal voice of the population who have wanted to speak out.”

Internet access in Cuba has been expensive and relatively rare until recently. The country was “basically offline” until 2008, then gradually entered a digital revolution, said Ted Henken, a Latin America expert at Baruch College, City University of New York. The biggest change, he noted, came in December 2018 when Cubans got access to mobile internet for the first time via data plans purchased from the state telecom monopoly. These days, more than half of all Cubans have internet access, Henken said.

Many Cubans now have real-time, anywhere-you-are access to the internet and the ability to share information among themselves, he added. Since early 2019, this access has facilitated regular, if smaller, events and protests on the island. In response, the government has periodically shut down access to social media, mostly to hide its repressive tactics from both citizens and foreigners, he said.

The Cuban government also restricts independent media in Cuba and “routinely blocks access within Cuba to many news websites and blogs,” according to Human Rights Watch.

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