CubaBrief: Normalizing relations with Castro did not improve internet access in Cuba. Here is what really happened.

There is an attempt underway to rewrite history by advocates of normalizing the Castro dictatorship and subsidizing the military and the most repressive elements of the regime. The key talking point repeatedly made is that the Obama engagement with Havana, that led to heightened repression, and the marginalization of Cuban democrats, was not a failure because there is more internet connectivity. They try to argue that American firms can compete against Chinese firms in the Cuban market, but what prevents them from doing so is the embargo.

The historical record says otherwise.

Havana has tightened and loosened access to technology to advance its interests, chief among them maintaining power. On March 25, 2002 the Castro regime banned the sale of personal computers in Cuba, with the exception of special cases, and only with government permission. In May of 2008 the ban was lifted and the Cuban government garnered undeserved positive media coverage.

Two months after Raul Castro lifted the restriction on the purchase of laptops and cell phones in 2008, the Bush Administration lifted regulations to permit Cuban-Americans to send mobile phones to relatives in Cuba.

It is true that the Obama Administration sought to engage with Cuba on greater internet access, but was rebuffed in 2009. The White House had granted licenses and sought to encourage the laying of a “new fiber-optic cable and satellite facilities between the U.S. and Cuba.” TeleCuba Communications Inc. announced on Oct. 13, 2009 that it had received approval from the Treasury Department “to lay about 110 miles (175 kilometers) of cable from Florida to Cuban territory — seemingly a significant dent in the U.S. embargo against the island.” A regime official described Havana’s position as “wary” of linking cable and satellite facilities with the United States.

Instead the Castro regime went with a 1,000-mile undersea fiber-optic cable strung from socialist ally Venezuela to Cuba in 2011 rejecting the 2009 Obama Administration overture.

Advocates of trade with Cuba that are using the China card ignore history and the ideological considerations that drive the Castro regime. They have forgotten that at a time when Havana had normal diplomatic relations with the United States, Cubans were already seeking relations with Beijing with Mao Zedong in the midst of a major famine that claimed millions of lives in China.

Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and Chairman Mao Zedong enjoying dinner in 1960

Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Chairman Mao Zedong enjoying dinner in 1960

On September 28, 1960 the Cuban government diplomatically recognized the People’s Republic of China. Ernesto “Che” Guevara with a Cuban delegation visited Mainland China and met with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and other high ranking Chinese officials in November 1960 to discuss conditions in Cuba and in Latin America, and the prospects for communist revolution in the Western Hemisphere. Diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were severed on January 3, 1961, and on December 2, 1961 Fidel Castro formally declared that he had been a Marxist Leninist for years.

These ideological considerations translate today into British and Canadian businessmen jailed in Cuba, and their Chinese, Russian and Venezuelan counterparts operating freely, and getting their business deals done with assistance from Havana’s secret police.

It is also why ETECSA, the Castro regime’s telecommunications company that has a monopoly over communications in Cuba, signed an agreement with Huawei to sell its cellphones in November 2015, in the midst of the Obama thaw.

Western companies are at a disadvantage in Cuba, and in other repressive states, because Huawei is willing to use both its technology and staff to spy on people for repressive governments, and for Beijing. This has been well documented in Africa, and is undoubtedly being done in Cuba. However, Western companies still try to compete.

Capitol Hill Cubans on April 7, 2016 reported the following on the presence of Google in Cuba and how engagement with the regime manifested itself:

Reports from Cuba have noted that the center has been given priority use by Ministry of the Interior (‘MININT’) officials and trainees. The MININT is home to Castro’s intelligence services. Thus, the Google + Kcho Mor center has become a playground for Cuba’s spies and future cyber-warriors. Furthermore, after passing various security checks, when regular Cubans finally get to enter the center, they are treated to censored online access. Webpages like Cubaencuentro, Revolico and 14ymedio remain blocked. Thus, Google has now officially become an extension of Cuba’s censors.

This led to a coalition of independent Cuban civil society organizations gathered in Puerto Rico in 2016 to condemn Google for siding with their oppressor.

“Denounced the indifference of the company Google in violation of its code of corporate conduct and demanded that it establish a correct policy to provide wireless internet service with no censorship and without dependence on the regime in benefit of the Cuban people.”

On December 13, 2016 Google signed an agreement with the Castro regime to speed up faster access to the “companies branded content.” Marta Dhanis, a news correspondent, who visited Cuba to see first hand if there has been an improvement in internet access, following Google’s partnering up with the Cuban dictatorship, and talked to Cubans inside the island and authored the January 25, 2017 article, “Google entering Cuba is ‘Trojan Horse’ that could reinforce regime, residents say.” A Cuban academic outlined what the internet was becoming in the island:

“We call the internet a ‘Trojan Horse.’ The success of this government has been possible thanks to the people’s lack of information,” said a 57-year-old retired professor who requested anonymity for fear of retribution by the communist regime. “I would have a patrol car at my door tomorrow to monitor my life,” he said. On the other hand, he and others contend, this Trojan Horse is also providing the communist regime with technology that will empower the secret police with detailed reports of the users’ searches and profiles, right down to their location.

Back in the 1990s in China it was Western companies, like Yahoo, that tracked down dissidents who were jailed, tortured and killed by Beijing. Today, the Chinese have cut out their Western partners and are able to provide this service through Huawei.

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts the Cuban government did not open up internet access on cell phones in Cuba on their watch.

It was not until December 2018, the second year of the Trump Administration that Raul Castro allowed Cubans to access the internet on their cell phones through the state-run telecoms monopoly ETECSA. This was long after the White House changed its Cuba policy and had increased sanctions against Havana. This did not happen on Obama’s watch.

Also the argument is made that ” Washington should listen to the protesters and their sympathisers“, but ignore and leave out the voices of those who criticize the Obama Cuba policy, or support the tougher Trump Cuba policy.

On November 6, 2020 Cuban opposition leader Berta Soler, currently in Cuba shared the following in Spanish over Facebook: “I am Cuban and I have never had the opportunity to go to the polls to vote for my president. If I could vote in the US I would do it for Trump, but whatever happens in the United States elections I support Donald Trump. He is a President whose policy of state against the communist regime of Cuba has been carried out by him as it should be. Trump 2020”

This black Cuban woman who has spent the last 17 years resisting a white minority dictatorship in Cuba publicly supported President Trump and his policy in Cuba. She did this on November 6th, when such a stance can cost her much both in Cuba and in the United States.

The New York Times mentioned in passing in their December 9, 2020 article on the protests that the individual at the heart of the San Isidro Movement protest, jailed rapper Denis Solís in “the video he posted of his arrest, he screamed: ‘Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president.'”

This is not an isolated phenomenon.

The Cuban punk rock group Porno para Ricardo released a video in 2018 titled “I Voted For Trump.” It appears that in both the rapper’s and punk rock group’s cases they were embracing the new policy towards Cuba.

Nor is this the first protest by large numbers of Cubans. Jorge Ramos of Univision in his December 14, 2020 essay “Revolt of the artists” provides some much needed historical context.

Lastly, cheerleaders for the power of the internet in Cuba to change things for the better must also contend with the fact that during the San Isidro crisis the regime responded by shutting down and blocking social networks in the country. Dissidents should embrace technology, while learning how it can be used as an instrument of surveillance against them, and to have low tech alternatives when the dictatorship turns it all off. This has happened in other countries in moments of crisis.

Univision, December 14, 2020

Revolt of the artists

It is naive to believe the recent revolt by artists in Cuba can end a 61-year-old dictatorship. But the difference now is that everyone is hearing about it, thanks to the internet. (Leer es español)

By Jorge RamosJorge Ramos is the Emmy Award-winning co-anchor of Univison’s nightly news, and host of Al Punto and Real America.

A group of young intellectuals and artists hold up lights on their mobile phones as they demonstrate at the doors of the Ministry of Culture during a protest in Havana, early on November 28, 2020. Crédito: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

A group of young intellectuals and artists hold up lights on their mobile phones as they demonstrate at the doors of the Ministry of Culture during a protest in Havana, early on November 28, 2020. Crédito: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

Cuba is ruled by a brutal dictatorship, and one of the most dangerous things to do on the island is to protest against it. Since 1959, many who dared to speak out against the regime have faced three harsh futures: death, prison or exile.

That’s why it is truly important to support the hundreds of young artists who came out in recent days to defend freedom of creation and expression in Cuba. They are risking everything. If it goes wrong, they could wind up in prison. If it goes right, they could be chipping away at the dictatorship (finally) and opening the possibility of democratic change in Cuba.

The latest revolt in Cuba started after the arrest of rapper Denis Solís. On Nov. 6, around 6:40 pm, a uniformed government agent entered Denis’ home in Havana. The artist, outraged by the intrusion without any sort of legal order, defended himself the only way that dissidents in Cuba can, with his cell phone.

Denis was live on Facebook for more than seven minutes during his exchange with the agent. “Who told you to come in without asking for permission?” Denis asked. “Why are you bothering me? Because, as far as I know, I haven’t killed anybody, haven’t broken a door, haven’t robbed anyone, like your damned murderer does so often. Film me, because I am filming you.” Here’s the link to the video.

In fact, the agent pulled out his cell phone and started to film Denis. A few days later, Denis was arrested, put on trial without a defense attorney or legal guarantees and sentenced to eight months in jail. Just for daring to record and publish the video of an agent who had entered his home without permission.

What Denis highlighted with his phone, for the world to see, was the repressive machinery of the Cuban regime. Fourteen artists and dissidents went on a hunger strike to demand freedom for Denis. Many of them are members of the eclectic San Isidro Movement – named after a Havana neighborhood – made up of singers, writers, scientists, journalists and citizens. The 14 hunger strikers were detained temporarily by state security agents on Nov. 26. One day later, the Cuban government faced one of its largest revolts in years.

Risking arrest, more than 300 artists, youths and students gathered peacefully in front of the Ministry of Culture on Nov. 27 to demand Denis’ release and more freedom in Cuba. The BBC described the protest as “the biggest of its type registered on the island since 1959.”

That unprecedented challenge, which gave rise to the N27 Movement, forced Deputy Culture Minister Fernando Rojas to meet with 30 protesters. They brought into the meeting a list of petitions against repression and harassment. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist whose works are frequently shown abroad, was one of those present.

“We are discussing freedom of expression in Cuba, not only for artists but also for citizens,” she told me in an interview from Havana. “Freedom for political dissent in this country.” How do you ask for more freedom in a dictatorship, I asked her.

“We can ask for it because the people are asking for it. The intellectuals are asking for it for their sector. The people are going out to the street. The people are tired already.”

The Cuban government suspended the dialogue after the first session, falsely accusing the artists of being mercenaries financed by the United States.

This is not the first revolt on in Cuba during six decades of tyranny. It’s enough to mention the courageous protests of the Ladies in White, the risky work of independent journalists and the 1994 rebellion known as the Maleconazo. But it is the first time the Castro regime faces a digitally armed opposition (cell phones, the Internet and social networks).

That’s what Tania told me during our talk, on a borrowed laptop. “Nothing like this is possible without the social networks. Extraordinary things have happened in Cuba in these 60 years. There are many people who are extraordinarily courageous. But the difference now is that everyone is hearing about it. Before, no one heard about it. And look, as proof that the government knows the dangers of the social networks, it has started to shut down some applications.” And everyone know that dictatorships start to die when they lose control of social networks. Like it happened with Denis.

“We are super connected,” he said at the end of his defiant video. Without the Internet and social networks, Denis would be a nameless prisoner in one of the black holes of the Cuban prison system. And I would not be writing this column about him and the daring young people of the San Isidro Movement.

What is totally unacceptable is that in 2020 there are still brutal and murderous dictatorships like Cuba’s. Just two people have ruled the island in more than six decades, Raul and Fidel Castro. Two. That’s all. During the rule of Fidel Castro, who died in 2016, “thousands of Cubans were incarcerated in abysmal prisons, thousands more were harassed and intimidated, and entire generations were denied basic political freedoms,” a report by Human Rights Watch noted. “Cuba made improvements in health and education, though many of these gains were undermined by extended periods of economic hardship and by repressive policies.”

That authoritarian system continues still. There’s only one political party. Opposition parties and independent news media are not allowed. Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere that bars entry to human rights and Amnesty International observers. What is it hiding?

It is unforgivable and shameful that there are still governments in Latin America – like Mexico’s, for example – that do not dare to publicly criticize the abuses and crimes of the Cuban dictatorship. It is enormously incongruent to fight for democracy for Mexicans and other Latin Americans, but not Cubans.

We should not leave these artists alone on the island. As Tania Bruguera – who created the concept of “useful art” and who was threatened recently by a state security colonel in front of her house – told me, what is happening in Cuba now “is bigger than any individual wish.”

It is naive to believe this revolt by artists in Cuba can end a 61-year-old dictatorship. But it has shown three things: that the Castro regime is vulnerable, that social networks are creating options for rebellions that were unthinkable until recently, and that there’s nothing more powerful than oppressed people seeking freedom.

Some day, perhaps from a video like the one by Denis, the Cuban Spring will emerge.

NETBLOCKS, November 30, 2020

Social media disrupted in Cuba amid protests for artistic freedom

Network data from the NetBlocks Internet Observatory confirm partial disruption to social media and streaming platforms in Cuba between Friday 27 November 2020 and Monday 30 November 2020. The disruptions are likely to limit the flow of independently sourced information from Cuba. The incident follows three days of limited service and comes amid protests in Havana by a group calling for artistic rights.

NetBlocks metrics show that social media and communications platforms Twitter, WhatsApp, and, at certain moments also YouTube and some Google and Facebook servers, were intermittently unavailable over the weekend up until Monday morning on networks operated by government-owned ETECSA (Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. / AS27725) with high impact observed on Cubacel, the cellular network operated by Cuba’s sole telecommunications company. Findings corroborate user reports of disruptions as citizens raised concerns over access to information in relation to political discourse.

What happened in Cuba over the weekend?

The disruptions were first registered on Friday as a protest movement in Havana spiralled into a highly visible dispute between Cuba’s single-party state and human rights activists. The demonstration and ensuing fallout are among the most prominent incidents driven by rising social media usage to date in the country, where internet access has become more widely available in recent years following decades of political isolation.

State-run media adopted a critical stance toward the movement while the identified internet disruptions left many users unable to communicate over the weekend. Protesters made use of various social media platforms and posted videos calling for the release of jailed colleagues.

On Friday, hundreds of artists, actors and performers staked out in protest calling for freedom of expression in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana. Despite initial attempts at dialogue, authorities later implied that the United States was seeding the movement to trigger an uprising. Although the U.S. has operations including human rights programs in Cuba, claims of a plot to overthrow the government could not be independently verified.

NetBlocks internet performance metrics from 50 observation points between 27 November 2020 and 30 November 2020 (UTC) confirm that the listed online platform backend and frontend servers became partially unavailable on fixed and cellular lines in Cuba corroborating widespread user reports. Work is ongoing to to review the nature of legal frameworks relating to the apparent targeted restriction of service during the time in question.

NetBlocks recommends that governments comply with international norms and internet governance frameworks and ensure reliable internet connectivity including at times of political discourse.

Published with thanks to Redes AyudaYucaByte, and members of the public for their input during the preparation of this report.

Update: On Thursday 10 December 2020, further disruptions have been identified limiting access to Facebook and Twitter, coinciding with calls for demonstrations to mark International Human Rights Day. Users report having to use VPN services to connect to the impacted platforms. Network data indicate that the disruption affects a lesser set of services than in the previous incident, and WhatsApp remains available to subscribers at the time of writing.

From the Archives

BBC, September 7, 2005

Yahoo ‘helped jail China writer’

Internet giant Yahoo has been accused of supplying information to China which led to the jailing of a journalist for “divulging state secrets”.

Western internet firms are rushing to invest in China

Western internet firms are rushing to invest in China

Reporters Without Borders said Yahoo’s Hong Kong arm helped China link Shi Tao’s e-mail account and computer to a message containing the information.

The media watchdog accused Yahoo of becoming a “police informant” in order to further its business ambitions.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said it had to operate within each country’s laws.

“Just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based,” said Mary Osako.

Shi Tao, 37, worked for the Contemporary Business News in Hunan province, before he was arrested and sentenced in April to 10 years in prison.

According to a translation of his conviction, reproduced by Reporters Without Borders, he was found guilty of sending foreign-based websites the text of an internal Communist Party message.

Reporters Without Borders said the message warned journalists of the dangers of social unrest resulting from the return of dissidents on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in June 2004.

Censorship fears

The media organisation accused Yahoo of providing Chinese investigating organs with information that helped link Shi Tao’s personal e-mail account and the text of the message to his computer.

“We already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

Western internet companies have regularly been criticised for agreeing to China’s strict rules governing the internet, which Communist Party leaders fear could be a tool to spread dissent.

Microsoft was criticised in June for censoring what bloggers write.

The companies say they have to abide by local regulations, and point out that since China is set to be the world’s biggest internet market, they cannot ignore it.

“Microsoft works to bring our technology to people around the world to help them realise their full potential,” said a Microsoft spokesperson.

“Like other global organisations we must abide by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which we operate.”

Earlier this month Yahoo paid $1bn (£556m) for a stake in China’s biggest e-commerce firm,