CubaBrief: Castro regime tightens internet restrictions with new law brought into force today. Cuban doctors risk imprisonment for speaking out on health conditions in Cuba

Frances Robles reporting in The New York Times described how “after Cuba’s prime minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, said that Cubans were complaining more about doctors and their poor service than they were about the shortages … nearly two dozen young physicians and medical students took to social media to state, one by one: “I am publicly declaring that doctors are not to blame for the collapse of the public health system.”

Sarah Marsh of Reuters described it as a “rare public denunciation of conditions in the island’s hallowed health care system” and made reference to consequences for speaking out critically, but did not provide a specific example. For example, Desi Mendoza Rivero, a 43-year-old doctor and father of four children, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment in connection with his critique of the authorities’ handling of a dengue fever epidemic in Cuba in 1997. Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience, and eventually he was able to leave prison for forced exile in Spain.

Giving voice to “fake news” in Cuba, disseminating it, publishing offensive messages or defamations that harm “the prestige of the country” is now a crime. The Castro regime with its own history of propagating fake news decides who is “guilty” of it over social media. This new decree issued by the dictatorship entered into force today, Wednesday, August 18, 2021. Decree-Law 35 penalizes “ethical and social” harm done “or incidents of aggression ” on social media, reported 14ymedio yesterday. The text entering into force was approved back on April 13, 2021, but the content was not known until Tuesday, August 17, 2021 noted 14ymedio.

Among its novelties, this ministerial decree contains the “classification of incidents of cybersecurity and their level of dangerousness”, such as the “dissemination of false news, offensive messages, defamation with an impact on the prestige of the country.” The level of dangerousness is classified as “high” in Annex II taken from the regime’s Gaceta Oficial and reproduced below.

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The claims made in the media that Decree-Law 35 is the first cybersecurity law passed in Cuba are wrong. This is the latest Decree passed to restrict speech on the internet, with some new elements but not the first. Decree 370 issued by the Cuban government on July 4, 2019 threatens fines and imprisonment for any Cubans expressing themselves over the internet in a manner that the authorities find objectionable. The decree also prohibits foreign web hosting while law existing prior to Decree 370 already prohibited critical content on domestic servers. Less than a year later on May 6, 2020 over forty national and international NGOs signed a joint statement denouncing the consequences of Decree 370.

Although repression of freedom of expression and freedom of press has been long-standing and systematic, the current wave of repression has been intensified by the application of Legal Decree 370 “ON THE COMPUTERIZATION OF CUBAN SOCIETY,” in force since July 4, 2019. At least 30 people have been subjected to interrogation, threats, and seizure of work equipment (especially that of journalists) for broadcasting their opinions on social media, 20 have been victims of 3,000-peso fines (120 US dollars), an amount triple the average monthly salary. Failure to pay these fines constitutes a crime punishable by six months in prison, a systematic approach that has enabled the Cuban State to sentence 7 civil society actors who are currently in prison.

The totalitarian nature of repression in Cuba has not changed in decades nor the efforts of the dictatorship to ever perfect their panopticon on a national scale. What changed was the spontaneous protest of tens of thousands of Cubans across more than 50 cities and towns, knowing what awaited them, shouting that they were not afraid, down with the dictatorship, down with communism and homeland and life. The brutal and violent response by the dictatorship that still continues and is reflected in this new legislation is not new, but the widespread resistance to it is.

BBC News, August 18, 2021

Cuba tightens control of internet after protests

Access to mobile internet was introduced in Cuba in December 2018

Access to mobile internet was introduced in Cuba in December 2018

The Cuban government has introduced new regulations on the use of social media and the internet, which critics say are aimed at stifling dissent.

The decrees were published in the wake of the largest anti-government protests to sweep through the Communist-run island in decades.

People used social media to share footage of the demonstrations and galvanise supporters.

The decrees make inciting acts “that alter public order” a crime.

They also order internet providers to cut access to those who “spread fake news or hurt the image of the state”.

They were published in the Gaceta Oficial newspaper just over a month after thousands of Cubans took to the streets in a rare show of anger with the Communist government.

The protests, which started in the small town of San Antonio de los Baños, seemed to have no formal organiser but appear to have ben convened through an online community forum.

They quickly spread throughout the country after a live broadcast on Facebook of people attending the impromptu march in San Antonio was widely shared.

Access to mobile internet in Cuba was only introduced in December 2018 but has given Cubans the ability to get news from sources other than state-controlled media.

However, Cuba’s telecommunications network remains under the control of the state and in the hours and days following the protests, users found they could not access Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram or Telegram.

The director of Netblocks, a London-based internet monitoring firm, told the Associate Press news agency at the time that the outages seemed to be “a response to social media-fuelled protest” by the Cuban government.

Cuban officials said the new decrees were aimed at keeping Cubans safe from cybercrime.

Deputy Communications Minister Wilfredo González told AFP news agency the new regulations were brought in to protect Cubans’ personal data and “their privacy”.

But he added that they would also protect state officials as under the new rules “no one can denigrate an official of our country or our revolutionary process”.

Human Rights Watch’s Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco wrote on Twitter that the decrees were a move to tighten the government’s grip on the internet.

Mr Vivanco added that “impacting the country’s prestige” would now be considered a “cybersecurity incident”.

The penalties for those incurring in such “crimes” have not yet been announced.

France24, August 18, 2021

Critics say new Cuba cybersecurity law limits freedom

Cuba has published its first cybersecurity law, a move critics have dismissed as a tool to limit political and civic freedoms YAMIL LAGE AFP/File

Cuba has published its first cybersecurity law, a move critics have dismissed as a tool to limit political and civic freedoms YAMIL LAGE AFP/File

Havana (AFP)

Cuba published on Tuesday its first cybersecurity law, a move critics dismissed as a tool to limit political and civic freedoms on the Caribbean island.

The law, published in the official Gaceta newspaper, comes just over a month after unprecedented anti-government protests broke out all over the country.

The subsequent government crackdown left one dead, dozens injured and hundreds arrested. Havana blamed the unrest on foreign powers manipulating its citizens through social media.

The legislation laid out online activities that constitute a crime, such as cyberterrorism, cyberwar, calls for public disturbances as well as spreading information that is deemed to be false or hurts the image of the state.

“For the first time, the country will have a legal standard for cybersecurity incidents,” Pablo Dominguez, the cybersecurity director at the Communications Ministry, told the official Cubadebate news website.

Deputy Minister of Communications Wilfredo Gonzalez defended the law, telling AFP it would allow Cubans to “protect their personal data” and “their privacy,” and make sure that “no one is able to distort the truth, so that no one can denigrate an official of our country or our revolutionary process.”

Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said the law would enable internet providers to cut off access based on the government’s interpretation of fake news. “Cuba tightens the grip on the internet,” he said.

The news provoked an immediate reaction from Cubans on social media.

“We have the right to disagree and express it,” said user @SailydeAmarillo.

“Cuba is a dictatorship and is criminalizing freedom of expression,” tweeted Karly, a Cuban living in Costa Rica.

Mobile internet, which only arrived in Cuba in 2018, has quickly become crucial to citizen groups that want to express their frustrations and demands.

Last week, the government accused the United States of “aggression” after the US Senate adopted an amendment that would see Washington provide Cubans with internet access to help them circumvent Havana censorship.

“We are not going to allow that interference,” Gonzalez said of the new US policy.

Following the July 11 protests, the Cuban government cut internet access for five days after social media was used to spread the word about the historic demonstrations.

© 2021 AFP

Deutsche Welle (DW), August 18, 2021


Cuba introduces new cybersecurity law following historic protests

Weeks after thousands of people took to the streets of Cuba to protest against the government, authorities have introduced laws restricting the use of social media and the internet.

The government of Cuba said foreign powers were looking to destabilize the country using the internet

The government of Cuba said foreign powers were looking to destabilize the country using the internet

The Cuban government on Tuesday published decrees spelling out its first cybersecurity law, which has been criticized as an attempt to limit political and civic freedoms on the island. 

The decrees, which lay out the Caribbean nation’s laws against the use of social media or the internet to insult the state or stir up protests, were published in the Official Gazette weeks after Cuba saw the largest protests it has seen in recent years.

The protests were fed, in part, by messages on social media. 

New decrees to control social media

Signed by Communications Minister Mayra Arevich, the decree was to “prevent, detect and respond opportunely to possible enemy, criminal and harmful activities that could occur in cyberspace.”

The new law forbids content that defames “the constitutional, social and economic” rules of Cuba or incites acts “that alter public order.” Without specifying penalties, the decree bans “cyberterrorism” that would destabilize the country and categorized it as a “very high” danger crime.

The government also offered people a form to report offenders.

Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July to protest shortages of food and medicines and power outages. The harsh government crackdown that followed left one dead, dozens injured and hundreds arrested. 

Havana said foreign powers were responsible for the unrest, adding that they manipulated its citizens using social media. The government restricted access to the internet and temporarily cut off cellphone data plans.

The New York Times, August 17, 2021

Overwhelmed by Coronavirus, Cuba’s Vaunted Health System Is Reeling

“The funeral homes can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope, the clinics can’t cope,” said a Cuban doctor who was fired for publicly lamenting the distressed state of medical care.

A doctor checking a man’s blood pressure before inoculating him with the Cuban-made Abdala vaccine in Havana, in August.Credit...Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A doctor checking a man’s blood pressure before inoculating him with the Cuban-made Abdala vaccine in Havana, in August.Credit…Yamil Lage/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By Frances Robles

Aug. 17, 2021Updated 6:38 p.m. ET

Cuba’s health care system, long a source of national pride, is in acute distress, particularly in distant provinces.

After fending off the coronavirus last year, Cuba has been ravaged this summer by the highly contagious Delta variant, which has sent case rates soaring and swamped the country’s medical system.

More than 9,700 new cases were reported Monday, more than six times the number of new cases just two months ago, according to Ministry of Health figures.

Oxygen supplies for Covid-19 patients are running low, and the factory that produces the nation’s canisters is currently shut down.

Mortuaries and crematories have been overwhelmed. The city of Guantánamo, for example, is coping with a surge of deaths that on some days climbs to about eight times the usual number, a government official said. Cubans are posting heart-wrenching videos of dead relatives, saying their loved ones died for lack of medical care.

This weekend, after Cuba’s prime minister, Manuel Marrero Cruz, said that Cubans were complaining more about doctors and their poor service than they were about the shortages, nearly two dozen young physicians and medical students took to social media to state, one by one: “I am publicly declaring that doctors are not to blame for the collapse of the public health system.”

The move was a daring step in Cuba, where any public show of discontent may result in the loss of employment or even prison. On Tuesday the government published a new cyberterrorism law that makes it illegal to use telecommunications to post “offensive” material that disrupts public order or hurts the “prestige” of the country.

Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, acknowledged recently that the pandemic “exceeded the capacity” of the Cuban health care system, but he blamed the U.S. trade embargo for the shortages the country suffers.

With growing shortfalls of medicine and other critical supplies, hospitals increasingly have neither the doctors, the medicine nor the oxygen to treat the rapidly increasing number of patients.

Large numbers of Cuban doctors work abroad, but recently more have stopped working in the country because they are infected with Covid-19 or have chronic health conditions that make them vulnerable, said Alexander Pupo, 31, a doctor in Holguín who lost his neurosurgery residency last year after criticizing the government.

“Patients are admitted as pure protocol, because the availability of medicines to treat them really doesn’t exist in the hospitals,” said Dr. Pupo, who has volunteered to help fight Covid-19. “I mean, they go in to die, practically.”

And when they do, he said, it might take three days for someone to come pick up the body.

While the pandemic has strained medical systems around the world, the calamity in Cuba is particularly significant because the government has for decades held its free health care system up as a signal accomplishment of the socialist revolution. But the growing crisis has revealed a frayed system that, while often producing medical breakthroughs, is also denounced as ill-equipped and underfunded.

Cuba has long earned billions in much-needed foreign currencies by sending nearly 30,000 doctors to countries around the world. But that practice is becoming harder to defend as more Cubans die of Covid-19. Several hundred doctors serving missions overseas were brought back home this month to work through their vacations.

The medical crisis comes as Cuba also grapples with a severe economic crisis and a social uprising last month that brought thousands of people into the streets, leading to an intense government crackdown that landed hundreds of people in jail.

On Monday, Mr. Díaz-Canel, the president, urged doctors to dispense oxygen carefully, because there was not enough to go around.

“Yesterday we had four oxygen cylinders for 16 to 20 ventilated patients, which isn’t anywhere near enough,” said Manuel A. Guerra Guerrero, a doctor in Buenaventura, in eastern Cuba. “The majority of us, all of us, are tired of seeing people die, people who could be saved.”

Dr. Guerra said that hospitals often have run out of Covid-19 tests, and that he usually turns to Facebook to ask friends for antibiotics. His hospital has run out of bandages.

Eduardo López-Collazo, a Cuban infectious disease researcher who lives in Spain, said his sister Norma, 64, tested positive for Covid-19 last month even after two doses of Cuba’s vaccine and spent days in a waiting room in Ciego de Ávila province hoping to be admitted. Even when her oxygen level dropped to a worrisome 92, doctors told him that she did not meet the “international criteria” to be admitted to an intensive care unit, Mr. López-Collazo said.

“She spent four or five days at some kind of annex, a school, an improvised place that was turned into a facility where they sent patients,” he said. “It did not have adequate conditions, no respirators, none of that.”

She died on July 30. Despite two positive Covid-19 tests, the death certificate listed her cause of death as pulmonary thrombosis. Mr. López-Collazo believes that the Cuban government is systematically undercounting deaths to present a rosier picture than warranted. The country’s official death toll from the virus is 4,088.

Statistics from the Cuban Health Ministry showed that about eight people died each day of the coronavirus in the city of Guantánamo in the first week of August. But a government official in Guantánamo told a regional television news station that in the same time period the city of Guantánamo saw 69 deaths in a single day when the average number of daily deaths before the recent wave was just eight.

“If you go from eight deaths daily to 69 deaths daily, logically, no one was prepared,” Ihosvany Fernández, director of communal services in the province of Guantánamo, said in the TV interview. He said the province had 29 hearses, but only 17 were working. The incinerator at the state crematory broke down from overuse, he said.

The Cuban Ministry of Health did not respond to several requests for comment.

The Cuban government has said in state-run media that the caseload and fatality rate are improving in Havana and a few other cities, and that the death toll is expected to subside as more people get vaccinated. The country, however, has a severe shortage of the syringes needed to administer doses, according to Global Health Partners, a nonprofit that has organized a campaign to send millions to the island.

About a quarter of Cuba’s 11.3 million residents have received one of three vaccines that were developed and produced in the country.

Arachu Castro, a professor at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine who is studying Cuba’s response to Covid-19, said the country had one of the best coronavirus responses in Latin America in the early stages of the pandemic. But the situation shifted sharply after November, when tourists were allowed back into the country, and worsened again after Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, when many Cubans gathered with their families.

“In the first week of August, Cuba had about 400 severe cases every day, which is a lot,” she said.

The number of new daily cases increased exponentially for nine straight weeks this summer, and more than 100,000 people are currently in Covid-19 isolation centers for monitoring, according to an Aug. 9 report by the Pan American Health Organization, about half of whom have tested positive.

Ciro Ugarte, the agency’s director of health emergencies, told reporters last week that the number of Covid deaths in Cuba had risen 20 percent last week compared to the prior week. The lack of essential supplies to treat Covid-19 and other illnesses deepened the problems, he said, adding that the organization sent testing kits and other materials to Cuba.

Alexander J. Figueredo Izaguirre, a doctor in Cuba’s Granma province, said he was fired earlier this year, after he criticized the poor state of Cuban hospitals after the death of his grandfather.

“The health care system in Cuba has collapsed,” he said. “The funeral homes can’t cope, the hospitals can’t cope, the clinics can’t cope. We have been struggling for a year and a half in this battle against this disease — without weapons — when hundreds and thousands of people are dying.”

Frances Robles is a Florida-based correspondent who also covers Puerto Rico and Central America. Her investigation of a Brooklyn homicide detective led to more than a dozen murder convictions being overturned and won a George Polk award. @FrancesRoblesFacebook