In the face of mass protests, the Cuban government turned off the internet
Jul 16, 2021

In the face of mass protests, the Cuban government turned off the internet

Social media platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram were disrupted for activists who were sharing stories of the protests over food and power shortages.

This week in Cuba, journalists, influencers and regular citizens posted scenes online from the country’s largest antigovernment protests in decades. That is, until the government restricted access to a number of social media platforms.

According to the internet monitoring firm NetBlocks, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, and WhatsApp were disrupted. There are reports that access returned by midweek.

It’s a topic for Quality Assurance, where we take a second look at a big tech story. I spoke with Isabella Alcañiz, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Center at the University of Maryland. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Isabella Alcañiz: The Cuban Government has a lot of control over internet access in Cuba for many different reasons, one of which is that the internet is quite recent on the island. I think the internet and social media helped organize the protests. Typically, social media can be key to early development of social movement.

Kimberly Adams: This kind of tactic echoes what we saw a lot during the Arab Spring over in the Middle East. The fact this is being deployed in Cuba, is that a signal that they’ve learned something from those experiences?

Alcañiz: I think this is a common tool of leaders who are either outright authoritarian or are very heavy handed. But we’ve also seen that recently in democratic India, where Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has used the shutdown of either sites on the internet or full access to the internet against numerous protests, including the very recent protests of farmers against the government.

Isabella Alcañiz stands with her arms crossed smiling in a grassy field with a bright blue necklace.
Isabella Alcañiz (Credit: Ernesto Calvo)

Adams: Besides creating this outage for Cuban residents, this also prevented relatives in the U.S. from communicating with their family members, and Cuban Americans have a lot of political power, especially in places like Florida. What have you learned about the way that Cubans use the internet to connect with family members abroad, and how this outage, even if it was temporary, affected their communication?

Alcañiz: This is a major disruption, right? Because the shutdown has made it hard for relatives to speak with their family members, with their close friends on the island. And we should remember that it’s not just political protests that is happening in Cuba, but there’s a pandemic raging. It has been getting worse, so the Cuban government has seen a rise in cases of infection and sick[ness] and deaths as well. So you can imagine that you have relatives across the world, not just in the United States, concerned for the health of their family members and friends, given the COVID pandemic. Then on top of that, the economic fallout because of the pandemic is being felt hard, and I would say this is one of the reasons why we see these protests right now. This is also a matter of concern for family members that live abroad, because they want to know how the families are surviving right now.

Adams: How important is regular access to the internet to the everyday lives of Cubans?

Alcañiz: So while the extraordinary growth of Cubans accessing the internet in just a few years tells you that the internet is an important part of their lives, it is not used as much as it is elsewhere. It’s a new good and a new service that Cubans appreciate a lot, and especially with the pandemic, the use of the internet has become essential. But you still have a large percentage of the population that does not either have direct access to the internet or does not need to access the internet. Again, not to say that there’s not great cost [to turning the internet off] and a particular communication cost for the protesters for their political goals, but also at a more basic level, just to be in touch with family during a very, very dire time.

More insight from Kimberly Adams

When I was speaking with Isabella Alcañiz , she also gave me some background on the history of the internet in Cuba:

Alcañiz: Cuba started its access to the internet about the same time that most of Latin American countries did, so in the mid-1990s. But whereas it progressed very quickly in other parts of the region, it slowed to a crawl in Cuba. In 2016, so before the current president was elected, Google signed an agreement with the Cuban government, and that kind of triggered a growth of the internet, and especially disaggregating the different ways in which Cubans can access the internet. So until basically 2015, it was all through the government, through Wi-Fi cards that were very expensive. And then in 2018, and this is really the most important piece, cellular data. So mobile internet is allowed. And that was really mostly uncensored.

Here in the U.S., we talked last week about the Department of Defense creating a new contract for its cloud computing needs. The old project used the acronym JEDI (for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure), and we asked you for your ideas for a new acronym.

One listener suggested Local Organizational Knowledge Integration, or LOKI, after the Marvel character and god of mischief. Dean in Pittsburgh went in a different direction all together:

“My suggestion for the new name for their cloud computing is hootenanny. Why? Because it has nothing to do with anything. It’s just a random silly word. Hootenanny. Don’t ask me how to spell it,” he said.

Let us know your ideas for this or any other thing that’s on your mind. Call or text ‪(802) 877-TECH.

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Molly Wood Host
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