One month after protests broke out across Cuba, the island’s Communist government has released a new set of internet and social media regulations specifically aimed at cracking down on anti-government activity.
The Cuban government released the new regulations on Tuesday, forbidding internet content that is critical of the state’s policies, specifically on “constitutional, social and economic” matters, as well as content that could incite actions “that alter public order.” In addition, Cubans are now encouraged to report any content violating the new regulations, using a government-created form.
Penalties for violating the new internet use decrees will be determined by legislation at a later date.
Why such a crackdown on internet content? It’s because social media was essential to the widespread — and unprecedented — nature of the protests.
In July, thousands of Cubans took to the streets across 40 different cities to protest the Communist government. Protests – especially to this scale – simply have not happened before in Cuba. After taking control of the country in 1959, the Communist government has effectively squashed any citizen uprising before it got out-of-hand. This time was different, and it was thanks to internet access.
Internet is relatively new to Cuba. While much of the world was launching into the worldwide web in the 1990s and early 2000s, Cubans have only begun to access the internet within the past ten years. Even then, it’s been a slow rollout.
During the mid 2000’s, a select few were granted limited access to the internet from their home. This connection was only offered to a small number of professionals like doctors, journalists and artists….
By the end of 2010, it was estimated that only about 200,000 Cubans had access to the internet, a tiny figure in relation to the 10+ million population of the country at the time.Jack McCloughlin, “Internet In Cuba: A Brief History & Connecting Today” at Ding
In 2014, the state began installing wifi across the country through the state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA. It was only in December 2018 that Cuba obtained 3G connectivity, then upgraded to 4G in 2019. Unfortunately, due to high costs and low wages, “having 3G access isn’t possible for many.” Still, it is estimated that 2.5 million Cubans have 3G connectivity, and more than 4 million have internet access.
The Wall Street Journal reports that where previous unrest was often limited to artists and intellectuals, social media broke down barriers between class, age, and race to gather thousands in unified demonstrations against the state.
Writes Dustin Carmack at The Heritage Foundation:
Sebastian Arcos, an associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, notes that the recent protests are “absolutely and definitely fueled by increased access to internet and smartphones in Cuba.” He added, “One of the phrases that dissidents are using now in Cuba is ‘we are connected.'” The regime moved quickly to restrict the protesters’ ability to communicate by restricting access to the internet, social media, and messaging platforms. This makes it difficult for dissidents to organize and coordinate, thereby suppressing street action as well as verbal dissent.Dustin Carmack, “Help Cubans Access the Internet” at Heritage.org
The state reacted immediately and with a heavy hand. The military was mobilized to quell the demonstrations (often with violence), and internet service was halted.
“Kentik, a US-based network monitoring company, reported countrywide internet outages July 11,” reported WSJ. “Mobile and fixed-line phone service was also selectively cut off, crippling communications and blocking the internet signal from activists’ cellphones, activists said.”
Within days of protests beginning and internet being shut off, President Biden said that his administration would consider ways that America could restore internet access to Cubans. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis suggested a very specific way the Biden administration could go about this: high-altitude internet balloons.
It might sound crazy, but just such technology exists. It’s called Loon, run by Google’s parent company Alphabet. It was shut down in January, but successfully provided internet to mountainous terrain in Kenya and following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico — all from 75,000 feet above the Earth’s surface.
While no official reports have been released, activists claim that hundreds of Cubans were arrested. Trials have already begun:
Cuban authorities began summary trials and sentencing of demonstrators they accuse of taking part in acts of violence and vandalism. The trials are being held behind closed doors, and few defendants have defense attorneys present, activists and relatives of defendants said.
A number of peaceful protesters have already been sentenced to one-year prison terms on charges of disobedience and disorderly conduct, the maximum term for minor offenses, according to activist lawyers in Cuba. Others have been released from prison and placed under house arrest for the duration of their sentences, the lawyers say. Others face more serious charges such as attacking police officers, looting, or destroying government property.Anthony Harrup and Santiago Pérez, “What Is Happening in Cuba? The Protests Against the Communist Regime” at Wall Street Journal