The wave of spontaneous protests that rocked Cuba on Sunday was propelled by social media and the proliferation of mobile internet, which Cubans have only had for the past three years. The government responded by leaving the island virtually incommunicado for two days.
To contain the spread of mass demonstrations, authorities cut internet service, along with the fixed phone lines of some activists in the island. The shutdown made it hard for Cubans to organize or to get news of the demonstrations out to the rest of the country.
“We were totally disconnected,” said Alexey Seijo, an evangelical pastor in the colonial city of Camagüey. “There was no way to tell people: Let’s get together at the plaza to shout and demonstrate.”
At about 11 a.m. local time Sunday, hundreds of residents in San Antonio de los Baños, a town some 15 miles south of Havana, took to the streets to protest deteriorating living conditions and the lack of basic goods and medical care during a worsening Covid-19 crisis.
What ensued was unprecedented in more than six decades of Communist rule. As videos and messages spread through smartphones, thousands of Cubans gathered in more than 40 cities and towns demanding freedom.
The government’s response was swift. It deployed secret police, anti-riot forces and Communist Party militants with large sticks to recover control of the streets and detain hundreds of demonstrators in often-violent confrontations.
It also moved to disrupt communications. Shortly after 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, state-run Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA, or Etecsa, the country’s phone and network monopoly, halted internet service.
“There was a complete outage for 30 minutes,” said Doug Madory, head of internet analysis for Kentik, a U.S.-based network-monitoring company. “After the initial outage, service was still quite erratic.”
As of Sunday afternoon, mobile and fixed-line phone service were also selectively cut off, crippling communications and blocking the internet signal from activists’ cellphones. Civil-rights activists say it is an old tactic employed by the regime.
“At least 10 of my friends and co-workers didn’t even have landline phone service,” said Ángel Rodríguez, a human-rights activist who lives in Havana.
Officials at Cuba’s Interior Ministry and at Etecsa couldn’t be reached for comment. Cuban President
blamed the U.S. embargo for the problems in Cuba and for stirring up the strife.
The security crackdown has quelled protests for now, but activists say that they are determined to continue their campaign. The regime must weigh the impact of more internet shutdowns, which could further weaken a struggling economy.
Activists believe that they are winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Cubans who, with the help of social media, appear to have shed their fears of going out to protest. Living conditions are so harsh that many feel they have nothing to lose.
“We are not afraid,” said Amaury Pacheco, a poet and founder of the Movimiento San Isidro, a civil-rights group of dissident artists. The government only had brutal force left, he added.
Police took Mr. Pacheco off a bus as he headed to a protest Sunday. He was taken to a police station and held until the next day. Activists say at least 200 people have been detained by Cuban police. This week, hundreds lined up outside police stations to look for relatives whose whereabouts were unknown.
Cuba’s government had long feared the internet, which Ramiro Valdés, the country’s former secret police chief, famously called a “wild stallion” that had to be tamed. As if to make his point, a video recording posted on social media Wednesday showed Mr. Valdés wearing a military uniform and shielded by burly bodyguards as he was jeered by an angry crowd during a Sunday visit to a town in eastern Cuba.
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“Before the internet, the government controlled the narrative. But the internet became the window to enter when the door didn’t open,” said Yotuel, a renowned rap singer and Cuban dissident who lives outside the island. “The bubble went ‘poof.’ ”
Most mobile instant-messaging platforms remained unfettered until this week, according to the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a group that monitors online censorship. Open Observatory tests showed access to WhatsApp in Cuba interrupted starting on Sunday, followed by Telegram and Signal on Monday.
Etecsa has blocked the webpages of independent news websites for the past two years, said Arturo Filastò, an internet researcher at the Open Observatory. But that censorship tactic, known as address filtering, can unintentionally block a range of other websites that authorities don’t mean to target.
Few Cubans have internet access at home, primarily because Etecsa is the only firm that provides such service and is unable to meet demand and because of cost-prohibitive rates for many Cubans.
Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said the company was concerned about the restrictions of its services in Cuba.
“We oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the internet that limit the debate of our community,” he said in a statement. “We hope connectivity will be fully restored as soon as possible so that Cubans can communicate with family and friends.”
Cubans began to buy wireless data plans for the first time in 2018, after Etecsa upgraded the country’s obsolete wireless infrastructure that year. State-run media reported 6.6 million mobile network users in the country at the end of 2020. But many still go to parks to connect to public Wi-Fi spots.
Cloudflare, another U.S. network tool provider, observed network traffic in Cuba rebounding in recent days, especially over virtual private networks that can be used to evade censorship tools.
Ted Henken, a Cuba analyst at Baruch University, calls the introduction of wireless service a watershed for Cuba’s dissidents. WhatsApp and Facebook Live became the twin engines that facilitated Sunday’s demonstrations.
While some previous protests were the work of disaffected poets and intellectuals, the use of the internet spread the word across class, age and racial lines.
“Those who showed up were the ‘pueblo,”’ said Mr. Henken, author of the just-published book “Cuba’s Digital Revolution,” referring to the “people.”
Internet outages don’t require significant technological sophistication by security agencies seeking to stifle unrest, particularly compared with China’s Great Firewall, an elaborate system of internet censorship and surveillance conducted by thousands of engineers, experts say.
Broad internet outages also imperil the Cuban government’s own surveillance operations, since they are unable to monitor activity in restive areas, said Mr. Madory.
In Florida, home to many Cuban-Americans, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis urged President Biden to help provide internet to Cubans on the island.
“The Cuban people have lost their ability to communicate with one another and many Floridians born in Cuba have no information on the safety of their loved ones,” Mr. DeSantis wrote. “Technology exists to provide internet access into Cuba remotely, using the innovation of American enterprise and the diverse industries here.”
But such an endeavor would require equipment on the ground to get the signal. The government strictly controls imports of such equipment and satellite phones, Mr. Madory said.
“We’re considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access,” Mr. Biden said on Thursday.
Mr. Biden also told reporters that he is considering allowing for more remittances to Cuba and sending Covid-19 vaccines but needs assurances that the Cuban government wouldn’t take advantage of the assistance.
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