From Cuba, with VPN

Protests in Havana, Cuba, on July 11, 2021 Photo: Periodismo de Barrio.

This story was originally written by Geisy Guia Delis for the Cuban media site Periodismo de Barrio and was edited by Global Voices.

I was able to see the first video on Twitter on Sunday morning, July 11, at 11 o'clock: a group of 20 people banging on pans in the middle of a nighttime power blackout, in a place that looked like Holguín. The video lasted only 10 seconds, but I played it several times. Shortly after, live transmissions of hundreds of people in the streets of San Antonio de los Baños, Artemisa province, went viral on Facebook. The cries of “Freedom!”, “We are not afraid!” and “Down with the dictatorship!” were as shocking as they were implausible. I needed some time to convince myself that all this was real.

On July 11, thousands of Cubans across the island joined the largest protests in decades against Cuba's communist government, during which dozens of people were arrested. They protested the lack of food and medicine as the country faces a severe economic crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. embargo.

I realized what was happening and immediately thought that in a few minutes the internet service in Cuba, or at least in San Antonio de los Baños, would be interrupted. This is now an automatic train of thought. Everyone on the island knows what the protocol is because we learned our lesson on November 26, 2020, when the Ministry of the Interior and the only telephone service provider in Cuba, ETECSA, disabled internet access so that state security agents, dressed as medical personnel, could break into Damas 955, the residence of Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and headquarters of the San Isidro Movement.

The video of the protests in San Antonio de los Baños remained online long enough to be seen in all provinces of the country. Just when the “gunpowder” was spreading to Palma Soriano, Santiago de Cuba, the first problems with WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram started to be reported. Some users on Twitter also began to denounce the service failure. Several people, who could stay online longer through VPN, managed to upload images of Havana's Malecon, San Rafael Boulevard, Bauta and Güines—places overflowing with people shouting “Motherland and life!”

It is speculated in some discussion groups of Cuban programers and developers that ETECSA divides its users into “farms,” for which it creates different content distribution and delivery systems. This allows the testing of new functionalities, but it also enables the company to shut down the service in batches. This may explain why the same VPN, for example, works for some users and not for others, even if they live in the same house.

Although a few users have been able to access the Internet through the home internet service Nauta Hogar and others have been able to get online using the wifi hotspots, most Cubans could not access the internet via mobile data 48 hours later. Several people in the private sector reported that they could barely work because of this measure.

And if you call ETECSA's hotline, they will tell you that the service is down.

The people who were rallying and organizing through social networks have been disconnected. And don't be naïve: that is precisely what the authorities are after to stop the spread of the protests. However, limiting internet rights has a direct impact on the loss of other civil rights, much more so in authoritarian regimes.

According to OpenObservatory, a website dedicated to monitoring internet censorship, there is evidence that Cuba blocked WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal in response to the protests. Likewise, DougMadory, director of Internet analytics at Kentikinic, reported yesterday afternoon that, due to the anti-government demonstrations in Cuba, data and Internet traffic—to and from the island—dropped to zero around 4:05 p.m. local time.

In a radio program, Cuban journalist Arleen Rodriguez Derivet, confirms the existence of firewalls on social networks, supposedly to cut off hate speech.

In June 2011, the United Nations adopted the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and the Internet, in which it was agreed that states should “Promote universal access to the Internet to promote respect for other rights, such as the rights to education, health care and work.”

Similarly, it is specified that there is no reason to justify the suspension of internet access, either to the whole population or segments of the public, not even for reasons of public order or national security.

During an appearance on July 12, President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez lashed out on national television against social networks and some media, blaming them for promoting a “soft coup” against the Revolution.

While protests continue to be reported from various locations, Cubans are waiting for the service they pay for with their own salaries, or that their relatives pay for from abroad, to resume. In these days when a smile on the other side of the screen is so valuable, the Cuban government has opted for more isolation.

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