Cuba’s internet cutoff: The go-to tactic for global despots

Cubans facing the country’s worst economic crisis in decades took to the streets over the weekend. In turn, authorities blocked social media sites in an apparent effort to stop the flow of information into, out of and within the beleaguered nation.

Restricting internet access has become a tried-and-true method of stifling dissent by authoritarian regimes around the world, alongside government-supported disinformation campaigns and propaganda. On the extreme side, regimes like China and North Korea exert tight control over what regular citizens can access online. Elsewhere, service blockages are more limited, often cutting off common social platforms around elections and times of mass protests.

On Monday, Cuban authorities were blocking Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram, said Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, a London-based nonprofit internet monitoring group. “This does seem to be a response to social media-fueled protest,” he said. Twitter did not appear to be blocked, though Toker noted Cuba has the ability to cut it off if it wants to.

Toker noted that while the recent easing of access by Cuban authorities to the internet has increased social media activity, the level of censorship has also risen. Not only does the cutoff block out external voices, he said, it also squelches “the internal voice of the population that wanted to speak out.”

Internet access in Cuba has historically been expensive and relatively rare, according to rights groups. The Cuban government restricts independent media in Cuba and “routinely blocks access within Cuba to many news websites and blogs,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis in decades, along with a resurgence of coronavirus cases, as it suffers the consequences of U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

The protests now, the largest in decades, are “absolutely and definitely fueled by increased access to internet and smartphones in Cuba,” said Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. “One of the phrases that dissidents are using now in Cuba is ‘we are connected.’”

He said that phrase has a double meaning. It not only refers to how people are connected through phones and internet access despite the government’s attempts to curtail that, but also to being “connected as a human mass of people” who are angry at the regime and want freedom.

“Yesterday evening we had people calling from Cuba to relatives here in Miami trying to figure out what was going on in the next province,” Arcos said. But he noted that Cubans are also using a number of tricks to bypass government control.

Government internet shutdowns after or ahead of protests have become commonplace, whether lasting for a few hours or stretching for months. In Ethiopia, there was a three-week shutdown in July 2020 after civil unrest. The internet blackout in the Tigray region has stretched on for months. In Belarus, the internet went down for more than two days after an August 2020 election seen as rigged sparked mass protests. Mobile internet service repeatedly went down during weekend protests for months afterwards.

A decade ago during the Arab Spring, when social media was still in its early years and Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the Middle East faced bloody uprisings that were broadcast on social media, headlines declared the movements “Twitter Revolutions” and experts debated about just how important a role social media played in the events. Ten years later, there is no question that social media and private chat platforms have become an essential organizing tool. Restricting them, in turn, is a routine tool for suppressing dissent.

On Sunday, all of Cuba went offline for less than 30 minutes, after which there were several hours of intermittent but large outages, said Doug Madory of Kentik, a network management company.

He said large internet outages were very rare in Cuba until very recently.

“There was an outage in January was just for mobile service following the “27N” protests,” Madory said, referring to the movement of Cuban artists, journalists and other members of civil society who marched to the Ministry of Culture on Nov. 27, 2020, demanding freedom and democracy.


AP Technology Writer Matt O’Brien contributed.