The Cuban protests were supported by the Internet. Then the state pulled the plug

The wave of spontaneous protests that rocked Cuba on Sunday was driven by social media and the spread of mobile internet, which Cubans have only witnessed for the past three years. The government responded by leaving the island virtually incommunicado for two days.

To contain the spread of mass demonstrations, the authorities cut off the internet, along with the fixed phone lines of some activists on the island. The closure made it difficult for Cubans to organize or report the demonstrations to the rest of the country.

“We were completely separated,” said Alexei Sego, an evangelical priest in the colonial city of Camaguey. “There was no way to tell the people: Let’s gather in the square to shout and demonstrate.”

At around 11 a.m. local time on Sunday, hundreds of residents in San Antonio de los Baños, a town 15 miles south of Havana, took to the streets to protest deteriorating living conditions and a lack of basic goods and medical care during the COVID-19 crisis.

What followed 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 to demand freedom.

The government’s response was swift. Secret police, riot police and Communist Party fighters deployed with large sticks to regain control of the streets and arrest hundreds of protesters in often violent confrontations.

People chanted anti-government slogans during a demonstration in Havana on Sunday.


Photo:

Alexandre Menegheny/Reuters

It also moved to disable communications. Shortly after 4pm local time on Sunday, Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA, or Etecsa, the country’s telephone and network monopoly, shut down its internet.

“There was a complete 30-minute outage,” said Doug Madhuri, head of internet analysis at US network monitoring company Kentik. “After the initial outage, the service was still quite erratic.”

As of Sunday afternoon, mobile and fixed-line service were also selectively cut, paralyzing communications and blocking the internet signal from activists’ mobile phones. Civil rights activists say it is an old tactic used by the regime.

“At least 10 of my friends and co-workers didn’t even have landline phone service,” said Angel Rodriguez, a human rights activist who lives in Havana.

Videos show thousands of Cubans protesting food and drug shortages in a rare display of anti-government dissent. José de Córdoba of the WSJ explains how the slight increase in Covid-19 cases and the slow release of the vaccine are adding to the economic crisis on the island. Photo: Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images

Officials at the Cuban Ministry of the Interior and Etecsa could not be reached for comment. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel blamed the US embargo for the problems in Cuba and for provoking the conflict.

The security crackdown has quelled the protests for now, but activists say they are determined to continue their campaign. The system must weigh the impact of more internet shutdowns, which could further weaken the faltering economy.

Activists believe they are winning the hearts and minds of ordinary Cubans who, with the help of social media, seem to have shaken off their fears of going out to protest. The living conditions are so harsh that many feel they have nothing to lose.

“We are not afraid,” said Amaury Pacheco, poet and founder of Movimiento San Isidro, a civil rights group for dissident artists. He added that the government was left with nothing but brute force.

Many Cubans are getting Wi-Fi at public parks like this one in Havana, taken on Wednesday, due to limited access to homes.


Photo:

Alexandre Menegheny/Reuters

Police took Mr. Pacheco off a bus as he was heading to Sunday’s demonstration. He was taken to a police station and held until the next day. Activists say Cuban police have arrested at least 200 people. This week, hundreds lined up outside police stations to search for relatives whose whereabouts were unknown.

The Cuban government has long feared the internet, which Ramiro Valdes, the country’s former secret police chief, famously called the “wild stallion” that had to be tamed. As if to make his point, a video posted on social media on Wednesday showed Mr. Valdes in military fatigues and obscured by burly bodyguards as an angry mob shouted at him during a Sunday visit to a town in eastern Cuba.

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Before the internet, the government controlled the narrative. “The Internet became a window to enter when the door did not open,” said Yutwill, a famous Cuban rapper and dissident who lives off the island. “The bubble went ‘Poof.’”

Most mobile instant messaging platforms have remained unfettered until this week, according to the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a group that monitors Internet censorship. Open Observatory tests showed that access to WhatsApp in Cuba was halted starting Sunday, and Telegram and Signal followed suit on Monday.

Arturo Velasto, an Internet researcher at the Open Observatory, said Etecsa has been blocking web pages of independent news sites for the past two years. But this censorship technique, known as address filtering, can inadvertently block a host of other websites that authorities don’t intend to target.

Police trucks were parked outside the National Capitol in Havana on Wednesday.


Photo:

Eliana Aponte/The Associated Press

Few of Cubans have access to the Internet at home, mainly because Etecsa is the only company that provides such a service and is unable to meet the demand and because of the prohibitively expensive prices for many Cubans.

Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said the company is concerned about restrictions on its services in Cuba.

“We oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other internet disruptions that limit discussion in our community,” he said in a statement. “We hope that contact will be fully restored as soon as possible so that Cubans can communicate with family and friends.”

Cubans first started buying wireless data plans in 2018, after Etecsa upgraded the country’s aging 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 sites.

Cloudflare, another provider of networking tools in the United States, has noticed network traffic in Cuba is picking up in recent days, especially via VPNs that can be used to evade censorship.

Ted Henken, a Cuban analyst at Baruch University, described the introduction of wireless service as a turning point for Cuban dissidents. WhatsApp and Facebook Live became the twin engines that facilitated Sunday’s demonstrations.

While some of the earlier protests were the work of disaffected poets and intellectuals, the use of the Internet spread the word across class, age, and ethnic lines.

“Those who attended were the ‘pueblo,’” said Mr. Henken, author of the just-published book titled “Cuba’s Digital Revolution,” referring to the “people.”

Network traffic has rebounded in Cuba in recent days. People use their cell phones near the Malecón seawall in Havana on Tuesday.


Photo:

Eliana Aponte/The Associated Press

Experts say the internet outage does not require major technological sophistication by security agencies that seek to stifle the unrest, especially compared to China’s Great Firewall, a sophisticated system of internet censorship and surveillance run by thousands of engineers.

Mr. Maduri said that widespread internet outages threaten the Cuban government’s surveillance operations, as it is unable to monitor activity in volatile areas.

In Florida, home to many Cuban Americans, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis urged President Biden to help provide Internet for the island’s Cubans.

“The Cuban people have lost their ability to communicate with each other and many Cuban-born Florida residents have no information about the safety of their loved ones,” wrote Mr. DeSantis. “The technology exists to provide access to the Internet in Cuba remotely, using the innovation of American companies and industries here as diverse.”

But such an endeavor would require equipment on the ground to get the signal. Madhuri said the government has strict control over imports of this equipment and satellite phones.

“We are looking at whether we have the technological capacity to restore that access,” Biden said Thursday.

Biden also told reporters that he is considering allowing more transfers to Cuba and sending Covid-19 vaccines but needs assurances that the Cuban government will not benefit from the aid.

write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com, Santiago Perez at santiago.perez@wsj.com and Drew Fitzgerald at andrew.fitzgerald@wsj.com

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