Faced with rare protests, Cuba curbs social media access, watchdog says

by Reuters
Wednesday, 14 July 2021 03:04 GMT

Cubans make a sign of freedom with their hands during a protest against the Cuban government in front of the offices of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico July 12, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Image Caption and Rights Information

Social media platforms are facing increased demands from governments globally to take down certain content, and are seeing services restricted or banned during protests

* Access to Facebook, WhatsApp, others is restricted -NetBlocks

* Sunday protests have largely died down

* Dozens still detained - rights group (Adds Facebook comment)

By Sarah Marsh and Elizabeth Culliford

HAVANA, July 13 (Reuters) - Cuba has restricted access to social media and messaging platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp, global internet monitoring firm NetBlocks said on Tuesday, in the wake of the biggest anti-government protests in decades.

Thousands of Cubans joined demonstrations throughout the Communist-run country on Sunday to protest https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/cubas-president-blames-discontent-us-sanctions-2021-07-12 against a deep economic crisis that has seen shortages of basic goods and power outages. They were also protesting against the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and curbs on civil liberties.

Cuba's government has said the demonstrations were orchestrated by counter-revolutionaries financed by the United States, manipulating frustration with an economic crisis largely caused by the decades-old U.S. trade embargo.

The protests, rare in a country where public dissent is tightly controlled, had largely ended by Sunday evening, as security forces were deployed to the streets and President Miguel Diaz-Canel called on government supporters to go out and fight to defend their revolution.

But another protest flared late Monday in the southern Havana suburb of La Guinera, where one man died and several others, including members of the security forces, were hospitalized with injuries, according to state-run media on Tuesday.

It did not say what caused the death. No other deaths and injuries have been officially confirmed so far.

Hundreds had taken to streets in La Guinera, shouting slogans like 'down with communism,' and 'freedom for the people of Cuba,' according to two residents and video footage seen by Reuters. Some started throwing rocks at security forces who eventually responded with gunfire, said resident Waldo Herrera, 49.

"I think the Communists have lost control, they won't have a solution to this situation," he said. "The people are tired of so much humiliation, so much repression."

A Reuters witness saw dozens of people carrying sticks departing La Guinera late on Monday.

Activists say the government is using so-called rapid-reaction brigades - government-organized bands of civilian recruits - to counter protesters.

MOBILE INTERNET OUTAGES

They also accuse the government of trying to disrupt communications. Introduced just over two years ago, mobile internet has been a key factor behind the protests, giving Cubans more of a platform to express their frustrations and enabling the word to get out quickly when people are on the street.

In the capital, there have been regular and atypical mobile internet outages since Sunday, according to Reuters witnesses.

NetBlocks, based in London, said on its website that Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram in Cuba were partially disrupted on Monday and Tuesday.

"The pattern of restrictions observed in Cuba indicate an ongoing crackdown on messaging platforms used to organize and share news of protests in real-time," said NetBlocks director Alp Toker. "At the same time, some connectivity is preserved to maintain a semblance of normality."

Facebook Inc, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said that it was concerned about its services being restricted in Cuba, in a statement to Reuters late on Tuesday.

"We oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions of the internet that limit the debate of our community. We hope connectivity will be restored as soon as possible so that Cubans can communicate with family and friends," said Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson.

Asked whether the government was intentionally restricting internet connections, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told a news briefing the situation was "complicated." He said power outages could impact telecommunications services and "Cuba would never renounce the right to defend itself."

Telegram did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Twitter Inc said it found no blocking of its service.

"Our weapon is the internet. If they take away the internet we are unarmed," said Havana resident Gino Ocumares, as he tried but failed to connect to the web at a government Wi-Fi hotspot. "The government does not want people to see the truth."

'PROVOCATIONS'

The protest in La Guinera was spearheaded by "antisocial and criminal elements" that had tried to reach the police station with the aim of attacking its officials and damaging infrastructure, said the state-run Cuban News Agency.

When security forces stopped them, they vandalized homes, set containers on fire, and damaged the suburb's electricity wiring, attacking officials with stones and other objects, the agency said.

State-run media also reported on Tuesday that Raul Castro, who stepped down as head of the ruling Cuban Communist Party in April, attended a meeting on Sunday of the political bureau to address the "provocations."

Diaz-Canel said in April he would continue to consult Castro on matters of utmost importance.

The Cuban Bishops Conference said in a statement it was worried that the response to protests over legitimate concerns would be "immobilism" rather than an attempt to resolve them, and even a counterproductive hardening of positions.

Reaction to the protest in Latin America split along ideological lines, with Mexico's president blaming the U.S. embargo for fomenting the unrest, while Chile and Peru urged the government to allow pro-democracy protests.

U.S. President Joe Biden said on Monday that the United States "stands firmly with the people of Cuba as they assert their universal rights."

State Department spokesman Ned Price called on the Havana government to open all means of communication, both online and offline.

"Shutting down technology, shutting down information pathways - that does nothing to address the legitimate needs and aspirations of the Cuban people," Price told a news briefing on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta and Reuters TV in Havana, Simon Lewis in Washington and Sheila Dang in New York, Juby Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O'Brien)