Dual transitions are under way in Cuba. The island is slowly opening its economy, and a new crop of younger political leaders, potentially more open to democratic norms, waits in the wings. A third transition, the rise of digital access, is also in an early stage. But it is this third transition that arguably has the most momentum and could significantly accelerate the first two.
Cuba’s digital transition has largely been bottom up. The citizenry’s curiosity and ingenuity have pushed Havana toward permitting greater online access. And as Cubans connect, they increasingly find economic opportunities and venues to share political dialogue, the latter of which is difficult to do in person.
The connectivity also provides more exposure to international pop culture and markets, which Cubans find appealing. This, in turn, increases pressure for political normalization.
Want to access Skype in Cuba? Without a VPN, you’re out of luck. The service is blocked in the country, along with dozens of other websites, according to new report from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), which works under the Tor Project. The study, published this week, shows just how censored Cuba’s internet still is.
Researchers from OONI monitored eight different internet access points in three different Cuban cities (Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Santa Clara) between May 29 and and June 10 of this year. Their findings show that 41 different websites are blocked in the country, including the Cuban Free Press Project and Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization that advocates for greater civil liberties around the world. In total, OONI tested nearly 1,500 different websites in order to see which were restricted.
Rodriguez picks up his phone and takes a look at the screen. His face changes. He goes to the balcony and says a few words. When the call is over, he goes straight into his room. He comes out wearing trousers and a sweater. “Where are you going?” his cousin asks. “I have to go to work, they’ve published an article about Cuba on the internet and it speaks badly about Fidel (Castro),” Rodriguez replies.
Rodriguez isn’t really called Rodriguez and he is an official at the Interior Ministry even though he always dresses as a civilian. He works for a department within this institution which he prefers not to name, but that, according to him, “is dedicated to safeguarding Cuban cyberspace.”
“We don’t attack or hack into accounts on social media or websites, we are only on the lookout to see what is being published about Cuba on the internet.
With a constitutional ban on independent private media, Cuba is unique in Latin America. While the independent media scene is transforming, according to a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a new generation of independent reporters operate in a murky legal environment and under constant threat of arbitrary detentions. They also face major limitations in accessing the internet. A pioneer in this kind of investigative reporting and news commentary is 14ymedio, an online independent daily.
14ymedio’s website is one of those found to be blocked in a report published on 28 August by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI). Using open source (publically available) software, OONI has collected network measures from more than 200 countries across the world. Their aim is to gather facts about how internet censorship is being performed and to assess how the internet works, or doesn’t work, in any given country.
OONI network measurement data, collected from eight vantage points across three Cuban cities between 29th May 2017 to 10th June 2017, confirms the blocking of 41 websites. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which we suspect to be located in Havana, was used to reset connections to those sites and serve (blank) block pages. Only the HTTP version of those sites was blocked, potentially enabling users to circumvent the censorship by merely accessing them over HTTPS.
Most of the blocked sites have one main thing in common: they express criticism towards the Castro regime, directly or indirectly.
The blocked sites include: News outlets and blogs expressing political criticism and covering human rights issues in Cuba; The independent news outlet created by Yoani Sanchez, a prominent Cuban blogger; The Cuban Free Press Project which aims to support journalists and independent writers; etc
Access is another matter. The internet in Cuba remains tightly controlled and, according to the 2017 “Freedom in the World” report, the regime has “cracked down” on “diverse independent digital media” and often blocks “critical blogs and websites.”
The report noted some of the creative ways that Cubans get around Etecsa’s blocking, including the use of virtual private networks. But that doesn’t work when Google is blocking access.
Rosa María Payá is the daughter of the late award-winning Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá. He was killed, most likely by the regime, in a suspicious 2012 car crash. In 2015 Ms. Payá launched Cuba Decide, a project calling for a national plebiscite to ask Cubans if they want free elections and free speech. In the Miami Herald in March, Cuban-exile writer Jose Azel called the project “a strategic tool” to “spotlight . . . the people’s prerogative . . . to decide their form of government.” Yet Cubans cannot access the Cuba Decide website, and Google is to blame.
For decades, Cuba has been shielded from the digital revolution that has spread around the world. But that is changing. This new Bertelsmann Foundation film dives into the stories behind the statistics.
What are the drivers of change in Cuba? How has the Cuban government managed this evolution? And what is the impact for a country slowly finding its way online?
Shot on location in Cuba, this film by Samuel George captures a critical moment for a country in transition.
This video is part of the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Disrupting Democracy initiative, a global project managed by Trans-Atlantic Director Anthony Silberfeld that investigates how digital technology is changing our world. The initiative will culminate with the release of a multi-case study publication (US, Germany, India, Israel and Cuba) in Washington, DC on September 28.