Cuba

Cuba

Not Free
22
100
A Obstacles to Access 5 25
B Limits on Content 10 35
C Violations of User Rights 7 40
Last Year's Score & Status
21 100 Not Free

Overview

Cuba has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, and while the government in recent years has significantly improved technical infrastructure, regular internet access is extremely expensive, connections are poor, and authorities both monitor usage and work to direct traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The backbone structure of the internet in Cuba is entirely controlled by the state, and authorities have the capability and the legal mandate to restrict connectivity at will. Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, and as a result self-censorship is pervasive among online journalists and ordinary internet users. Nevertheless, independent digital media sites continue to grow and innovate, even as they are subject to blocking and their journalists and activists to harassment and criminal prosecution. Moreover, Cubans continue to circumvent government censorship through grassroots innovations like El Paquete Semanal (the Weekly Package) and its derivative products, in which USB flash drives and data discs are used to distribute media.

Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite new leadership in 2018, a process of diplomatic “normalization” with Washington, which has stalled in recent years, and a new constitution that was approved in a February 2019 referendum.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • Digital journalists continued to face systematic harassment and periodic detention under the new administration of President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took office in April 2018 (see C3).

  • The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA), the state-run telecommunications monopoly, blocked text messages urging citizens to vote against approval of Cuba’s new constitution in the months leading up to a February 2019 referendum. It additionally blocked several independent digital sites critical of the regime during the referendum itself (see B1).

  • In December 2018, ETECSA launched 3G mobile service for the Cuban public. Demand quickly outstripped technical capacity, making the service slow and unreliable, and ETECSA consequently faced criticism on social media networks. Many internet users also complained about the high cost of accessing 3G service, which remains out of reach for the majority of Cubans (see A1B8).

  • The Associated Press reported in June 2018 that authorities had quietly approved a measure allowing greater autonomy to official journalists, a move that seems to have arisen in part from the government’s desire for official journalists to more successfully compete with the island’s small community of independent outlets (see B5).

  • Díaz-Canel began using Twitter in October 2018 as means of defending the Revolution, and explaining his administration’s policies to the public (see B8). 

  • In May 2019, Cuba announced it would legalize access to ETECSA’s public Wi-Fi hotspots from homes and small businesses, with the new regulations expected to take effect in July 2019 (see A1).

  • The government deepened a previously established partnership with Google. Under agreements signed during the coverage period, Google is expected to cooperate with several state-run institutions, and begin negotiations and technical discussions aimed at directly connecting Cuba to its networks. Known as a “peering” agreement, this connection would be cost-free and presumably facilitated by an undersea fiber-optic cable (see A1).

A Obstacles to Access

Access to the global internet in Cuba is extremely restricted by Cuban authorities, who control the backbone structure of the internet and have the capability and the legal mandate to restrict connectivity at will. Penetration rates and internet speeds continue to lag behind regional averages. Nevertheless, some openings have taken place over the past years as the government improves technical infrastructure. 3G service was introduced in late 2018, though demand quickly outstripped technical capacity, making the service slow and unreliable—in addition to very expensive.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 26

While Cuba’s internet penetration rate remains relatively low, the government has taken steps over the last five years to improve infrastructure and increase access. The penetration rate reached 49.10 percent in 2017, according to the most recent figures from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—up from 42.98 percent in 2016, and 37.31 percent in 2015.1 However, these figures likely include users who can only access the government-controlled intranet on an irregular basis, such as from school or work.2 Moreover, most Cubans access the internet through extremely slow connections.3

In December 2018, following a series of fitful trial periods in which authorities tested its demand and performance,4 Cuba rolled out 3G mobile service. The development marked the most important measure to date aimed at increasing internet access for the general population, and despite widespread complaints about its high cost and slow and unreliable service, it quickly became the most popular alternative to previously available internet-access services.5 At the time of the launch, ETECSA had 3G-enabled 789 of its roughly 1,800 mobile radio bases, covering 66 percent of the island’s population.6 At the end of January 2019, ETECSA had 5.3 million mobile users, 35 percent (1.8 million) of whom used the internet, and the agency is adding thousands of new data customers per day.7 However, there are still over 1,000 radio base stations not equipped to provide 3G service, leaving 34 percent of the population out of 3G range—and Cuba still has the lowest mobile-phone penetration rate in Latin America.8 Moreover, demand for 3G service has far outstripped capacity, degrading the quality and speed of service for users at peak daytime hours.9 A major tornado also ravaged parts of the capital city in January 2019, disrupting service.

In March 2019, Cuba announced that it was conducting trials of 4G LTE mobile access along the north coast, from Mariel through Havana to Varadero, for select high-usage customers who were able to obtain one of the coveted special USIM chips sold by ETECSA that enable the higher quality service. Limited supplies of the chips led to their being quickly sold out at ETECSA retail spots.10

The rollout of 3G service capped a 5-year period that has seen the introduction of a variety of public access initiatives. These include the establishment of a fiber-optic cable that citizens since 2013 have been able to access at government-run telepuntos, or navigation halls. The president of ETECSA reported that there were some 670 navigation halls at the end of 2018.11 Authorities have also expanded the number of Wi-Fi hotspots, with ETECSA listing close to 1,000 as of March 2019.12

Home-based DSL internet access (known as Nauta Hogar) has been available since late 2016; it began with less than 2,000 customers in Old Havana, but as of January 2019, ETECSA counts 70,400 subscribers to the service, connecting from 115 of Cuba’s 168 municipalities.13

Devices that use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology or satellite connections are explicitly prohibited by Cuban customs regulations.14 Additional restrictions are placed on modems, wireless faxes, and satellite dishes, which require special permits to enter the country.15 However, in May 2019, Cuba announced that it would legalize router imports as well as private permits to access to ETECSA’s public Wi-Fi hotspots from homes and small businesses, though larger local area networks such as Havana’s SNET, a local private network, remain illegal. (The new regulations took effect in July 2019, after the coverage period of this survey.16)

Restrictions on equipment have not completely stopped the entry of various devices into Cuba. NanoStations and other similar technologies allow users to amplify and share Wi-Fi signals from ETECSA hotspots; such technologies allowed many Cubans to gain home or office access to the internet.17

Moreover, GPS use has grown despite its prohibition, and given the fact that most modern cell phones and other electronic devices are already GPS enabled, efforts to control the spread of GPS use among the Cuban population are futile. There is additionally a booming black market in pre-owned GPS devices, fueled both by departing diplomats and business personnel who were legally authorized to purchase them, as well as professional mules who specialize in importing hard-to-get consumer goods. On the demand side, taxi drivers, cyclists, and even potential rafters seeking to flee the country seek out the devices and are willing to pay top dollar for them.18

Since 2014, Cuban authorities have worked to develop relationships with US information and communication technologies (ICT) companies including Verizon, Google, and Sprint, which offer some services to the island, and such efforts continued during the survey period.19 In October 2018, on the occasion of his first state visit to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, President Díaz-Canel met with representatives of a dozen US-based tech companies to discuss their possible collaboration in the “computerization” of Cuban society.20 On the heels of this visit, President Díaz-Canel announced that four key Cuban institutions had signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with Google. While the announcement did not include any details on the content of the MOUs, knowledgeable analysts have speculated that Google may offer coding training, hosting services, and high-speed connectivity for Cuba’s medical network, as well as for the Ministry of Culture.21 In March 2019, Google and Cuba made the joint announcement that they had signed a new MOU aimed at beginning negotiations and technical discussions toward “a service agreement for the exchange of internet traffic” in the form of a “peering” agreement that would directly connect their networks, cost-free, via an undersea fiber-optic cable.22

Separately, as part of the state visit of Spanish President Pedro Sánchez in November 2018, the Spanish telecom giant Telefónica reportedly made an offer to the Cuban government aimed at connecting the island to its own network of undersea cables.23

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 03

Despite price cuts and occasional promotions, the cost of mobile and internet service is still very high for the majority of Cubans. Although most foreign websites are now available at state-run access sites, the cost of accessing non-Cuban sites remains higher than the cost of accessing domestic ones. Cuban internet users may still opt to connect at low or no cost via state institutions where they work or study. However, this choice also comes at a cost since these connections are more likely to feature the censorship of certain websites and services.1

With an average monthly salary of 30 Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs), or $30, the majority of Cubans are unable to afford access to the 3G mobile service introduced in late 2018. Additionally, many potential customers would have to upgrade their 2G phones before being able to access the new network through paid plans. At the time of the launch of 3G, customers could opt either for pay-as-you-go access at a rate of 10 cents per megabyte for access to the global web, or 2 cents per megabyte for access to Cuba’s national intranet only,2 or they could sign up for a monthly service plan at one of the following four rate packages: 7 CUCs for 600 MB, 10 CUCs for 1 GB, 20 CUCs for 2.5 GBs, or 30 CUCs for 4 GBs. ETECSA also offered additional data bonuses of 300 MG to access national websites, a strategy reflecting authorities’ continued desire to promote local content over increasingly popular, foreign-based social media platforms and international news sites.3

While the government has cut prices repeatedly in recent years, the hourly cost of accessing the internet at state-run cybercafés remains high. In 2017, it cost 1 CUC per hour of access, though users could pay a much lower rate of 0.10 CUC for access to the “intranet,” or domestic websites only.4

Of the 27,000 customers already connected to Nauta Hogar in 2018, 95 percent opted for the slowest speed of 1 mbps, at the lowest monthly cost of 15 CUC for 30 hours.5 In October 2018, ETECSA announced that it would offer deeply discounted home access rates to customers in Cuba’s most isolated rural areas. Such customers would be offered 30 hours of digital subscriber line (DSL) access at 512/256 Kbps at 5 CUCs.6

Since January 2014, friends and relatives living abroad can use an online service to pay the phone bills and Nauta internet accounts of users living on the island, and this service has since added options to pay for the home access program and 3G mobile plans.7 The overall strategy seems to be intended to raise funds by convincing Cuban exiles to pay for internet service for their relatives in Cuba.

To overcome access limitations, some Cubans have improvised underground networks. Inventive strategies include an island-wide off-line “packet” digital data distribution network (dubbed the “sneaker-net”), a series of local area networks or SNETs linking up thousands of users in urban areas, and the use of various signal amplification devices such as NanoStations to share or sell Wi-Fi signals.8 Two popular apps that aid Cubans in sharing digital data are Zapya, which allows for easy wireless sharing of data across two or more devices, and Connectify, which allows users to share a Wi-Fi internet signal with others. Another popular app called Psiphon allows users to create a virtual private network (VPN) that simultaneously protects their anonymity and allows them to connect from a Nauta Wi-Fi hotspot to blocked sites in Cuba such as Cubanet, 14ymedio, or Diario de Cuba.9 Likewise, the app Aurora Suite allows Cuban users to access websites, including blocked ones, by using Nauta’s email interface, thus requiring neither a data plan nor an active connection to a Wi-Fi hotspot.10 The underground economy of internet access also includes account sharing, in which authorized users illegally sell access to those without an official account for between 1 and 2 CUC per hour.

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 36

The backbone structure of the internet in Cuba is entirely controlled by the government, and state authorities have the capability and the legal mandate to restrict connectivity at will. At times of heightened political sensitivity, the government has used its complete control of the cell phone network to selectively obstruct citizens’ communications.

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 06

The ICT sector remains dominated by government firms. Cuba's monopoly telecommunication service provider ETECSA is owned by the state.1 Cubacel, a subsidiary of ETECSA, is the only mobile phone carrier.

In 2013, ETECSA announced that it would allow private workers to market local and long-distance telephone services to the population as self-employed communications agents. The agents may also sell prepaid cards for fixed and mobile telephone services and internet access.2

  • 1. The private firm Telecom Italia previously held shares of ETECSA until February 2011, when the state-owned company Rafin S.A., a financial firm known for its connections to the military, bought Telecom Italia’s 27 percent stake for US$706 million. Since then, the telecom company has been completely owned by six Cuban state entities, see: Jerrold Colten, “Telecom Italia Sells Etecsa Stake to Rafin SA For $706 Million,” Bloomberg Business, January 31, 2011, http://bloom.bg/1YFxlyo.
  • 2. “Communication agents will see telephone and Internet time,” The Internet in Cuba, November 27, 2013, http://laredcubana.blogspot.com/2013/11/communication-agents-will-sell….

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 04

No independent regulatory body for managing the ICT sector exists in Cuba. In 2000, the Ministry of Informatics and Communication (MIC) was created to serve as the regulatory authority for the internet. Within the MIC, the Cuban Supervision and Control Agency oversees the development of internet-related technologies.1

B Limits on Content

Cuban law places strict limits on free speech and outlaws independent media. Although many foreign news websites are accessible, websites focused on Cuban news and websites run by Cuban dissidents are often blocked. In 2019, authorities blocked several independent outlets in the run-up to a 2019 constitutional referendum, and interfered with the delivery of text messages urging citizens to vote down the new charter. Despite connectivity limitations, Cubans have been able to access content through improvisational underground networks and USB flash drives containing content downloaded from the internet. The Associated Press reported in June 2018 that authorities had quietly approved a measure allowing greater autonomy to official journalists, a move that seems to have arisen in part from the government’s desire for official journalists to more successfully compete with the island’s small community of independent outlets.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 36

Rather than relying on the technically sophisticated filtering and blocking used by other repressive regimes, the Cuban government continues to limit users’ access to information primarily by making technology unavailable and by imposing prohibitive costs for access. Social-networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter may be accessed—with consistent monitoring and varying reliability—from Wi-Fi hotspots, some cybercafés, hotels, and, since late 2018, via 3G mobile service. Skype has been blocked in the past, but alternative apps such as IMO, Facebook Messenger, and especially WhatsApp, have become a popular way to send direct messages and video chat with contacts abroad.1

The websites of foreign news outlets—including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), El País, the Financial Times, and El Nuevo Herald (a Miami-based Spanish-language daily with ample coverage of Cuba)—are accessible in Cuba. However, ETECSA commonly blocks dissident or independent news outlets and the sites of Cuban activists and dissident organizations. On February 24, 2019, the day of a much-anticipated constitutional referendum, five leading independent Cuban news sites—14ymedio, Tremenda Nota, Cibercuba, Diario de Cuba, and Cubanet—reported that their pages were inaccessible on the island. The blocking appeared to be a tactic to silence calls from the opposition to abstain from voting, or to vote against the new charter.2 Analysts at the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) found that while ETECSA had mainly blocked the HTTP versions of sites in the past, it had since “changed its censorship techniques, blocking both the HTTP and HTTPS version of sites by means of IP blocking.”3

The lead-up to the vote also saw reports that ETECSA was systematically blocking text messages advocating for no votes (#yovotono) or abstention (#yonovoto) while progovernment campaigning on digital platforms was not only permitted (#yovotosi) but actively and enthusiastically engaged in by both government officials and private citizens. ETECSA also charged customers for sending antigovernment texts without actually delivering the messages.4 Earlier, in 2016, a series of tests conducted by the domestic news outlet 14ymedio also found that ETECSA’s cellphone network, Cubacel, had been systematically filtering text messages containing specific words, such as democracia (democracy), dictadura (dictatorship), and derechos humanos (human rights).5

The independent news magazine El Estornudo also reported it was blocked in Cuba in 2018 and 2019.6 Websites blocked in the past include news outlets such as Cuba Encuentro and Martí Noticias, as well as those focusing on human rights issues such as the site of the Ladies in White movement led by relatives of jailed dissidents, and several anonymity and circumvention tools such as Anonymouse.7

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 14

While ETECSA does not proactively delete online content, several blogs hosted on the government-sponsored blog platform Reflejos have faced censorship by its moderators.1 In April 2017, for example, a technology blog called TuAndroid was temporarily suspended and an article that criticized new top-up deals offered by ETECSA was removed.2 Another takedown in February 2016 involved Proyecto Arcoiris (Rainbow Project), a blog on sexual diversity.3 Articles from the independent digital newspaper 14ymedio were removed permanently in March 2015.

While the government has denied prohibiting certain topics on Reflejos, it requires bloggers to register with information cards and bans the publication of unlawful or “counterrevolutionary” content.4

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 04

The vague wording of government provisions regarding content regulation allows the government to censor a wide array of posts without judicial oversight. Resolution 179 authorizes ETECSA to “take the necessary steps to prevent access to sites whose contents are contrary to social interests, ethics, and morals, as well as the use of applications that affect the integrity or security of the state.”1 Meanwhile, Resolution 56/1999 stipulates that all materials intended for publication or dissemination on the internet must first be approved by the National Registry of Serial Publications.2

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 14

Online journalists, commentators, and users frequently self-censor in order to avoid repercussions from the state, including harassment, criminal prosecution, detention, and travel bans. While grassroots digital innovations such as El Paquete Semanal and SNET provide access to large selections of often pirated digital data, these are technically illegal and only tolerated by the government. As a result, many administrators have sought to ensure their continued toleration through active self-censorship of content that could be considered inappropriately political, religious, or pornographic.1

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 14

The government continues to manipulate the online information landscape through policies and other initiatives aimed at maintaining the dominance of progovernment outlets and narratives, and discrediting independent sources of information.

Networks of progovernment journalists have disseminated content online to counter alternative discourses. The Cuban Democratic Directorate found that “dozens” of bots were posting progovernment messages on Twitter in the midst of 2018 parliamentary and provincial elections.1 A 2016 report on digital journalism published by Fundación Telefónica noted that Cuban authorities have accused critical and independent sites of perpetrating a constant media campaign against the island; such a narrative “converts independent voices into ‘mercenaries’ or traitors, with the ultimate objective of criminalizing dissent,” according to the group.2 More recently, Twitter accounts promoting misleading photos appeared in the lead-up to the February 2019 constitutional referendum.3

The Associated Press reported in June 2018 that the Communist Party’s Political Bureau had quietly approved a policy that would allow greater autonomy to official journalists, reportedly by granting newspaper editors the ability to publish political stories without prior authorization and to accept advertising. While its effects are so far unclear, the policy seems to have arisen in part from the need to allow official journalists to more successfully compete against the new crop of independent journalists and their start-up news outlets.4

Authorities also continue to direct popular demand for videos, games, and online social networking to government-controlled platforms. In mid-2018, the Cuban government launched a national version of the popular application WhatsApp, called ToDus, along with a national “app store” site for locally-developed mobile apps for android called Apklis—both developed at Havana’s Computer Science University, UCI. The big difference between these and their more popular, global counterparts is that they are designed to be run on Cuba’s national “intranet,” not the global web, making costs lower and performance for national users better.

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 03

Cuba has one of the most restrictive media environments in the world. The constitution prohibits privately owned media, and restricts speech that does not “conform to the aims of a socialist society.” The government closely monitors users who post or access political information online and delivers harsh penalties to those it perceives as dissidents. In July 2019, after the end of this report’s coverage period, Decree-Law 370/2018 went into effect. By prohibiting websites to be hosted on foreign servers and the circulation of “information contrary to the social interest, morals, good manners and integrity of people,” the decree places further restrictions on independent media.1

The cost of access to technologies that facilitate information sharing continues to be high, and the Cuban government has pursued individuals who violate telecommunications access laws.

Cubans are often able to break through infrastructural blockages by building their own antennas, using illegal dial-up connections, or developing blogs on foreign-based platforms. There are also thriving improvisational systems in which USB flash drives and data discs are used to distribute articles, prohibited photos, satirical cartoons, video clips, and other materials that have been downloaded from the internet or stolen from government offices.2

In 2017 the government announced a temporary freeze in the issuance of any new licenses for private computer programmers, along with more than 25 other popular freelancer occupations, until “violations and irregularities” could be addressed.3 New private sector rules issued in July 2018 allowed the resumption of licensing for the frozen occupations—except for computer programming licenses, which remain frozen.4

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 14

Despite the persistence of severe restrictions on media outlets not controlled by the Communist Party, grassroots and citizen-led media initiatives have succeeded in developing a significant online presence. Since 2014, Cuba has seen the appearance of more than a dozen independent or alternative digital media platforms covering a broad, diverse spectrum of themes from a variety of professional and political viewpoints. While the government still holds a monopoly on the mass media—especially printed matter—it has lost that position in the digital sphere thanks to such diverse digital projects, the impact of which continues to grow as more people gain access to the internet.

This recent surge in the number of independent digital media sites has developed together with an increase in their reliability, credibility, and professionalism—qualities that have in turn forced the state-controlled media to make internal changes to compete. The majority of these new independent sites are run by teams of independent journalists on the island, who often work in concert with collaborators abroad. For example, while the independent online news site 14ymedio has been blocked in Cuba, the editorial team is able to post content by emailing it to friends abroad. Cubans on the island can also subscribe to a weekly email digest of the digital newspaper, follow the news via Facebook, or request a daily WhatsApp digest of top stories with embedded links, which is much more difficult to block since these services are embedded within popular social media applications that have many other uses in Cuba. (This strategy is also used by Diario de Cuba, among many other independent digital platforms.) Users also access content from the site through proxies, using a virtual private network (VPN) app on their cell phone, and offline versions that are shared via USB flash drives.1

Not all independent digital outlets consider themselves dissident operations. Sites such as Periodismo de Barrio, El Estornudo, and El Toque produce critical investigative journalism, while others such as Tremenda Nota, Vistar Magazine, Garbos, Play-Off, Negolution, and OnCuba report on a wide variety of topics, including entertainment, sports, fashion, entrepreneurship, and culture, while expressing a cross-section of views on social issues.2 Two other recently launched independent digital projects are the data journalism sites Postdata Club and Inventario.3 Rounding out the alternative Cuban digital media landscape are the leaders of Cuba’s “digital diaspora,” sites run from outside the island but that closely monitor events on the island often featuring reporters working from within: Miami-based CubaNet and Madrid-based Diario de Cuba and Cuba Encuentro.

Independent journalism sites have been both innovative and impactful by covering issues omitted in the official press, experimenting with new genres and formats, diversifying content distribution spaces, establishing alliances with other national and international media, and winning awards, recognition, and sometimes financial support from a variety of international journalism organizations.4

Many of these emergent sites struggle to survive between the government’s open repression of nonaffiliated media outlets, and the lack of a legal framework that would protect them. Additionally, many are staffed not by political dissidents—as was the case of Cuba’s independent media for many years—but by young graduates from various journalism programs at Cuban universities who refuse to work for the official media, but insist on pursuing journalistic careers.

Separately, El Paquete Semanal has become a popular offline alternative for accessing music, movies, television series, mobile phone apps, magazines, and classifieds.5 However, given the routine self-censorship practiced by its compilers, some users feel it has become too tame given its avoidance of hot political topics. As a result, a more clandestine alternative has appeared in recent years, calling itself el paketito (the little packet), and attempts to fill the gaps left by the more mainstream packet. The Cuban government has also joined this battle over alternative digital media, with state-sponsored Youth Computer Clubs (JCC) producing their own digital compendium of material originally known as El Maletín (the Briefcase) and more recently La Mochila (the Backpack).6

While Facebook monopolized web traffic between 2012 and 2017,7 2018 saw Cuban use of social media platforms grow by 25 percent, and a simultaneous diversification of platforms used. That year, Cuban traffic to Facebook fell to 46.5 percent of total web traffic, while traffic to YouTube grew from just 2.5 percent in 2017 to a whopping 36.2 percent in 2018. This shift likely reflects and was enabled by a recent deal between Google and ETECSA to set up Google Global Cache servers within ETECSA data centers—making access to Google services, the most popular of which is YouTube, much easier and of higher quality.8

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 36

Although Cuba still has a low internet penetration rate, the use of social media sites is rapidly increasing as mobile devices, Wi-Fi hotspots, and now 3G mobile access become more common. Still, the vast majority of users access these sites for nonpolitical ends, and pointedly avoid controversial topics or political activism, and Cubans only very rarely use the internet to organize large-scale campaigns around political objectives. However, smaller and more subtle actions do take place.

Facebook remains a popular platform for social networking.1 In November 2018 Twitter quietly made it possible for Cubans on the island to open personal accounts using their local Cuban telephone number, a change announced by state media.2 In June 2018, the ToDus app (known as the “Cuban WhatsApp”) was downloaded 200,000 times in the first two weeks following its launch, revealing local demand for a social media chat application.3

In 2019, Cubans used social media to mobilize support for a rare street protest that took place in response to the government’s unilateral cancellation of the annual Gay Pride parade. The march, organized largely by LGBT+ activists, managed to make it eight blocks down one of Havana’s main thoroughfares before being stopped by police, who hauled a number of participants off to jail. Images of Cuban police grabbing two men as they hugged circulated on social media, with one independent journalist calling the event “Havana’s Stonewall.”4

Recent months have seen increased debate and advocacy on Twitter and other social media sites, which Cubans can now much more easily join and conveniently use than in the past. Several grassroots campaigns targeted the performance of ETECSA. In response to persistently slow connection speeds, Cuban social media accounts were awash in sarcastic memes comparing ETECSA service to snails, turtles, and other slow-moving animals. Another campaign targeted ETECSA’s internet prices with the hashtag #Bajenlospreciosdeinternet (lower internet prices). Government supporters, in turn, have responded with #Cubainformatiza (Cuba is computerizing), along with accusations that their digital adversaries were mercenaries organized by the US government.5 Other recent online debates involved the new constitution.

Unlike past leaders who frequently sought to paint social media and US-based tech companies as a state enemy, Díaz-Canel has embraced social media, and has argued in favor of engaging such sites and services in order to combat what he sees as biased images of Cuba online.6 Díaz-Canel himself joined Twitter during the summer of 2018 and began actively posting his own tweets about government policy, and has encouraged his ministers and other top government officials to do the same. Camilo Condis, an entrepreneur and pioneering Twitter user on the island, has taken advantage of the government’s new presence on the platform to ask direct, often highly critical questions about policies to a variety of ministers. Though some have ignored or even blocked him, others have responded respectfully.7

A burgeoning sector of tech start-ups with websites and online and offline apps has also developed in recent years. Riding on the back of ETECSA’s recently inaugurated 3G mobile service, a group of young programmers developed infrastructure for a Cuban ride-sharing service called Sube (Get in), with more than 2,000 people having downloaded its app by early 2019.8 Leading business directories include ConoceCuba, Isladentro, and AlaMesa, which focuses on private “paladar” restaurants. Other start-ups include Cubazon, a grassroots Cuban version of Amazon that allows users to order goods for delivery; Knales, a data retrieval app that allows users to gain access to web data via SMS; and Kwelta, a cultural calendar and publicity service.9

C Violations of User Rights

Cuba outlaws a wide range of speech deemed to be counterrevolutionary or a threat to the public order. In recent years, the Cuban government has moved from issuing long, multi-year sentences to using short-term detentions and travel bans as a means of harassing independent journalists and bloggers. Several episodes of censorship and intimidation against bloggers and independent journalists were reported during this coverage period.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 06

The Cuban legal structure is not favorable to internet freedom, and the country lacks an independent judicial system that could counter government efforts to suppress independent online activity.

The constitution as updated in February 2019 explicitly subordinates freedom of speech to the objectives of a socialist society, and freedom of cultural expression is guaranteed only if such expression is not contrary to “the revolution.”1 Article 55 of the new constitution explicitly states that ownership of the “fundamental means of social communication” are “socialist of all the people…and cannot be subject to any other type of ownership,” which essentially outlaws private media in Cuba. Furthermore, the constitution is silent about citizen rights of access to information or information and communication technologies. Indeed the only mention of the internet or cyberspace is in Article 16, which states that the country “defends the democratization of cyberspace…and condemns its use towards the subversion and destabilization of sovereign nations.”2

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 04

Online activity is subject to punishment under a variety of laws, some of which are broadly worded and others specific to online activity. The penal code (Law 62, Fifth Section) sets penalties ranging from a few months to 20 years in prison for any activity considered to be a threat to the Cuban state or public order, including a provision that authorizes the state to detain, reeducate, or monitor anyone who shows a “proclivity to commit crime” by violating the norms of the socialist society.1 Meanwhile, the Law to Protect Cuba’s National Independence and Economy (Law 88), passed in 1999, punishes any activity that threatens Cuban sovereignty or facilitates the US blockade. Anyone who passes information to the US government that could bolster the embargo can face up to 15 years in prison. Spreading subversive materials can incur a penalty of three to eight years in prison, while collaborating with foreign media outlets is punishable by up to five years in prison.2

In 1996, the government passed Decree-Law 209, which states that the internet cannot be used “in violation of Cuban society’s moral principles or the country’s laws,” and that email messages must not “jeopardize national security.”3 In 2007, a network security measure, Resolution 127, banned the use of public data-transmission networks to spread information that is against the social interest, norms of good behavior, the integrity of people, or national security. The decree requires access providers to install controls that enable them to detect and prevent the proscribed activities, and to report them to the relevant authorities.4 Article 149 of the Penal Code prohibits “carrying out acts belonging to a profession the exercise of which one is not duly prepared,” which has been used to prosecute journalists for “usurpation of legal capacity.”

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 26

Penalization for online activity is common, though in recent years the Cuban government has tended to employ short-term detentions, interrogations, legal harassment, and travel bans, as opposed the lengthy prison terms favored in the past.1 Bloggers and online activists are often caught up in crackdowns that accompany political or social unrest. In 2018, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a nongovernmental organization, reported 2,873 arbitrary arrests of peaceful government opponents during 2018, a significant decrease from the 5,155 detained in 2017 and the 9,940 in 2016.2 Because it is difficult to distinguish between independent journalists and political activists in Cuba, however, it is often impossible to accurately pinpoint whether detentions were in retaliation for online speech specifically. Dissident bloggers are subject to punishments ranging from fines and searches to confiscation of equipment and detentions.

Independent digital journalists who have experienced some of the above treatment during the 2018–19 period include Luz Escobar of 14ymedio, who in May 2019 was arrested and questioned in response to her reporting on the lives of people living in a shelter. Roberto Jesús Quiñones of CubaNet was arrested and questioned in April in connection with his reporting on the trial of two pastors being prosecuted for homeschooling their children. Augusto César San Martín, also of CubaNet, saw his home raided by police the same month, and was fined for the illegal possession of communications equipment, among other offenses related to his work as a journalist.3

Henry Constantín, the Cuban representative of the Inter-American Press Association (SIP) who also runs the independent news site La Hora de Cuba, was finally able to leave the country in March 2019 after travel restrictions were lifted, though after returning he was again prevented from leaving Cuba in June 2019 (after the end of this report’s coverage period).4 In 2017, “usurpation of legal capacity” accusations had been levied against him along with fellow journalist Sol García Basulto. In January 2018, Iris Mariño became the third journalist working for La Hora de Cuba to be accused of “usurpation of legal capacity.”5

In July 2018, the Cuban Association for Freedom of the Press (APLP) said that reporters for CubaNet, the Havana Times, Hablemos Press, Palenque Visión, the Cuban Institute of Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP), and La Hora de Cuba have all been singled out for such repressive measures during 2018. The SIP in October 2018 stated that there had been no change in Cuba’s repression of press freedom under the presidency of Díaz-Canel.

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 14

Anonymity and encryption technologies are legally prohibited in Cuba,1 and web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafés and access centers, are closely monitored and users are required to register with their identification information.2 Still, many Cubans with internet access on their phones (either via a Wi-Fi hotspot or, since late 2018, 3G mobile service) use encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp to communicate privately among trusted friends.

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 16

Constitutional provisions that protect various forms of communication and portions of the penal code that establish penalties for the violation of the secrecy of communications and of users’ privacy are frequently violated. Surveillance of internet activity in Cuba is pervasive and frequently results in criminal cases or other reprisals for users deemed to have violated the law.

A 2013 decree from the Ministry of Communications reaffirmed the government’s continued monitoring of internet traffic, stating that ETECSA will immediately end a user’s access if he or she commits “any violation of the norms of ethical behavior promoted by the Cuban state.”1 Users must show their national ID cards and sign an agreement stating that they will not use the service for anything “that could be considered…damaging or harmful to public security”—a vague statement that can apply to political dissent.2

ToDus and a national app store, launched in 2018, were both developed by Havana’s state-run Computer Science University, in effect granting state authorities access to users’ personal data, and presumably communications that take place through those platforms.3 The government justifies these and other developments toward the “computerization” of Cuban society as part of its declared plan to reinforce Cuba’s “technological sovereignty.”4

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 06

Internet service providers (ISPs) are required to register and retain the addresses of all traffic for at least one year.1 Reports indicate that the government routes most connections through proxy servers and is able to obtain user names and passwords through special monitoring software called Avila Link, which is installed at most ETECSA and public access points.2 In addition, delivery of email messages is consistently delayed, and it is not unusual for a message to arrive censored or without its attachments.

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 25

Journalists and other prominent online voices frequently face violence by police who arrest or interrogate them, as well as intimidation tactics such as unjustified searches and equipment confiscation. Users who have been jailed for extended periods of time report being mistreated. Many journalists working for emerging nonstate media have experienced systematic harassment and threats, including death threats, and online smear campaigns.1 Quiñones of CubaNet was beaten by police following his arrest on trumped-up charges in April 2019.

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 13

Technical attacks do not appear to be a primary method of censorship in the country, though some online outlets have reported them.1 The director of 14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, said her Gmail account had been hacked in March 2019. A month earlier, various activists with the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) dissident group reported that their social media accounts had been hacked after they had used the accounts to report on human rights abuses by the government.2

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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