Why the internet in Cuba has become a US political hot potato

Cubans used to joke about Napoleon Bonaparte chatting to Mikhail Gorbachev, George W Bush and Fidel Castro in the afterlife. “If I’d have had your prudence, I’d never have fought Waterloo,” the French emperor tells the last Soviet leader. “If I’d have had your military might, I’d have won Waterloo,” he tells the Texan. Turning last to Castro, the emperor says: “If I’d have had Granma [the Cuban Communist party daily], I’d have lost Waterloo but nobody would have known.”

The joke no longer does the rounds. With millions of Cubans now online, the state’s monopoly on mass communication has been deeply eroded. But after social media helped catalyse historic protests on the island last month, the government temporarily shut the internet down.

Full connectivity returned 72 hours later, but the issue has become a hot potato in the US. Hundreds of Cuban-Americans marched against the regime in Washington on Monday, and politicians are trying to leverage political capital: Florida senator Marco Rubio has called for the US to beam balloon-supplied internet to the island nation, while Joe Biden said his administration is assessing whether it can increase Cuba’s connectivity.

Experts say it’s unclear how internet access could be increased at scale if the host nation is unwilling to cooperate. “I haven’t seen anything other than pie in the sky,” said Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University.

Past US government attempts to bolster connectivity in Cuba read like a John Le Carré novel.

In 2009, Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the US Agency for International Development, was arrested for distributing satellite equipment. His work was funded thanks to a US law that explicitly calls for the overthrow of the Castro regime. (Gross was later released as part of the restoration of US-Cuban relations during Barack Obama’s second term.)

Attempts to smuggle satellite ground stations disguised as surf boards on to the island were similarly foiled.

In 2010, USAid contactors started work on ZunZuneo, a Cuban social networking website modelled on Twitter. Developers aimed to use “non-controversial content”, such as sport and music, to reach a critical mass of subscribers before pivoting towards politics. The plan, documents show, was to encourage Cubans to organise “smart mobs” that could “renegotiate the power balance between the state and society”. The project was shelved in 2012.

Although the island only introduced mobile data in 2018, over 4 million Cubans now go online via their smartphones. On an island where public space is tightly controlled, millions of Cubans use Facebook to vent frustrations.

The use of VPNs has proliferated. People use them to access anti-Castro news websites blocked by the state, but also to make payments via Paypal, to send files through WeTransfer, or to play Pokémon GO – all services otherwise blocked by US sanctions.

And while past attempts to boost connectivity have failed, US policymakers today enjoy more success in the online battle for hearts and minds.

After connecting through the popular VPN Psiphon, Cubans are directed to a webpage linking to anti-regime propaganda financed by US taxpayer dollars.

A recent Twitter hashtag campaign, drawing attention to the island’s unprecedented Covid outbreak, was also bolstered by fake accounts.

Analysis by disinformation expert Julián Macías Tovar found that thousands of Twitter accounts with the #SOSCuba hashtag were created in the days leading up to the protests. Many accounts used an automated system to retweet the hashtag five times a second.

Along with regular tweeting, the campaign spurred protest turnout by contributing to the feeling the government was losing control in the pandemic.

Tovar found that the #SOSCuba campaign had been driven by accounts linked to Atlas Network, a free-market consortium of more than 500 organisations that have received funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers. Twitter accounts of Atlas Network members have been involved in bot or troll centre campaigns in recent elections in Peru and Ecuador, as well as the 2019 civic-military coup in Bolivia.

Cuban officials say online propaganda coupled with scarcity created by sanctions amounts to a “destabilisation campaign”. Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, head of US affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, recently said the internet is now “being used as part of warfare against Cuba”.

For its own part, the state has intervened, too. In 2013 a well-known dissident described “Operation Truth”, a secret programme which, he said, enlisted students to attack those criticising the government online. Dissident journalists say they frequently receive hate-filled anonymous messages on social media.

Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York and author of Cuba’s Digital Revolution, said the decision to temporarily shut down the internet would prove “very expensive” for Cuba’s education system and economy.

“It’s a cost,” he said, “that cannot be borne for more than a few days.”

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