Cubans, organized through social media, told their story to the world

Cubans, organized through social media, told their story to the world

Published on 26 Nov 2021

The street protest in Cuba in July 2021 had an impact on the digital world, where the first demonstrations originated, causing the Díaz-Canel regime to increase censorship and seek to overshadow citizen protest

On August 17, the Cuban regime approved the “Decreto-Ley 35” (Decree-Law 35), which strengthens control over telecommunications and social networks, with the support of state institutions such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and the Ministry of the Interior (MININT).


According to the Cuban organization YucaByte, this new regulation legalizes the violation of the digital rights of citizens, although they have already been applied so far in a general way on activists, artists and independent journalists.


Article 69 of the Decree-Law establishes that Internet operators and providers, which is mainly the state-owned company ETECSA, have the power to interrupt access to their networks and services when, among other things, “they transmit false, offensive or harmful information to human dignity, with sexual or discriminatory content; that generates harassment; that affects personal and family intimacy or one’s own image and voice; identity, integrity and honor of the person; collective security, general welfare, public morality and respect for public order; or as a means of interrupting access to their networks and services; that affects personal and family privacy or one’s own image and voice; the identity, integrity and honor of the person; collective security, general welfare, public morality and respect for public order; or as a means to commit illegal acts, regardless of the criminal, civil or administrative liability arising from the fact”.


YucaByte explained that several of the conditions for applying the sanction are presented in a legally ambiguous manner, which leaves it to the interpretation and consideration of the authorities to apply the measure.


“Added to this arbitrariness is the fact that on the island there are criminal offenses that represent clear mutilations of fundamental human rights such as free expression and free association,” added Norges Rodriguez, Director of the organization.


The goal is to silence


This new regulation was approved after unprecedented protests in several Cuban cities on July 11, according to the BBC, with slogans of “shouting for freedom”, “down with the dictatorship” and “homeland and life”.


Thousands of Cubans took to the streets in more than 20 localities of the country in the largest protest to take place on the island in the last 20 years at least. Social networks were filled with videos denouncing repression by police forces, and hours later, President Miguel Díaz-Canel called on government supporters to take to the streets to “confront them”.


In parallel, civil society trends were positioned on Twitter reporting the situation and demanding the fall of the Regime, such as #SOSCuba with approximately 1 million tweets, #SOSMatanzas with 17,609 tweets and #PatriaYVida (#HomelandAndLife) with 157,436 messages published.


According to the analysis of the tool used by ProBox —an observatory that monitors and analyzes socio-political digital activity in Venezuela and Latin America, with the mission to combat disinformation— on average 93.22% of the tweets on #SOSCuba, which was positioned worldwide (according to GetDayTrends) were made by real users inside and outside Cuba.


Likewise, users identified in favor of Diaz-Canel positioned trends in response to the protest, justifying the repression in the streets of Cuba by watching over the “Revolution” and replicating statements of the Cuban president in which he called for the streets to stop them with trends such as #PatriaOMuerte (#HomelandOrDeath) and #LaCalleEsDeLosRevolucionarios (#TheStreetsBelongToTheRevolutionaries).


That same day, the Cuban organization YucaByte reported that “at 4:05 P.M., while the island’s official media announced an appearance on national television by dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel, the internet was cut off not only in the areas where the protests were taking place, but throughout Cuba. The premeditated internet blackout preceded the regime’s order to step up violent repression against peaceful demonstrators and to call for a confrontation between civilians”.


The Diaz-Canel regime blocked internet access on the island to stop the “digital revolution” of the Cuban opposition because on Sunday, Facebook Live broadcasts of the first protests in the country began. According to the BBC: “the live transmissions in San Antonio lit the fire in other cities that were joining the demonstrations, until the internet stopped working in several parts of the country”.


Despite this outage on the island, ProBox registered the hashtag #VivaCubaLibre (#LongLifeFreeCuba) by civil society, with at least 23,000 tweets, of which 99.49% were written by real users.


Expression through social media platforms


ProBox Digital Observatory has been constantly tracking the conversation on Twitter since 2019, monitoring and analyzing the socio-political digital activity in Venezuela and Latin America to combat disinformation. This has allowed them to find daily propaganda operations promoted from the Venezuelan State, mainly from the Ministry of Communication at the service of Maduro, which try to impose a reality completely contrary to the one denounced by journalists, digital media, activists and other actors in society. ProBox has recently expanded its monitoring of socio-political trends in Cuba and Nicaragua.


Days before the massive protests in Cuba, the discontent of civil society became more visible on Twitter, managing to position on July 7 the first trends promoted by this group, after several days of a high number of COVID-19 infections on the island. The hashtag #CubaPorLaSalud (#CubaForHealth) with approximately 2,165 messages, and other tags such as #SOSCuba and #SOSMatanzas with around 19,554 tweets together, managed to trend with an average of 84.28% of their messages being made by real users.


Although Granma, the newspaper of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, assured that reversing the situation depended on individual responsibility, the official newspaper Girón published on July 1 a summary made by government authorities which shows for the first time that the background of the escalation of coronavirus cases in Cuba is due to the entry of Russian tourists and infected Cuban travelers who were spreading the disease on the island. According to Diario de Cuba, the country experienced an escalation of cases since November 2020, when the Díaz-Canel government reopened the airports.


However, Rodriguez of the YucaByte organization explained that in the first protests registered in Cuba, in the town of San Antonio de los Baños, which had not been mentioned in the media recently, citizens demanded freedom and there was no formal petition about vaccines or the island’s health system in the face of the increase in COVID-19 infections.


“The regime is trying to link one thing with the other, their people who live outside Cuba have said that (the people) came out to protest the pandemic issue and that in the end that issue has not been resolved because of the embargo. The people came out to shout freedom; in most places the people shout freedom, down with the dictatorship”, he added.


In his opinion, what happened on the island was a “domino effect” because one person made a transmission on Facebook from San Antonio of a protest and that led to other people in other points of the country also demonstrating. “It was like, ‘if San Antonio took to the streets this is the time for all of us to take to the streets,'” he explained.


Political support coming from Venezuela’s social networks


The Cuban regime has received support from Venezuela not only in economic, social and political areas, but also in social networks. In the month of July, when demonstrations were registered on the island, ProBox detected 11 hashtags in Venezuela in favor of the Cuban government, such as #VenezuelaYCubaUnidas with 120,000 tweets and 74.80% of inorganicity, i.e., they used possible bots or accounts with inauthentic behavior to multiply the message.


Moreover, 10 of these hashtags promoted from the propaganda organ at the service of the Maduro regime (MIPPCI), were not only trending in Venezuela, but reached the top of the Trending Topics in both countries; which shows not only a “fraternal support”, but a strategy, and very possible communication, between these two regimes to promote a different picture on social networks like Twitter about what is happening in Cuba and Venezuela.


The executive director of ProBox, Marivi Marín, pointed out that this digital propaganda apparatus, accompanied by censorship in traditional media, persecution of journalists and activists, lack of access to basic services; added to new regulations (Cuba) or threats (Venezuela) of greater controls and supervision by the State in social networks, imply a serious threat to a space that has become the only window for freedom of expression and denunciations of human rights violations for millions of people.


“The Maduro and Diaz-Canel regimes have censored most of the traditional (and non-traditional) media; this, added to the millions of people living in exile, has caused social networks and the Internet in general, to become the only source of information and window for the freedom of expression of citizens. This has turned the Internet into another enemy of authoritarian systems”, added Marín.


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