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Cuba Cuts Internet, Surveils Calls of Journalists, Report Finds

FILE - Young peeple use a hotspot to connect to the internet, in Havana, Cuba, June 6, 2019.
FILE - Young peeple use a hotspot to connect to the internet, in Havana, Cuba, June 6, 2019.

There was a time when activists and journalists who wanted to evade the ever-listening ear of the Cuban government spoke in code or had to meet in European embassies.

The arrival of internet and encrypted messaging services offered some respite.

But as quickly as technological advances made communicating and reporting on Cuba’s government easier, Havana found ways to disrupt or block messages.

Cuba’s independent journalists run a cat-and-mouse game with the government to make sure their phones do not fall into the hands of the authorities. If devices are seized, authorities can mine the digital memories in search of so-called incriminating evidence.

In 2023, at least 210 incidents of internet restrictions were documented by the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and Press, or ICLEP.

Those restrictions can include access to the internet being cut, arbitrarily blocking access to social media, or hacking the accounts of journalists or the media websites they work for, the ICLEP report found.

Normando Hernandez, founder and director general of Miami-based ICLEP, said intercepting telephone or internet access is a "recurring strategy of the regime to silence independent journalists."

"It is historically well known that the Cuban state listens and spies on all the conversations it wants to," Hernandez said. "There is no state of law. Cubans have no way to defend themselves against any breach of their rights."

VOA contacted the Cuban Embassy in Madrid and the government’s International Press Center in Havana for a response about the findings by ICLEP. No one responded to the requests for comment.

Journalist Henry Constantin says his access to the internet was cut suddenly after La Hora de Cuba, the media site for which he works, began criticizing the Cuban government.

La Hora de Cuba publishes through Facebook and Instagram and is not aligned to the communist government. Its team of around 15 journalists has an audience of between 46,000 and 48,000 on social media.

FILE - Cubans drive past the US Embassy during a rally calling for the end of the US blockade against Cuba, in Havana, March 28, 2021.
FILE - Cubans drive past the US Embassy during a rally calling for the end of the US blockade against Cuba, in Havana, March 28, 2021.

Constantin, who edits the site, says censorship of journalists’ telephone lines or internet access is designed to curb free speech.

"Last November when I started to publish reports which were very critical of the government, my access to the internet was cut in Camaguey," he said, referring to the central Cuban city where he is based.

"I was able to access the internet when I was in Havana through a different number, so it was a local censorship."

Hernandez said the government controls all access to "digital expression."

Havana controls the Cuban telecommunications company ETECSA, which has a monopoly on digital communications on the island.

This monopoly represents a paradox for the Cuban government. Access to the network for users represents a threat to Havana and an instrument of control for authorities.

With that control, said Hernandez, authorities can easily "cut communication in general at historically important moments or significant times for Cuban society, or when something is happening in the island of interest to Cuban society."

That appears to be the case with Constantin.

In 2021, he was held in custody for 10 days for public disorder after reporting on demonstrations against the Cuban government and the Communist Party over food shortages and medicinal problems.

ICLEP has documented digital harassment since 2016.

The worst year was 2021, when ICLEP documented 1,129 violations of freedom of expression. This coincided with the protests against the Cuban government and Communist Party, which were the biggest since the 1959 revolution.

Prisoners Defenders International, a Madrid-based human rights group, said eavesdropping on journalists or opposition activists was long practiced by the communist government.

"Until they had wi-fi in Cuba, an activist had to speak in private, and this was only possible in European embassies and in other countries which had solidarity with the opposition," said Javier Larrondo, president of Prisoners Defenders.

"In some cases, they had a foreign telephone which cost a lot to make calls inside or outside Cuba, but they had less possibilities to be listened into."

Larrondo said the SMS message service has an automatic system of "sensitive words" in Cuba.

If an opposition activist types a word into their device, he said, "it can be picked up by an operator at the state telecommunications company, which has access to that message within 10 minutes."

Describing the SMS system as "especially insecure in Cuba," Larrondo said users did not have the security of private messaging until the arrival of WhatsApp, Telegram and VPN.

"Before the arrival of WhatsApp, we had to speak in code or [use] slang. Without a doubt, this way of speaking weakened the dissident movement and its capabilities."

Using encrypted services and other precautions is not always enough. When journalists or opposition activists are arrested, their telephones are always seized and the memory analyzed by experts.

This means that they must take extra care not to let their telephones fall into the hands of government agencies or the police, Larrondo said.

"As such, it is essential never to go out with a mobile phone but to leave it at home, hidden. Or to go out with a second telephone without memory," he said.