Thousands of protesters took to the streets in dozens of cities across Cuba yesterday (July 11) to voice their anger over the country’s collapsing healthcare system, food shortages, blackouts, and political repression. They were the biggest anti-government demonstrations on the island in decades. Thanks to images and videos circulating on social media under the hashtag #SOSCuba, they were also the most visible protests in the 62-year history of an authoritarian regime that does not tolerate dissent.
None of this would have been possible without the nascent 3G network that has allowed millions of Cubans to access the internet via mobile devices since 2018. Although heavily restricted, the mobile network enabled Cuban activists to organize marches via encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, livestream protests on mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch with supporters in the diaspora community to galvanize international support.
Cuba’s communist regime had hoped that broadening internet access might improve the country’s economic fortunes, quell public discontent over unequal web access, and alleviate the international embarrassment of having one of the lowest national rates of internet use on Earth. To some extent, that plan worked—but it also cracked open the door to dissent just before the coronavirus pandemic sank the regime into its worst crisis since the disastrous “special period” that followed the fall of the Soviet Union.
Why are Cubans protesting?
The pandemic upended two of the pillars that helped prop up the communist regime: foreign tourism and Cuba’s public healthcare system. As the world went into lockdown, vacationers canceled their travel plans, stalling a major engine of the Cuban economy. Meanwhile, hospitals have staggered under a new variant-driven wave of Covid-19 infections, which has laid bare the limitations of a medical system that has traditionally been a source of pride and legitimacy for the regime.
The crisis has led to food shortages, created dangerous electricity blackouts in the middle of the summer heat, and forced Cubans to desperately search for medical supplies for sick family and friends, some of whom have died at home long before ambulances arrived to take them to overcrowded hospitals. Combined with simmering resentments over the country’s long-standing political repression, public anger exploded into rarely-seen protests that started in the town of San Antonio de los Baños but quickly spread across the island from Havana to Santiago de Cuba.
Cuba embraces the internet
The Cuban regime began expanding internet access in 2013, starting with prohibitively expensive cyber salons where rank-and-file Cuban citizens could pay $4.50—about a quarter of a month’s wages—to get online for an hour. By 2015, the country began installing wifi hotspots in public parks and squares, where citizens could get free access to the internet, as long as they didn’t stray out of range of the router. But the true breakthrough came in December 2018, when authorities announced the rollout of a national 3G network, which would for the first time allow Cubans to access the internet from anywhere.
Within two years, the Cuban government estimated that 4 million citizens—about a third of the country’s population—had a mobile internet connection. Cuba’s internet is subject to censorship and blackouts, but notably it does not include a China-style Great Firewall that blocks US social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. President Miguel Díaz-Canel, in fact, has an active Twitter presence, where he occasionally clashes with disgruntled citizens who tweet complaints.
Evidently, the Cuban regime has shifted from viewing the internet as a threat to an asset in recent years. During the June 11 protests, Díaz-Canel borrowed tactics from other leaders with authoritarian sympathies and social media acumen like the US’s Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and India’s Narendra Modi to rally his supporters. In interviews and national broadcasts—clips of which were widely shared on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—Díaz-Canel spread disinformation about protesters being American mercenaries and called on Cubans to take to the streets to violently suppress them.
Thanks to Cubans’ newfound access to mobile internet, protesters were able to share unprecedented videos of demonstrators marching through the streets across the country. It’s still unclear if the protests reached a larger scale than the 1994 Maleconazo uprising that followed the desperation of Cuba’s special period and led then-dictator Fidel Castro to allow 35,000 refugees to flee to the US. But the June 11 demonstrations certainly reached a larger audience, because protest videos have never before been able to escape the island and spread so quickly.
The #SOSCuba hashtag quickly spread through the diaspora community, rippling through pages from musicians like Cuban reggaeton artist El Uniko to niche Cuban-American comedy influencers like Los Pichy Boys and Mister Red. From there, the message was signal-boosted from an odd assortment of national figures ranging from Florida senator Marco Rubio to adult film actress Mia Khalifa.
As Cuban authorities began shutting down internet access in restive cities to quell the protests, the #SOSCuba hashtag created an indirect method for information to spread within Cuba. A handful of Cuban protesters were able to get intermittent internet access through virtual private networks—apps that help users mask where their web traffic is coming from. They posted messages on social media and asked their followers outside of Cuba to spread the word throughout the diaspora community, in the hope that everyone who saw the message would pick up the phone and call their relatives within Cuba to update them about the latest news and protest plans. (While the internet was down for most, phone lines were still working.)