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
22 100 Not Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Cuba has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, and while the government has significantly improved technical infrastructure and lowered prices in recent years, regular internet access remains extremely expensive, connections are poor, and authorities both monitor usage and work to direct traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The state engages in content-manipulation efforts while blocking a number of independent news sites. Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, including Decree Law 370, which has frequently been used against online journalists. However, despite heavy restrictions, Cubans continue to circumvent government censorship through grassroots innovations.

Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 – May 31, 2020

  • Narrow legislation implemented in July allowed residents to set up Wi-Fi routers in their homes and businesses, while restricting many more types of network connections. It also effectively outlawed community networks, including the largest, SNET (see A1).
  • The mobile data connections of several activists, journalists, dissidents, and YouTube content producers were reportedly disrupted for up to a few days, possibly to prevent them from sharing content, participating in online events, or reporting on other interference they had experienced.
  • Fake progovernment social media accounts known as ciberclarias harassed dissidents during the coverage period, and Twitter temporarily suspended the accounts of official media outlets and government officials, including former president Raúl Castro, for manipulating online information (see B5).
  • Numerous grassroots mobilizations took place via social media, including a widespread demand for lower internet prices and a protest against the closure of SNET (see B8).
  • Authorities increased their use of Decree Law 370, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, to arbitrarily arrest, fine, and confiscate the devices of independent digital journalists. Journalist Roberto Quiñones was sentenced under separate legislation to one year of correctional labor in August after he refused to pay a fine (see C3).
  • The online intimidation and harassment directed at LGBT+ activists and independent journalists during the coverage period sometimes included death threats (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

Access to the global internet is tightly restricted by Cuban authorities, who control the backbone infrastructure. SNET, the largest community network, was declared illegal during the coverage period, and the cost of internet access remained extremely expensive for most. Activists and journalists reportedly had their mobile connections temporarily severed in an effort to prevent them from sharing content or reporting on harassment they had experienced.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 2.002 6.006

While Cuba’s internet penetration rate remains relatively low, the government has taken steps in recent years to improve infrastructure and increase access. The penetration rate reached 57.15 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 the workplace.2 According to the 2020 Inclusive Internet Index, only 18 percent of households had some form of internet access.3 Moreover, most Cubans access the internet through extremely slow connections.4

In December 2018, Cuba rolled out third-generation (3G) mobile service following a series of fitful trial periods in which authorities tested demand and performance.5 The development marked the government’s most important action to date aimed at increasing internet access for the general population. Despite widespread complaints about the service’s high cost and slow and unreliable connections, it quickly became the most popular alternative to previously available options.6 At the time of the launch, the state telecommunications provider, Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA (ETECSA), had enabled 789 of its roughly 1,800 mobile radio bases to handle 3G traffic, covering 66 percent of the island’s population.7

ETECSA expanded 3G and introduced 4G access during the coverage period by setting up more radio bases. By May 2020 there were a total of 1,629 3G bases and 666 4G bases, according to the government, reaching a potential 85.5 percent of the population and 75.3 percent of the country’s land area. Officials also reported that more than a million people were making use of the new 4G network.8 As of December 2019, Cuba had reached 5.7 million registered mobile phone accounts, 3.18 million (56 percent) of which were configured for internet data plans. During the month of November 2019, 2.29 million of the accounts made use of such plans.9

Nevertheless, Cuba still has the lowest mobile-phone penetration rate in Latin America, and complaints about the state company’s high prices, unreliable service, and monopolistic and unresponsive business practices are common. In addition, based on June 2019 data, only 26 percent of users accessed mobile internet daily.10

The rollout of 3G and 4G service capped a six-year period that has featured the introduction of a variety of public access initiatives. These included the establishment of a fiber-optic cable that citizens have been able to access since 2013 at government-run telepuntos (cybercafés) and Wi-Fi hotspots usually set up in public parks. Reports from December 2019 indicate that by the end of the year, ETECSA had equipped 682 such cybercafés and 1,513 hotspots.11

ETECSA’s home-based DSL (digital subscriber line) internet service, known as Nauta Hogar, has been available since late 2016; it began with fewer than 2,000 customers in Old Havana, but as of December 2019 ETECSA counted over 124,000 subscribers spread across all but one of Cuba’s 168 municipalities.12

Devices that use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology or satellite connections are explicitly prohibited by Cuban customs regulations.13 Additional restrictions are placed on modems, wireless faxes, and satellite dishes, which require special permits to enter the country.14 However, in May 2019 the government announced that it would legalize router imports as well as private permits to access ETECSA’s public Wi-Fi hotspots from homes and small businesses.

Larger local area networks such as Havana’s SNET, a local private network, were unregulated and largely tolerated until new regulations took effect in July 2019. The rules allowed home-based networks but effectively outlawed the popular community networks, despite extensive attempts by their administrators to come to an agreement with authorities. Ultimately, officials took over the services and content offered by SNET, migrating them to ETECSA, with access to be provided through Youth Computer Clubs (JCCEs). This move cost SNET its hard-won ideological and administrative autonomy as a nonpolitical, community-based network and placed it under the direction of the Union of Communist Youth (UJC), which oversees the JCCEs. It remained to be seen how this change would affect the functionality, cost, and content that had been available on SNET; for instance, in the past JCCEs have offered limited access to the Cuban intranet, rather than the global internet.15

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 enable many Cubans to gain home or office access to the internet.16

Moreover, GPS use has grown despite its prohibition. Efforts to control its spread are effectively futile given the fact that most modern devices are already GPS enabled. There is a booming black market in preowned GPS devices, fueled by departing diplomats and business personnel who were legally authorized to purchase them, as well as by professional “mules” who specialize in importing hard-to-get consumer goods. On the demand side, taxi drivers, cyclists, and even potential rafters hoping to flee the country seek out the devices and are willing to pay high prices for them.17

Since 2014, Cuban authorities have worked to develop relationships with US information and communication technology (ICT) companies including Verizon, Google, and Sprint, which offer some services to the island.18 In October 2018, on the occasion of his attendance at the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, President Miguel Díaz-Canel met with representatives of a dozen US-based technology companies to discuss their possible collaboration in the “computerization” of Cuban society.19 On the heels of this visit, the president announced that four key Cuban institutions had signed memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Google. While the announcement did not include any details on the content of the MOUs, analysts speculated that Google would offer coding training, hosting services, and high-speed connectivity for Cuba’s medical network, as well as for the Ministry of Culture.20 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” arrangement that would directly connect their networks, cost free, via an undersea fiber-optic cable.21

Separately, as part of a visit by Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez in November 2018, the Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica reportedly made an offer to the Cuban government aimed at connecting the island to its own network of undersea cables.22 An agreement had not been reached by the end of the coverage period.

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 0.000 3.003

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 points, the cost of accessing non-Cuban sites remains higher than the cost of accessing domestic ones. Cuban internet users can still connect at low or no cost via state institutions where they work or study. However, the connections are more likely to feature censorship of certain websites and services.1

Cubans with an average monthly salary—raised from 32 to 44 Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), which are pegged to the US dollar, in June 20192—are unable to afford access to the 3G mobile service introduced in late 2018 or the 4G service that followed. Many potential customers would also 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.3 They could alternatively sign up for a monthly service plan at one of the following four rate packages: 7 CUC for 600 MB, 10 CUC for 1 GB, 20 CUC for 2.5 GB, or 30 CUC for 4 GB. ETECSA offered additional data bonuses of 300 MB 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.4

Plans consisting of 6.5 GB at 35 CUC per month or 10 GB at 45 CUC for 4G/LTE service could also be purchased during the coverage period.5 However, these rates garnered heavy criticism given their comparison with average wages. In December 2019, ETECSA rolled out a wider array of mobile data plans, the cheapest of which was 400 MB for 5 CUC.6 In January 2020, after increasing popular pressure aimed at reducing internet prices, ETECSA lowered rates from 1 CUC to 70 cents an hour for those with permanent accounts.7 In April, ETECSA also temporarily discounted some phone and internet services in response to popular demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, prices for mobile internet use during the day and web connection packages were left unchanged.8

While the government has cut prices repeatedly in recent years, the hourly cost of accessing the internet at state-run cybercafés remains high. The rate of 70 cents per hour remains out of reach for many, though users can pay a much lower rate of 10 cents per hour for access to the domestic intranet.9

Since January 2014, friends and relatives living abroad have been able to use an online service to pay the phone and Nauta internet bills of users living on the island, and this service has since added options to pay for the home access program and 3G and 4G mobile plans.10 The overall strategy seems 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 distribution system for offline digital data paquetes (packets, also known as the “sneaker-net”), a series of local area networks such as Havana’s SNET linking up thousands of users in cities, and the use of various signal-amplification devices such as NanoStations to share or sell Wi-Fi signals.11 Networks like SNET, however, were effectively declared illegal in July 2019 (see A1). 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.12 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.13 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 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 3.003 6.006

The backbone infrastructure 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 mobile network to selectively obstruct citizens’ communications. For example, in the period under review, users including activists, journalists, and dissidents reported that their mobile data connections had been selectively disrupted for a few hours to a few days. The temporary service blocks seemed aimed at preventing these users from broadcasting independent content, participating in online events, or reporting on harassment that they experienced.1 Such targeted service interruptions continued after the coverage period in June 2020, when nearly 20 independent activists and journalists had their mobile service temporarily suspended by ETECSA as part of a state security operation intended to prevent their attendance at a gathering to protest the police killing of Hansel Hernández, an Afro-Cuban man, a few days earlier. In all, more than 35 people were detained, and 40 others were placed under house arrest, in the crackdown.2

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 0.000 6.006

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

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-line and mobile telephone services and internet access.2

In June 2020, after the coverage period, it was reported that a new law regulating telecommunications and ICTs would be published in early 2021.3

  • 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….
  • 3. José Raúl Gallego Ramos, “¿Por qué Cuba es de los países con menor libertad en Internet? (Parte II y final) [Why Cuba is one of the countries with the least freedom on the Internet? (Part II and final)],” Yuca Byte, https://www.yucabyte.org/2020/06/05/cuba-libertad-internet-2/.
A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

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

B Limits on Content

Independent websites focused on Cuban news continued to be blocked. Government manipulation of online information also persisted during the coverage period. At the same time, activists were able to mobilize various grassroots campaigns via social media, including movements against high internet prices and the closure of SNET.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 3.003 6.006

Though multiple independent Cuban news sites are blocked, the government limits users’ access to information primarily by making technology unavailable and by imposing prohibitive costs for access. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are accessible—with consistent monitoring and varying reliability—from Wi-Fi hotspots, some cybercafés, and hotels, and via 3G and 4G mobile service. Skype has been blocked in the past, but alternative applications 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)—remain accessible in Cuba. However, ETECSA commonly blocks dissident or independent news outlets and the sites of Cuban activists and dissident organizations. For example, in July 2019 the digital magazine ADN Cuba reported that it had been blocked in the country; the block coincided with the implementation of Decree Law 370, which gives the authorities broad powers to ensure “information security” (see B2, B6, C2, and C3).2

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 was apparently meant to silence calls from the opposition to abstain from voting, or to vote against the new charter.3 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 [internet protocol address] blocking.”4

The lead-up to the vote also featured reports that ETECSA was systematically blocking text messages advocating for “no” votes (#YoVotoNo) or abstention (#YoNoVoto), whereas progovernment campaigning on digital platforms (#YoVotoSi) was not only permitted but actively and enthusiastically engaged in by both government officials and private citizens. ETECSA notably charged customers for sending antigovernment texts without actually delivering the messages.5 In 2016, a series of tests conducted by the domestic news outlet 14ymedio had found that ETECSA’s mobile network, Cubacel, systematically filtered text messages containing specific terms, such as democracia (democracy), dictadura (dictatorship), and derechos humanos (human rights).6

The independent online newsmagazine El Estornudo reported that it was blocked in Cuba in 2018 and 2019.7 It remained inaccessible during the coverage period, as did the independent, critical news and information sites 14ymedio, Diario de Cuba, Cibercuba, CubaNet, Cuba Encuentro, and Martí Noticias, and the site of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) protest movement, founded by female relatives of jailed dissidents.8 Most of these sites have been systematically blocked for several years, though Tremenda Nota, which had been blocked with the others, appeared to have become available around the end of the coverage period. Access to the blocked outlets was generally possible only through a VPN. Several anonymity and circumvention tools such as Anonymouse are also blocked.9

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 1.001 4.004

Since the activation of Decree Law 370 in July 2019, Cuba has seen a wave of interrogations of independent journalists that include threats against their families as well as pressure to delete and discontinue their critical coverage of the government on social media (mainly on Facebook) and on Cuba’s crop of new independent digital news outlets.1 Article 68 of Decree Law 370 explicitly makes it illegal for Cubans to have their content hosted on websites or platforms that are not mirror copies of the same site hosted locally on Cuban servers. The vast majority of Cuba’s independent digital media platforms have long relied on foreign servers and hosts to post and protect their content from government censorship and deletion—especially since local privately owned media are systematically denied any legal recognition or protection in the domestic media environment (see B6).2

While ETECSA does not proactively delete online content, several blogs hosted on the government-sponsored blog platform Reflejos have faced censorship by its moderators.3 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.4 An earlier takedown in February 2016 involved Proyecto Arcoiris (Rainbow Project), a blog on sexual diversity.5 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 their identity cards and bans the publication of unlawful or “counterrevolutionary” content.6

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 0.000 4.004

The vague wording of government provisions regarding content regulation allows the authorities to censor a wide array of posts without judicial oversight. Resolution 179/2008 empowers 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 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 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 1.001 4.004

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 have provided access to large selections of often pirated digital content, these are technically illegal and depend on de facto government toleration. As a result, many administrators have sought to reduce the risk of a government crackdown through active self-censorship of content that could be considered inappropriately political, religious, or pornographic.1 Journalists who work for the state media also reportedly practice self-censorship.2

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 1.001 4.004

The government manipulates 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.

According to the 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, Cuban actors including government agencies have permanent “cyber troop” teams that manipulate social media by spreading disinformation, amplifying certain content, and trolling.1 Fake proregime social media accounts known as ciberclarias support the government on social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Twitter, by attacking dissidents and activists, posting state media articles, and sharing posts by high-level officials. The ciberclarias are reportedly composed of young people, many from Havana’s Computer Science University (UCI), who receive benefits like more time on the internet and 3G data plans.2

Networks of progovernment journalists have disseminated content online to counter alternative discourses. In February 2020, for example, as part of an online propaganda campaign, an article titled “The Internet Is Widely Accessible in Cuba. Why Is the US Insisting It Isn’t?” circulated widely in different languages, but it neglected to mention website blocking or Cubans’ use of encryption tools and VPNs to circumvent censorship.3

In September 2019, Twitter temporarily suspended the accounts of many official media outlets and government figures, including that of former president Raúl Castro. The company noted that they were working in a coordinated manner to “artificially amplify or disrupt conversations through the use of multiple accounts.”4

The Cuban Democratic Directorate found that dozens of automated “bot” accounts were posting progovernment messages on Twitter during the 2018 parliamentary and provincial election period.5 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.6 More recently, Twitter accounts promoting misleading photos appeared in the lead-up to the February 2019 constitutional referendum.7

The Associated Press reported in June 2018 that the ruling Communist Party’s Political Bureau had quietly approved a policy that would grant greater autonomy to official journalists by allowing newspaper editors 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 for official journalists to compete more successfully against the new crop of independent journalists and their start-up news outlets.8

Authorities continue to direct popular demand for videos, games, and online social networking to government-controlled platforms. In mid-2018, the government launched a national version of the popular application WhatsApp, called ToDus, along with a national “app store” site for locally developed mobile apps called Apklis; both were developed at UCI. The crucial 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 internet, making costs lower and performance for national users better.

B6 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 0.000 3.003

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, Decree Law 370 went into effect. By prohibiting the hosting of websites on foreign servers and the circulation of “information contrary to the social interest, morals, good customs, and integrity of people,” the decree places further restrictions on independent media and puts them in legal jeopardy.1 The vague language of the decree allowed officials to use it during the coverage period to punish independent journalists and other users, who faced fines and confiscation of their work equipment,2 for their posts on social media sites like Facebook (see C3).3

The cost of technologies that facilitate information sharing remains high, and the government has sought to penalize individuals who violate laws restricting access to telecommunications equipment and services.

Cubans are often able to break through infrastructural barriers by building their own antennas, using illegal dial-up connections, or developing blogs on foreign-based platforms.4 There are also thriving improvisational systems like the paquetes, 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.5

In 2017 the government announced a temporary freeze on 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.6 New private-sector rules issued in July 2018 allowed the resumption of licensing for the frozen occupations—except for computer programming licenses, which remained frozen during the coverage period.7

B7 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 1.001 4.004

Despite the persistence of severe restrictions on media outlets that are 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 a number of 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 projects, whose impact continues to grow as more people gain access to the internet.

The 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 independent sites are run by teams of journalists on the island, who often work in concert with collaborators abroad. For example, while the independent 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. These distribution methods are much more difficult to block, since they utilize popular social media applications that have many other uses in Cuba. (Similar strategies are used by Diario de Cuba, among many other independent digital platforms.) Users also access content from the site through proxies, VPN apps on their mobile devices, 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, such as LGBT+ topics.2 Three other recently launched independent digital projects are the data journalism sites Postdata Club and Inventario, and the independent news site ADN Cuba.3 Rounding out the alternative Cuban digital media landscape are the leaders of Cuba’s “digital diaspora,” sites run from abroad that closely monitor events on the island and often have Cuba-based reporters: Miami-based CubaNet and Madrid-based Diario de Cuba and Cuba Encuentro.

Independent journalism sites have been both innovative and influential 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 given the government’s open repression of nonaffiliated media outlets and the lack of a legal framework that would protect them. Cuba presently has no laws that allow for the legalization of independent media or the protection of user rights in a social media environment, nor is such legislation expected to be introduced.5

Many of these new, independent digital outlets are staffed not by political dissidents—as was the case with Cuba’s independent media for many years—but by young graduates from journalism programs at Cuban universities who refuse to work for the official media.

El Paquete Semanal (The Weekly Packet) has become a popular offline alternative for accessing music, movies, television series, content from mobile apps, magazines, and classifieds.6 However, given the routine self-censorship practiced by its compilers, particularly regarding sensitive political topics, some users feel it has become too tame. As a result, a more clandestine competitor, El Paketito (The Little Packet), has appeared in recent years, attempting to fill the gaps left by the more mainstream packet. The government has joined this battle over alternative digital media, with JCCEs producing their own compendium of material originally known as El Maletín (The Briefcase) and more recently La Mochila (The Backpack).7

The use of the podcast format and YouTube channels expanded domestically in the 18 months following the introduction of 3G mobile access and data plans, with numerous independent journalists, digital news outlets, and others launching their own programs. These include El Enjambre, hosted by El Toque, and Ventana 14, recorded by Yoani Sánchez, the director of 14ymedio.8

In November 2018 Twitter quietly made it possible for Cubans on the island to open personal accounts using their local telephone numbers, a change announced by state media.9 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.10

During the coverage period, as 3G and 4G mobile use expanded, Facebook garnered the largest share of users on social media. As of May 2020, the platform represented 73.6 percent of all traffic, followed by Pinterest (16.31 percent), YouTube (7.76 percent), and Twitter (1.93 percent), while Instagram and Tumblr had negligible shares.11 The availability of 3G has also made global communications apps more accessible and increasingly popular in Cuba, particularly WhatsApp.12

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 3.003 6.006

Although Cuba still has a low internet penetration rate, the use of social media sites has rapidly increased as mobile devices, Wi-Fi hotspots, and 3G and 4G mobile access become more common. The vast majority of users access these sites for nonpolitical ends and pointedly avoid controversial topics or political activism. Cubans only very rarely use the internet to organize large-scale campaigns around political objectives. However, smaller and more subtle actions do take place.

The introduction of 3G and 4G plans contributed to a number of online mobilization efforts, also known as infoactivismo, during the coverage period. For example, one campaign targeted ETECSA’s internet prices and service quality with the hashtag #BajenLosPreciosDeInternet (Lower Internet Prices) and became a trending topic on Twitter in June 2019. Based on data analysis by Inventario, an independent data journalism organization, the campaign included 1,061 unique Twitter users and 7,412 tweets, including 5,156 retweets. While the effort took place mainly on consecutive Saturdays in June and July 2019, the hashtag remained in use throughout the remainder of 2019 as a way to periodically demand accountability from ETECSA. Government accounts, in turn, responded with #CubaInformatiza (Cuba Is Computerizing), along with hashtags referencing the US trade embargo.1 Separately, the hashtag #YoSoySnet (I Am SNET) proliferated beginning in June 2019, in protest against the closure of SNET.2 These online protests were preceded in February 2019 by a digital campaign that urged Cubans to either abstain from (#YoNoVoto) or vote “no” in (#YoVotoNo) the referendum on Cuba’s new constitution.

Other, similar online memes, movements, or collective denunciations that appeared in Cuban cyberspace during 2019—sometimes linked to public actions, marches, or protests—included profile pictures taken with the Cuban flag in solidarity with the Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was punished for using the flag in one of his pieces, under the hashtag #LaBanderaEsDeTodos (The Flag Belongs to Us All); a challenge named #LaColaChallenge (The Line Challenge) by originators Norges Rodríguez and Taylor Escalona, who aimed to draw attention to the long lines in which Cubans have to wait for nearly all government-issued products and services; and the hashtag-enabled denunciation of rolling electricity blackouts after the government publicly claimed to have eliminated them (#ReportoApagonCuba, or Reporting Cuban Blackout). These efforts were accompanied by a digital protest against ETECSA for the poor quality and repeated dropped signals of its costly, pay-per-minute 3G mobile internet service (#ApagonEtecsa, or ETECSA Blackout); a digitally enabled, grassroots relief effort aimed at providing assistance to those displaced by a rare tornado that ripped through Havana neighborhoods in early 2019; an independently organized if government-approved march convened mostly through social media to prevent cruelty to animals; and an independent LGBT+ march spontaneously organized via social media after the island’s officially condoned and controlled annual march was canceled without explanation.

Social media have been used in support of independent journalists, whose detentions have been periodically denounced via sites like Twitter and Facebook, leading to their release. In addition, various mocking memes were shared during the coverage period in response to what were interpreted as cynical or dubious government pronouncements, including President Díaz-Canel’s televised explanation in September 2019 that continued economic problems and sharp fuel shortages were only “conyuntural” (conjunctural) or temporary problems.3

Unlike past leaders who frequently sought to portray social media and US-based technology companies as enemies of the state, Díaz-Canel has embraced them, arguing that the government should be active on such sites and services in order to combat what he sees as biased images of Cuba online.4 The president himself joined Twitter during the summer of 2018 and began posting about government policy, and he 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 a variety of ministers a series of direct, often highly critical questions about policies. Though some have ignored or even blocked him, others have responded respectfully.5

A burgeoning sector of tech start-ups with websites and online and offline apps has also developed in recent years. Taking advantage of ETECSA’s 3G mobile service, a group of young programmers developed infrastructure for a Cuban ride-sharing service called Sube (Get In), and more than 2,000 people had downloaded the app by early 2019.6 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.7

C Violations of User Rights

The government outlaws a wide range of speech that is deemed to be counterrevolutionary or a threat to public order, most recently through Decree Law 370. During the coverage period, authorities invoked the law to impose short-term detentions, fines, and confiscation of devices as a means of harassing independent journalists, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalist Roberto Quiñones was sentenced to one year of correctional labor after refusing to pay a fine. LGBT+ activists and independent journalists were also targeted with online threats and intimidation that may have been linked to the state.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 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? 0.000 6.006

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 constitution states that ownership of the “fundamental means of social communication” are “the socialist property of all the people … and cannot be subject to any other type of ownership,” which essentially outlaws private media in Cuba. The constitution is silent about citizens’ rights of access to information or to ICTs, though a new access to information law will reportedly be published in July 2021.2 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 toward the subversion and destabilization of sovereign nations.”3

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 0.000 4.004

Online activity is subject to punishment under a variety of laws, including some with broader applications and others that are specific to ICT usage. Four measures that took effect during the coverage period—Decree Laws 370 and 389 and Resolutions 98 and 99—together constituted a serious threat to online expression, essentially codifying the surveillance, inspections, harassment, control, arbitrary detention, interrogation, fines, and confiscation of equipment that had already been routinely employed against independent online voices (see C3, C4, and C5).1

Decree Law 370, published in July 2019, prohibits the use of foreign servers to host vaguely defined “sites” under Article 68(f). Article 68(i) outlaws the spread, “through public data transmission networks,” of information against “the social interest, morals, good customs, and integrity of people.” The latter terms are also poorly defined. Violators are subject to “confiscation of the equipment and means used to commit the violations,” “temporary or permanent suspension of the license,” “closure of the facilities,” and disproportionate fines amounting to hundreds of US dollars.2 Agents from MINCOM can determine who to target under Article 68(i), with no judicial oversight.3

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; one provision authorizes the state to detain, reeducate, or monitor anyone who shows a “proclivity to commit crime” by violating the norms of the socialist society.4 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 trade embargo. 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.5

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.”6 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.7 Article 149 of the penal code prohibits “carrying out acts belonging to a profession for whose exercise one is not duly qualified,” which has been used to prosecute journalists for “usurpation of legal capacity.”

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 2.002 6.006

Penalization for online activity is common, though in recent years the government has tended to employ short-term detentions, interrogations, legal harassment, and travel bans, as opposed to 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.

The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), a nongovernmental organization based in Spain, reported 3,157 arbitrary arrests of peaceful opponents during 2019, a notable increase over the 2,525 incidents documented in 2018. These detentions normally took place without legal oversight and were often “accompanied by home raids, fines, confiscation of belongings, beatings, and threats,” according to the OCDH.2 Such brief politically motivated detentions of dissidents and independent journalists were a key repressive tactic during the presidency of Raúl Castro, and they have continued in a similar fashion under Díaz-Canel.3 However, it is often impossible to determine whether the detentions are in retaliation for online speech specifically.

Dissident bloggers, independent journalists, and human rights defenders are subject to punishments ranging from searches and confiscation of equipment to fines and detentions. Many were also placed under house arrest and prevented from traveling abroad during the coverage period. One of the most severe cases was that of Roberto Quiñones, a lawyer and independent journalist at CubaNet, who in August 2019 was sentenced to one year of correctional labor for refusing to pay a fine. He had been arrested in April while covering a trial and was charged with “resistance” and “disobedience.” In September 2019, Quiñones entered the Guantánamo Provincial Prison and was still serving out his sentence at the end of the coverage period.4

Use of Decree Law 370 to penalize online activity accelerated during the first five months of 2020, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March. A total of 27 journalists and activists were each fined the equivalent of about $120 by MINCOM and state security agents, and nine of them also had their mobile phones seized, all under Article 68(i) of the law (see C2). The individuals interrogated, threatened, or fined under this law included El Estornudo journalist Mónica Baró, and those who were both fined and had their phones confiscated included journalist Iliana Hernández, Diario de Cuba journalist Boris González, and CubaNet journalist Camila Acosta. Sanctions against Acosta were imposed after she posted information about COVID-19 on Facebook.5 Other users have also been sanctioned under the decree. In July 2020, after the coverage period, a Cuban Facebook user reported that he had been fined after posting about hunger.6

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 2019.7 Accusations of “usurpation of legal capacity” had been levied against him in 2017, along with fellow journalist Sol García Basulto.

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 1.001 4.004

Anonymity and encryption technologies are legally prohibited in Cuba.1 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 MINCOM Resolution 99/2019 explicitly demands that service providers obtain approval before using encryption technology to protect the privacy of the information they transmit.3 Still, many Cubans with internet access on their phones, whether via a Wi-Fi hotspot or 3G or 4G mobile service, use encrypted communication services such as WhatsApp to communicate privately among trusted friends.

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

The constitution protects various forms of communication, and portions of the penal code establish punishments for the violation of the secrecy of communications and of users’ privacy, but these safeguards are frequently breached in practice. Surveillance of internet activity in Cuba is pervasive and frequently results in criminal cases or other reprisals for users deemed to have violated various laws.

Part of Decree Law 389, which was approved in November 2019 by the Council of State without review by Cuba’s National Assembly, formally authorizes investigators to engage in electronic surveillance and use the resulting information as evidence in criminal cases. The law permits “voice listening and recording, localization and following, photographs and image recording, intervention of any kind of communication, access to IT systems and other technical resources which allow the discovery of and proof of the crime.” Prior judicial approval is not required to conduct such surveillance.1

A 2013 decree from MINCOM 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.”2 Users must show their national identity 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 be applied to political dissent.3

Another form of surveillance takes place in public parks with Wi-Fi hotspots, where ciberclarias monitor other users and report when they detect visits to “suspicious” pages.4

ToDus and a national app store, launched in 2018, were both developed by Havana’s state-run UCI, in effect granting state authorities access to users’ personal data, and presumably to the communications that take place through those platforms.5 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.”6

In April 2020, the government released a coronavirus tracking app. It was developed by the UCI, in partnership with the education and health ministries and ETECSA.7

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 0.000 6.006

Internet service providers 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.

New legislation that would protect personal data was expected to be announced in February 2021.3

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 2.002 5.005

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 in custody. Many journalists working for 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 (see C3).

There were multiple instances of threats against and intimidation of independent journalists, SNET community members, and political activists in the context of interrogations by state security agents during the coverage period. In one of the most egregious cases, security officials held multiple threatening meetings with 14ymedio journalist Luz Escobar in order to dissuade her from continuing her work. Also notable were the threats against SNET member Ernesto de Armas that were intended to facilitate the breakup and takeover of the network. Independent journalists Iliana Hernández, Boris González, Nancy Alfaya, Camila Acosta, Waldo Fernández Cuenca, and Yoe Suárez were similarly threatened during their interrogations in the 2019–20 period.2

During the same period, numerous cyberbullying attacks, including death threats, were directed against LGBT+ activists and independent journalists, among others. Death threats delivered in May 2020 originated from a fake Facebook account and involved the exposure of private information about the individuals being attacked, indicating that Cuban state security agencies may have been behind them. Targets included independent online journalists Yosmany Mayeta and Maykel González Vivero, the Spain-based visual artist Nonardo Perea, and the writer Jorge Ángel Pérez.3 Independent journalist Ezequiel Fuentes was also harassed by a Facebook account believed to have been created by state security officials. After authorities arrested and confiscated the phone of YouTube content producer Nelson Julio Álvarez Mairata (known as Nexy J Show) in October 2019, his Facebook profile was altered to show support for the regime and to criticize freelance work.4

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 1.001 3.003

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 used the platforms to report on human rights abuses by the government.2

On Cuba

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    14 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    22 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes