Cuba

Not Free
21
100
A Obstacles to Access 5 25
B Limits on Content 9 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

Despite improvements to technical infrastructure, Cuba has one of the lowest connectivity rates in the Western Hemisphere, regular internet access remains extremely expensive, and connections are poor. Authorities both monitor usage and work to direct traffic to the government-controlled intranet. The state engages in content-manipulation efforts and blocks independent news sites. Political dissent is punishable under a wide range of laws, including Decree Law 370, which has frequently been used to intimidate and silence online journalists. A widespread series of public antigovernment protests held in late 2020 and throughout 2021 were facilitated online, as Cubans circumvented government censorship through grassroots digital innovations. Authorities imposed widespread connectivity restrictions and blocked social media platforms in response.

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 2021 that included the introduction of a new constitution and the April 2021 retirement of Raúl Castro as the Communist Party of Cuba’s (PCC) first secretary.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 – May 31, 2021

  • More Cubans have access to the internet and to faster internet speeds than in previous years, according to some sources, though the figures likely reflect access to state-owned mobile services on which users are still encouraged to connect to the state-controlled intranet (see A1).
  • The government imposed widescale connectivity restrictions following the historic protests in November 2020, which were coordinated over social media after the government raided the headquarters of an artists’ collective, and blocked Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp (see A3, B1, and B8).
  • Authorities disconnected activists and journalists from the internet and cell networks to leave them without communication during key dates throughout the coverage period (see A3).
  • In April 2021, the government announced the adoption of Decree Law 35, which imposes broad obligations on service providers to censor online content without judicial oversight or transparency measures; the law entered into effect in August, after the coverage period (see B3 and C2).
  • Authorities continued to use of Decree Law 370 to arbitrarily arrest, fine, and confiscate the devices of independent digital journalists, and activist Juan Luis Bravo Rodríguez was sentenced to two years in prison in September 2020 after refusing to pay a fine issued under that law (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 3.003 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because more Cubans have access to the internet and to faster internet speeds, according to some sources, though the likely reflect access to state-owned mobile services on which users are still encouraged to connect to the state-controlled intranet.

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 68 percent in 2019, according to the most recent figures from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU)—up from 57.2 percent in 2017 and 62.7 percent in 2018.1 These figures likely include both users with international internet access and those who irregularly access the government-controlled intranet, such as from school or the workplace. The ITU also indicates that 17 percent of Cuban households have a computer and 31 percent have household internet access as of 2019; the figure includes Cubans covered by at least third-generation (3G) mobile service.2 In contrast, the Cuban government has reported that under 5 percent of Cuban homes have internet access via Nauta Hogar, a home asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) service provided by the state-run Telecommunications Company of Cuba SA (ETECSA).3

In December 2018, Cuba rolled out 3G mobile service following a series of fitful trial periods in which authorities tested demand and performance.4 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.5 At the time of the launch, ETECSA had enabled 789 of its roughly 1,800 mobile radio bases to handle 3G traffic, covering 66 percent of the island’s population.6

ETECSA expanded 3G and introduced 4G access during the coverage period by setting up more radio bases. By the end of 2020, the government announced that there were nearly 1.5 million 4G users, equaling 25.6 percent of mobile coverage. As of February 2021, the Ministry of Communications reported that 4.2 million of the 7 million people with internet access connected through mobile phones, indicating that in just over two years this form of access has outpaced all others.7

Nevertheless, Cuba still has the lowest mobile-phone penetration rate in Latin America, though 6 million people (53 percent of the population) had access to a mobile phone in 2019—more than double the 2.5 million with such devices in 2014.8 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.9

The rollout of 3G and 4G service capped an eight-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 that year, ETECSA had equipped 682 such cybercafés and 1,513 hotspots.10

Devices that use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology or satellite connections are explicitly prohibited by Cuban customs regulations.11 Additional restrictions are placed on modems, wireless faxes, and satellite dishes, which require special permits to enter the country.12 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. As of July 2021, it remains to be seen how this change will affect the functionality, cost, and content that had been available on SNET. In the past, JCCEs have offered limited access to the Cuban intranet, rather than the global internet.13

Restrictions on home network equipment—which include fees for personal use and stringent licensing requirements for commercial use14—have not completely stopped the entry of various devices into Cuba. Signal-amplification devices allow users to share Wi-Fi signals from ETECSA hotspots; such technologies enable many Cubans to gain home or office access to the internet.15

Since 2014, Cuban authorities have worked to develop relationships with US information and communication technology (ICT) companies including Verizon, Google, and Sprint (now T-Mobile), which offer some services to the island.16 In October 2018, on the occasion of his attendance at the UN General Assembly, 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.17 On the heels of this visit, Díaz-Canel 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.18 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.19 As of August 2021, no developments have been publicly shared.

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 fixed-line 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 who earn the average monthly salary are cannot afford access to 3G or 4G services. 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 3G service launch, customers could opt either for pay-as-you-go access at a rate of 10 cents per MB for access to the global internet, or 2 cents per MB for access to the national intranet.2 They could alternatively sign up for a monthly service plan at one of the following four rate packages: 7 convertible Cuban pesos (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.3

In conjunction with the elimination of the CUC and the so-called “monetary ordering” that began on January 1, 2021, ETECSA announced that prices would largely remain the same except that now they would be paid exclusively in Cuban national pesos (CUP). 4 For example, pay-as-you-go access would now cost 2.50 CUP per MB for global internet access and .50 CUP per MB for domestic intranet access. Likewise, monthly service plans would now cost 175 CUP for 600 MB, 250 CUP for 1 GB, 500 CUP for 2.5 GB, and 750 CUP for 4 GB. The largest mobile data plan of 14 GB of data, which previously cost 45 CUC, would now cost users 1,125 CUP.5

The rates for phone and internet access remain exorbitant by international standards. With Cuba’s monthly minimum wage adjusted to 2,100 CUP ($84) after January 1, 2021, a Cuban would still have to pay nearly 10 times that amount (20,000 CUP, or $800 per month) for full-time Nauta Hogar service, as no flat-rate plans exist. The going rate is 250 CUP ($10) for 30 hours of home-based access (at a download speed of 1,024 Mbps). After one uses the hours allotted in any plan, additional hours are charged at 12.50 CUP (50 cents) an hour. There are also more expansive plans for higher download speeds including 1,375 CUP ($55) for 120 hours at a 4,096 Mbps download speed.6 In December 2019, ETECSA rolled out a wider array of mobile data plans, the cheapest of which was 400 MB for 5 CUC (125 CUP after January 1, 2021).7

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.8 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 urban users, and the use of various signal-amplification devices to share or sell Wi-Fi signals.9 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 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, 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, and Diario de Cuba.10 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.11 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 under the old currency regime.

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? 2.002 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the targeted disruptions of internet access reported by artists and activists during protests, as well as blocks of social media platforms during protests and a five-week block of Telegram and several VPNs.

The backbone infrastructure of the internet in Cuba is entirely government-controlled, 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, in order to limit Cubans’ use of the digital space for public debate and civic activity. Internet users, including activists, journalists, and dissidents, reported that their mobile data connections had been selectively disrupted for a few hours to a few days throughout the coverage period, with the apparent goal of preventing their ability to organize or report on harassment at the hands of authorities. 1

In June 2020, ETECSA suspended the mobile service of around 20 independent activists and journalists as part of a state security operation intended to prevent their attendance at a gathering to protest the police killing of Afro-Cuban Hansel Hernández.2 Similar targeted technical blocks or cuts to internet and cell phone service were systematically employed throughout the coverage period to leave activists and journalists incommunicado during key dates.

Telegram was inaccessible for approximately five weeks starting in October 2020, along with several popular VPNs.3 These blocks likely sought to limit communication between activists and independent journalists, who often rely on circumvention tools. International rights organizations condemned the measures as seeking to restrict freedom of opinion and expression, and the right of access to information.4

The government imposed widescale connectivity restrictions following the November 26 protest, coordinated via social media after the government raided the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) headquarters (see B8). Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp were made inaccessible, and mobile data and home-based subscribers experienced widespread service interruptions.5 The data journalism project Inventario identified almost 80 localized mobile-service disruptions in the aftermath of that protest, from November 28 to December 31.6 Such service cuts were sometimes general and broadly reported, such as on December 10—likely related to Human Rights Day—and on January 27, 2021, when connectivity was restricted during a crackdown on a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture (see B8).7 Activists and well-known journalists also faced restrictions after the immediate postprotest period. Members of the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and Press (ICLEP) reported restrictions in late February 2021 and artists and activists were again targeted in mid-April 2021.8

In July 2021, after the coverage period, Cuban officials restricted internet connectivity and blocked WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal amid widespread protests (see B8).9 The protesters—who mobilized on a wide range of issues, including access to COVID-19 vaccines, food supply shortages, and restrictions on human rights—largely organized over the internet, including through livestreaming video tools.10

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, it was reported that new legislation pertaining to ICT regulation would be published in early 2021. However, no such law had been published by May 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

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 2.002 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to social media blocks throughout the coverage period, including a five-week restriction of Telegram, alongside the continued expansion of Cuba’s regime of blocked news sites.

Social media platforms were blocked several times throughout the coverage period, the first such restrictions in recent years. Multiple Cuban independent news outlets are blocked, and the government recently began blocking non-Cuban news sites that do not focus on Cuban content. The government also seeks to limit users’ access to information by making technology unavailable and by imposing prohibitive costs for access (see A2).

The government blocked Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and WhatsApp following the November 27, 2020 protest, which was held after the authorities raided MSI headquarters (see B8). Facebook was also intermittently inaccessible, while mobile and home-based subscribers experienced widespread service interruptions.1

Cuban internet users reported that Telegram was inaccessible for approximately five weeks starting in October 2020, along with several popular VPNs.2 The blocks likely sought to limit communication between activists and independent journalists, who often rely on circumvention tools. International rights organizations condemned the measures as seeking to restrict freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to access information.3

In July 2021, after the coverage period, Cuban officials restricted internet connectivity and blocked WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal amid widespread protests (see B8).4 The protesters—who mobilized on a wide range of issues, including access to COVID-19 vaccines, food supply shortages, and against restrictions on human rights —largely organized over the internet, including through livestreaming video tools.5

ETECSA commonly blocks dissident or independent news outlets and the sites of Cuban activists and dissident organizations, and recently began blocking foreign news outlets that do not focus on Cuban content. The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, a Miami-based Spanish-language daily that heavily covers Cuba, which had previously been sporadically available in Cuba, were reportedly blocked as of December 2020.6 The websites of other foreign news outlets—including the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), El País, and the Financial Times—remain accessible in Cuba.

Leading Cuban news and journalism sites that are blocked in Cuba include El Estornudo, 14ymedio, Diario de Cuba, Cibercuba, CubaNet, Cuba Encuentro, Periódico Cubano, La Asociación Pro Libertad de Prensa, Gato Pardo, Tremenda Nota, Proyecto Inventario, Rialta, and Martí Noticias as of December 2020. 7 The site of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) protest movement, founded by female relatives of jailed dissidents, is also blocked.8 The petition sites Change.org and Avaaz.org—on which activists have circulated demands that the Cuban government permit the exercise of fundamental human and digital rights and denounced Decree Law 370 and ideological discrimination at Cuban universities—were blocked in 2019 and May 2020, respectively.9 Access to the blocked outlets was generally possible only through a VPN. Several anonymity and circumvention tools such as Anonymouse are also blocked.10

Reports indicate that Cuba has begun to use Chinese technology in its ongoing effort to block and filter some online content. A June 2020 report by the cybersecurity organization Qurium concluded that the government may use blocking technologies developed by Chinese companies, including deep packet inspection (DPI) tools.11 A Cuban programmer interviewed by 14ymedio reported evidence of DPI blocking during the October 2020 blocking of VPNs (see A3), which he attributed to Chinese technology.12

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

Since the activation of Decree Law 370 in July 2019—popularly known in Cuba as the Ley Azote (Whip Law)—Cuba has seen a wave of interrogations of independent journalists that include threats against their families. Cubans have also experienced increased pressure to delete and discontinue their coverage of the government on social media (mainly on Facebook) and on Cuba’s crop of new independent digital news outlets (see C1 and C2).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 locally hosted websites. The vast majority of 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). Article 71 authorizes the seizure of work equipment used to connect to the internet, which also restricts independent outlets in Cuba.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

In April 2021, the National Assembly approved Decree Law 35, “On Telecommunications, Information and Communication Technologies, and the Use of the Radioelectric Spectrum.” The law, which entered into effect in August 2021, after the coverage period, imposes a wide range of obligations on service providers, including to “implement technical measures” to limit the use of the services to transmit false information, content that “affects personal and family privacy,” content that affects “the identity, integrity and honor of the person,” and a wide range of other purported harms. Service providers are also directed to suspend users who transmit such information. Decree Law 35 does not establish procedures for judicial oversight, transparency measures, and appeals processes.3 According to an analysis from Cubalex, the law may be interpreted to apply to social media companies.4

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 tolerance. 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

Between 2015 and 2018, there was a period of relative tolerance for state media journalists who also worked for a limited range of “alternative” media outlets considered to be “within the revolution,” even if not controlled by the government or PCC’s ideological apparatus. This ended in 2018 with multiple journalists, journalism professors, and students being expelled from their state positions or universities for publishing in “enemy” media outlets, including online outlets. The restrictions further engrained the practice of self-censorship among Cuban journalists who wish to keep state-media posts.3

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 employ coordinated network 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 PCC’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 (see B2).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 February 2021, the government announced a list of 124 prohibited private-sector occupations, including the printing, editing, and laying out books, newspapers, and magazines.6 While the 2019 constitution had stated that the mass media was public and could not be private, this new prohibition dashed the hopes that a loophole would be allowed to legalize some portion of the independent press. The list replaced a previous register of 127 permitted private occupations. The February 2021 rules permit computer programming, which had been previously barred. 7

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

Despite the persistence of severe restrictions on media outlets that are not controlled by the PCC, 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 print, radio, and television—it has lost that position in the digital sphere thanks to such projects, whose impact has grown significantly since December 2018 as more people have gained access to the internet via 3G mobile data.

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.1 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 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, Tremenda Nota, and many other independent digital platforms. Users also access content from the site through proxies, VPNs on their mobile devices, and offline versions that are shared via USB flash drives.

In recent years, Signal and Telegram have emerged as popular alternative data-sharing and news-and-information distribution channels in Cuba, given their ease of use and encryption features.2 Others continue to use domestic messaging applications toDus, CubaMessenger, and Sijú given their use of less bandwidth (making them cheaper) and the fact that they were popular prior to December 2018, when Cubans gained greater access to the global internet via 3G.3

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.4 Three other recently launched independent digital projects are the data journalism sites Postdata Club and Inventario, and the independent news site ADN Cuba.5 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, Madrid-based Diario de Cuba, Hypermedia Magazine, Cuba Encuentro, CiberCuba, and the recently launched sites Rialta and its English-language counterpart, No Country Magazine.

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.6

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. Journalists for the emergent sites have increasingly been forced to leave Cuba, leaving few reporters on the ground in Cuba.7

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.8 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).9

The use of the podcast format and YouTube channels expanded domestically following the introduction of 3G services in December 2018, with numerous independent journalists, digital news outlets, and others launching their own programs. These include El Enjambre, hosted by El Toque, La Cafetera, which is put together with a binational team in Havana and Miami, and Ventana 14, recorded by Yoani Sánchez, the director of 14ymedio. The state journalist Cristina Escobar also hosts a semidaily podcast in English via Radio Habana Cuba which she makes available via Teveo.cu and Facebook.10 In April 2021, Cuban Twitter users turned to the live audio platform Twitter Spaces feature to access uncensored information and discussions.11

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.12 In June 2018, toDus was downloaded 200,000 times in the first two weeks following its launch, revealing local demand for a social media chat application.13

As of April 2021, with the continued expansion of 3G and 4G mobile use on the island, Facebook maintained its spot as the most popular social media site in Cuba with 73 percent of traffic. Pinterest followed with 15 percent. Twitter increased its share, jumping to 9 percent in March 2021 from 2 percent in May 2020. In contrast, YouTube dropped to 3 percent from its previous share of almost 8 percent. Instagram and Tumblr also had negligible shares.14 The availability of 3G has also made global communications apps more accessible and increasingly popular in Cuba, particularly WhatsApp.15

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

Cubans organized several high-profile protests during and after the coverage period, with social media playing a critical role in driving offline demonstrations. Generally, most Cubans 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.

On November 27, 2020, hundreds of artists and intellectuals staged a day-long protest—now known as the 27N protest—in front of the Ministry of Culture, a day after security officers posing as health-care workers raided the MSI’s headquarters; the artists’ collective had been holding a hunger strike to demand the release of MSI member Denis Solís. 1 More protesters joined the original 27N participants via social-media mobilization and demanded a meeting with Culture Minister Alpidio Alonso to address freedom of expression, the right to dissent, and harassment against artists and civil society actors. 2

In response, the Cuban government imposed localized connectivity restrictions and blocked social media platforms nationwide, and restricted the communications of independent journalists and movement leaders (see A3 and B1). Authorities also subjected the protest leaders to arbitrary detention, house arrest, and state media campaigns labelling them “terrorists” and “mercenaries.”3

A group of artists, activists, and journalists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture on January 27, 2021 to confront authorities over the detention of 27N protesters and continue their dialogue.4 After the protesters sought a meeting with government officials, Minister Alonso slapped Diario de Cuba reporter Mauricio Mendoza to obstruct Mendoza’s filming of the confrontation. Photographs and videos of the incident spread online, with Cuban internet users calling it a reflection of the government’s attitude toward social media.5 The January protest ended with the mass arrest of the participants and mobile connectivity restrictions, which limited both the viral spread of commentary on Alonso’s conduct and reporting on the mass detention of protesters. 6

In February 2021, a group of diaspora and Cuban artists, some of whom are affiliated with the MSI, released “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), a reggaeton song that openly criticizes the government. The song and associated music video went viral online and offline, garnering millions of views on YouTube.7 Government authorities responded by launching homophobic and racist attacks against the artists.8 The name of the song, which is an inversion of the Cuban revolutionary slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”), became a prominent protest slogan.9

In July 2021, after the coverage period, an unprecedented series of antigovernment protests were held in over 50 locations in the country, facilitated by the livestreaming of the initial demonstration in San Antonio de Los Baños. The protesters mobilized over a wide range of issues, including access to COVID-19 vaccines, food supply shortages, and human rights restrictions.10 In response, Cuban officials restricted internet connectivity, blocked WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal, and detained hundreds of people.11

The introduction of 3G and 4G plans contributed to online mobilization efforts, also known as infoactivismo, in previous years. 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. Government accounts, in turn, responded with #CubaInformatiza (Cuba Is Computerizing), along with hashtags referencing the US trade embargo.12

C Violations of User Rights

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

A new February 2021 regulation on allowed self-employment activities explicitly bans any private activities related to independent journalism or media outlets,4 and journalists face an increasing degree of repression, including civil and criminal penalties, for their online activities (see C3).

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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 in recent years—Decree Laws 370 and 389 and Resolutions 98 and 99—constitute a serious threat to online expression in Cuba. The laws essentially codify 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

In April 2021, the National Assembly approved Decree Law 35 (see B3). The law, which took effect in August 2021, designates some forms of online content as a cybersecurity risk and may be used to arrest people for their online activities.2

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.3 Agents from MINCOM can determine who to target under Article 68(i), with no judicial oversight.4

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.5 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 3 to 8 years in prison, while collaborating with foreign media outlets is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.6

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.”7 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.8 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, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 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 Independent journalists, influencers, 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 Madrid, reported 1,798 arbitrary detentions of peaceful dissidents during 2020. While this number was down from previous years, the targets of detention seem to have spread beyond traditional political dissidents to include an increasing number of independent journalists and independent artists, especially following the November 2020 protest outside the Ministry of Culture. Additionally, state security forces have begun to penalize these independent critics by placing them under long periods of unofficial house arrest (stationing an agent outside their homes) and cutting off their internet access. While brief, politically motivated detentions of dissidents and independent journalists were a key repressive tactic during the presidency of Raúl Castro and have continued in a similar fashion under Díaz-Canel, de facto house arrest appears to be a preferred method of repression.2

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. Roberto de Jesús Quiñones Haces, a lawyer and independent journalist at CubaNet who received a one-year correctional-labor sentence for refusing to pay a fine in August 2019, was released in September 2020.3 He had been arrested in April 2019 while covering a trial and was charged with “resistance” and “disobedience.”

Since early 2020, at least 28 independent journalists and activists have been targeted under Decree Law 370, including through summonses, interrogations, threats, fines, house arrest, seizures of work equipment such as cell phones, and other repressive tactics aimed at halting their online journalistic activity. Among those repeatedly targeted were CubaNet journalist Camila Acosta, freelance journalist Mónica Baró Sánchez, and 14ymedio reporter Luz Escobar. During interrogations, government officials showed the journalists printouts of their social media posts and online reporting as “proof” of their crimes.4 In one such interrogation, journalist Niober García Fournier reports being threatened with jail time for posting critical content online. 5

In September 2020, activist Juan Luis Bravo Rodríguez was sentenced to two years in prison after he refused to pay a fine under Decree Law 370. He had originally been fined in May 2020 for a Facebook post in which he criticized the government. Rodríguez is the first person known to be sentenced to prison under the authority of Decree Law 370.6

Ordinary internet users have also been sanctioned under Decree Law 370. In July 2020, a Cuban Facebook user reported that he had been fined after posting about hunger.7

People also faced threats of legal prosecution for their online activities during the coverage period, including under statutes barring “enemy propaganda,” “disrespect,” “inciting delinquency,” “reception of funds from abroad,” “propagation of an epidemic,” and “usurpation of legal authority.” Such threats were made against Acosta, Baró, Ileana Hernández, Héctor Luis Valdés, and María Matienzo.8

YouTube commentators Jancel Moreno and Maykel Castillo were detained in October 2020, the same day they were set to join an online forum discussing Cuban politics. Other Youtube commentators report experiencing threats, interrogations, and cuts to internet service.9

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. In October and November 2020, numerous reports indicated that the government began blocking Telegram, the encrypted messaging app (see A3 and B1).4

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 the 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 they commit “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
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 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 related to the protection of personal data was expected to be announced in February 2021, but it was delayed.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 relation to 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, threats to release intimate images, and online smear campaigns.1 For instance, prominent online journalist Camila Acosta has been interrogated more than six times and had at least three cell phones seized or destroyed in 2019 and 2020, while also being forced to change her residence several times. She was also forced to undergo at least one strip search as part of an interrogation. State security agents have also targeted members of her family with threats and warnings about Acosta’s behavior.2

During the previous coverage period, independent journalists, SNET community members, and political activists experienced threats and intimidation by state security agents, while journalists and LGBT+ activists reported cyberbullying attacks, including death threats.

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

Cyberattacks targeting the social media accounts of journalists and activists intensified in frequency and technical coordination during the coverage period. Previously, technical attacks did not appear to be a primary method of censorship in the country.

Prominent journalist Acosta has been targeted repeatedly, with her Facebook and Instagram accounts taken over and private messages to friends shared publicly. While her accounts had been hacked before, the severity has escalated: In an April 2021 incident, hackers changed her profile picture and personal information and posted content on the profile. 14ymedio director Yoani Sánchez and animal protection activist Leydi Laura Hernández experienced similar hacks in March 2021; Hernández and her husband, political rapper Omar Mena, were experiencing constant harassment and threats from state security agents, including the poisoning of some of the dogs they had taken in at their independent animal refuge earlier in the year.1

On Cuba

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

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  • Global Freedom Score

    13 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    21 100 not free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes