When thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest this month, their calls for freedom and an end of “the dictatorship” were heard across the world, thanks to the rise in social media.
In the town of San Antonio de los Baños, 20 kilometers southwest of the capital, Havana, residents gathered on July 11 to protest the shortage of basic products and medicine. Their calls were shared via Facebook Live in broadcasts known on the island as “direct.”
The images revealed an unprecedented crowd, replicated in at least 20 towns and cities throughout the island.
But by about 4 p.m., the broadcasts suddenly came to an end in several areas, due to internet service restrictions and selective blocking of some networks.
The partial interruptions led Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to request that President Joe Biden’s administration support efforts to maintain internet service in Cuba with the use of wi-fi balloons, The Associated Press reported.
Andrés Cañizález, a Venezuelan journalist and managing director of Medianálisis, a nonprofit that promotes and supports media, believes frustration at Cuba’s socio-economic situation has been “heating up” in recent months, in part because of comments shared via social media by youths and artists.
“What we have seen now was unpredictable in Cuba, it was an outbreak, but expressions of rejection of the dictatorship on social media can connect with the Arab Spring,” Cañizález told VOA in an interview, referring to the movement demanding democracy and greater rights across several countries in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011.
“Once the first demonstrations are seen on the streets, it has a multiplier effect on a jaded population,” Cañizález added.
Cañizález, who previously lived in Cuba, cited the title of a book by the Czech author Václav Havel to describe the impact of social media on the protests.
“For me, social media is ‘The power of the powerless.’ They are catalysts. It is the possibility that ordinary people or activists who do not have a cannon, a newspaper or a news channel, can demonstrate, connect, speak with others and express their rejection of what they are living. That’s key,” he said.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel has denounced the protests, saying they involved “vulgar” behavior by protesters who attacked police.
Cuban authorities have said that some protesters “had legitimate dissatisfactions” but blamed the protests on U.S.-financed “counter-revolutionaries” exploiting economic hardship caused by U.S. sanctions, Reuters reported.
Hundreds of protesters and opposition figures have been arrested, rights groups say. At least 47 are journalists, according to the Cuban Institute for the Freedom of Expression and the Press (ICLEP), an organization that supports opposition media on the island.
Journalists who spoke with VOA this week say police attempted to intimidate them in custody, or that security guards had been positioned outside their homes. One journalist, Juan Manuel Moreno Borrego with the local news website Amanecer Habanero, was detained briefly Thursday while covering protests, ICLEP says.
Luis Carlos Díaz, a Venezuelan journalist specializing in online activism, said that live broadcasts or instant messages can “make the protest visible” outside of Cuba, but they have a “limited effect” within its borders.
“Social networks as we know them are not necessary to multiply a protest. What multiplies them is the accumulated indignation and the massiveness in the streets. It is not that people are watching Twitter at home,” Díaz told VOA.
Internet circumvention tools have helped some Cubans to stay online, including Psiphon, a tool developed with funding from the Open Technology Fund (OTF). Part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, OTF promotes internet freedom and supports open-source technology to help citizens in the most censored countries.
Daily unique users of Psiphon increased significantly since the protests, said Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn.
“What it does is to allow people that are in a country where the government has cut off the internet, trying to isolate people and keep them from communicating, they can use this technology so that they can still communicate,” Blackburn told VOA, which is also part of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
“As of (July 14) we had over a quarter million Cubans that were using this in their fight for democracy, their fight for freedom, their fight to get food and water and electricity and jobs,” Blackburn added.
She pointed to the video footage and interviews coming out of Cuba as an example of the importance of such tools.
Journalist Díaz told VOA that restrictions on internet connectivity are a common characteristic of dictatorships, such as Cuba, China, Russia, Belarus and some countries in the Middle East.
He said the worst restrictions are in Venezuela, which has “the most blocked web pages, more people imprisoned by online opinions and with the greatest drop in connectivity in the region.”
But even with those obstacles, citizens find ways to access information and document events.
“People without internet can continue to record what happens. You can record, photograph, write, interview, document,” he said. “And then when the connection comes back, when someone reconnects, the information flows again.”
Stopping that process is difficult in countries like Cuba or Venezuela, Díaz said, adding, “Hope is contagious.”
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.
This report originated in VOA’s Spanish language service.