VSUbans used to joke about Napoleon Bonaparte chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev, George W Bush and Fidel Castro in the afterlife. “If I had had your caution, I would never have fought Waterloo,” said the French emperor to the last Soviet leader. “If I had had your military might, I would have won Waterloo,” he told the Texan. Turning at last to Castro, the emperor said: “If I had had Granma [the Cuban Communist party daily], I would have lost Waterloo but no one would have known.
The joke is no longer doing the trick. With millions of Cubans now online, the state’s monopoly on mass communication has deeply eroded. But after social media helped catalyze historic protests on the island last month, the government temporarily shut down the internet.
Full connectivity returned 72 hours later, but the problem has become a hot potato in the United States. Hundreds of Cuban Americans marched against regime in Washington on Monday, and politicians try to leverage political capital: Florida Senator Marco Rubio called on US to teleport Internet provided by balloon to the island nation, while Joe Biden said his administration is assessing whether it can increase Cuba’s connectivity.
Experts say it is not clear how internet access could be increased on a large scale if the host nation is unwilling to cooperate. “I saw nothing but pie in the sky,” said Larry Press, professor of information systems at California State University.
The past attempts by the US government to strengthen connectivity in Cuba read like a novel by John Le Carré.
In 2009, Alan Gross, a contractor for the US Agency for International Development, was arrested for distributing satellite equipment. His work was funded through a law which calls explicitly for the overthrow of the Castro regime. (Gross was later released as part of the restoration of U.S.-Cuban relations during Barack Obama’s second term.)
Attempts to smuggle satellite ground stations disguised as surfboards on the island were similarly foiled.
In 2010, USAid contactors began working on ZunZuneo, a Cuban social networking site modeled on Twitter. The developers aimed to use “uncontroversial content”, such as sports and music, to reach a critical mass of subscribers before turning to politics. The plan, according to documents, was to encourage Cubans to organize “smart crowds” who could “renegotiate the balance of power between state and society.” The project was abandoned in 2012.
Although the island only introduced mobile data in 2018, more than 4 million Cubans now go online through their smartphones. On an island where public space is tightly controlled, millions of Cubans use Facebook to voice their frustrations.
The use of VPNs has proliferated. People use them to access state-blocked anti-Castro news websites, but also to make payments through Paypal, to send files through WeTransfer, or to play Pokémon GO – all services otherwise blocked by them. US sanctions.
And while past attempts to boost connectivity have failed, America’s policymakers today are more successful in the online battle for hearts and minds.
After logging in through the popular Psiphon VPN, Cubans are directed to a webpage that links to anti-regime propaganda funded by US tax dollars.
A recent hashtag campaign on Twitter, drawing attention to the unprecedented Covid epidemic on the island, was also bolstered by fake accounts.
Analysis by disinformation expert Julián Macías Tovar revealed that thousands of Twitter accounts with the hashtag #SOSCuba were created in the days leading up to the protests. Many accounts used an automated system to retweet the hashtag five times per second.
Along with regular tweets, the campaign boosted participation in the protests by contributing to the feeling that the government was losing control of the pandemic.
Tovar discovered that the #SOSCuba campaign was carried out by accounts linked to Atlas Network, a free market consortium of more than 500 organizations that received funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers. The Twitter accounts of members of the Atlas network were involved in bot or troll hub campaigns during the recent elections in Peru and Ecuador, as well as the civil-military coup d’état of 2019 in Bolivia.
Cuban officials say the online propaganda associated with the scarcity created by the sanctions amounts to a “campaign of destabilization.” Carlos Fernandez de Cossio, head of US affairs at the Cuban foreign ministry, recently said that the Internet is now “being used in the war against Cuba”.
For its part, the state also intervened. In 2013, a well-known dissident described “Operation Truth, A secret program that he said enlisted students to attack those who criticize the government online. Dissident journalists say they frequently receive anonymous hate messages on social media.
Ted Henken, professor at Baruch College in New York and author of The digital revolution in Cuba, said the decision to temporarily shut down the Internet would prove “very costly” for Cuba’s education system and economy.
“It’s a cost,” he says, “which cannot be borne for more than a few days.