Years before becoming President of Cuba, Miguel Diaz-Canel pushed for greater public access to the Internet at a time when it was only accessible to a tiny minority. He would eventually succeed in bringing much of his country online.
Today, just across the Straits of Florida, his opponents from the Cuban community in exile in Miami are taking full advantage of Cuba’s extensive Internet access.
The Cuban government has accused independent media largely based in the Miami area of provoking the unprecedented spontaneous protests that spread to Cuba a week ago.
One of the sites he chose, DNA Cuba, tilts its cover against the Havana government every time. He recently posted a photograph of Diaz-Canel that has been edited to look like a police ID photo. “Genocide,” he said below.
Its coverage of the protests has focused heavily on those injured or detained. For days, the site told a story that the nephew of a top Communist Party leader called on his family and the government to “lay down their arms” and “listen to the people.” Another headline reported that protesters in eastern Cuba shouted “assassin” at Deputy Prime Minister Ramiro Valdes.
Aiming at a young audience, Miami Beach-based Diario de Cuba closely follows Cuban and Cuban-American musicians who criticize the government.
A recent cover page featured separate headlines on the latest news and opinions from musicians Pitbull, Lenier Mesa and Maykel Osorbo, while also reporting that Silvio Rodriguez, a longtime Cuban government ally, was trying to ‘save’ the artists. who abandoned the government.
About a dozen of these Cuba-focused news and magazines have their websites blocked in Cuba, but Cubans can access them anyway by using virtual private network (VPN) services and share them on generally available social media sites. in Cuba.
Some relentlessly berate the government while others, while still critical, strive for more factual journalism like the pioneering media outlet 14yMedio.
Independent site El Toque, which also has a number of Cuba-based employees, published an article debunking false anti-government reports and out of context photos circulating on the internet that grossly inflated the scale of the protests.
While it is difficult to measure the impact of US-based sites on the recent protests in Cuba, the government certainly sees it as a threat.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez spent much of a press conference last week criticizing DNA Cuba and two journalists by name while condemning a bot-spurred social media hashtag campaign.
He accused the opposition media of working for the US government, which funds a number of Cuban opposition media websites with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to US files released by the Cuba Money Project.
Protesters in Cuba also posted messages of discontent and words of protest on social media platforms, primarily Facebook, and encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram.
Many of these sites have been blocked following the protests, prompting US President Joe Biden to say he will consider whether Washington can help Cubans regain internet access.
Even without the help of the United States, Cubans find ways to view censored content with circumvention tools like Psiphon. The company says as many as 1.4 million Cubans used its app to view banned content on certain days last week, up from 18,000 a day before the protests.
This would mean that 20% of Cuba’s 7 million internet users have used this tool to bypass censors.
In 2013, when he was heir apparent to former President Raul Castro, Diaz-Canel said continuing to ban the internet in Cuba was an “almost impossible illusion that does not make sense.”
Internet access gradually expanded thereafter and the landscape changed dramatically in December 2018, when Cubans were able to get internet service on their cell phones for the first time.
Readership of opposition media in Cuba has exploded, said Ted Henken, professor at Baruch College, editor of the recently published book “Cuba’s Digital Revolution.” Henken talks to the media, who track their traffic through Google Analytics and other methods.
“Since December 2018, this media has gained a huge audience on the island and left the official media even more exposed as propagandists,” said Henken. “They (the Cuban leaders) were wrong in that they did not realize that it was going very quickly, in two and a half years, to explode in their face.”
Rodriguez last week accused Cuba and others of implementing a plan that “US imperialism has worked for a long time.”
The US government provides financial assistance to media critical of the Cuban government.
A company closely associated with ADN Cuba received $ 410,710 from the US Agency for International Development to promote human rights in Cuba last year, reporter Tracey Eaton reported via the Cuba Money Project, which follows spending through public records and Freedom of Information Act requests.
USAID officials did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend. The founder of DNA Cuba also did not respond to requests for comment. The two journalists named by Rodriguez declined interviews.
Another anti-government website, CubaNet, received $ 300,000 from USAID in 2020, its director admitted.
Formerly a bi-weekly bulletin printed in Miami, CubaNet now has a team in Cuba in defiance of the authorities, and has published articles on the apparent wealth of the Castro family.
Director Hugo Landa said that “we have never hidden” US funding and that US officials have never tried to influence coverage.
“If we ever felt pressure from one of our funders to influence our content, I would forgo that support,” Landa said.
With or without US funding, the sites try to reach readers like Jorge Norris, a 35-year-old computer engineer in Cuba, who uses a VPN to read sites like Diario de Cuba and 14yMedio as well as the Cuban official media.
“It’s another vision to be able to get a feel for what’s going on in the world,” Norris said. “You need to be fully informed of what they are saying here in Cuba and around the world.”