During Sunday’s historic nationwide protests in Cuba — the largest since 1994 — people of all ages amassed on the streets in multiple cities across the island. Thousands shouted demands for liberty and better access to vaccines and basic supplies.
Cubans are used to chronically bad internet services. Outages on Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and New Year’s Eve are almost scheduled events when the island’s poor connectivity is saturated with traffic. More politically sensitive instances, like the San Isidro Movement protests in late 2020, also saw internet outages, but these were far more limited in scope and length than the current spate.
The government has denied any concerted action to stymie connectivity during recent protests, claiming that failures were due to “technical issues,” as a customer service agent at ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecoms company, told Rest of World. So was the blackout an attempt at political repression, a glitch in the system, or a combination of the two? Independent experts collecting and analyzing internet activity over the past few days suggest that the outages are likely intentional, but the underlying data is difficult to parse.
Data gathered throughout Sunday by NetBlocks, a global internet monitor, corroborated that platforms like WhatsApp, Messenger, and Telegram were down across the country. The company gathers data from a combination of probe hardware, remote scans, among other meters, which is then aggregated and analyzed to detect widespread internet outages in real time. However, the company has recently come under scrutiny around the lack of transparency of its data-gathering techniques.
As opposed to widespread news of an overall collapse in connectivity, locals report that the blackout chiefly affected mobile data. “The landline went down for half an hour on Sunday, but that was it,” said one of the fewer than 250,000 Cubans who have access to broadband, who spoke to Rest of World on condition of anonymity, “You do need a VPN though.”
Without access to a landline connection, a large part of the messages sent on Sunday after 6 p.m. via Whatsapp, Messenger, and Telegram had yet to be delivered at the time this story was published.
Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for Kentik, a global network monitoring company, believes that the internet failures were intentional, and not caused by an overload in the system. “Such a phenomenon would appear as a more gradual degradation of service than an abrupt outage,” he told Rest of World.
Kentik has been analyzing Cuba’s online behavior over the past few days by collecting data from a variety of client firms and networks, compiling statistics across a huge cross-section of online activity on the island. Still, determining the nature of the brownout is difficult: For instance, Kentik is not able to differentiate between fixed line traffic and cellular data.
Data from Kentik does show that just after 4 p.m. local time on Sunday, BGP routes, the digital pathways that channel internet traffic to its destination, collapsed, which could mean a technical failure or a deliberate shutdown.
Ted Henken, associate professor of sociology at Baruch College, who has written about Cuba’s digital revolution, believes that the outage was intentional. “It’s absolutely not the result of a system collapse or too many users at once,” he told Rest of World. “It’s the result of a government-imposed shutdown.” He pointed toward Kentik’s data as proof.
But Kentik’s Madory warned against jumping to quick and easy conclusions. To Madory, the BGP failure “could either happen deliberately or due to a technical failure of one or more internet-facing ETECSA routers. Internet measurement data alone can’t tell the difference.”
This ambiguity of the situation has allowed for rumors and opportunists to capitalize on the brownout. On Tuesday, YouTube and Facebook videos began to claim that there were simple ways to bypass the limited connectivity. The Miami-based cellphone top-up service, Cuballama, published an elaborate set of steps to reconnect a cellphone, including turning on airplane mode and using an offline app like Zapya as a VPN service.
Madory explained that this would only work if specific apps or websites were being censored. The workaround would be useless without an internet signal, as was the case with most of Cuba’s roughly 6 million mobile connections.
To most Cubans, whether the internet’s collapse is deliberate or not seems like a moot point.
A retired state worker told Rest of World on condition of anonymity from Havana that she didn’t believe the government would dare institute a full blackout. “People here really hate being without the internet!”
Rodolfo Ernesto, a driver for a state taxi company, told Rest of World that to him the outage “was obviously meant to disrupt any organized action by the Cuban people.” He was not discouraged by the internet’s absence though: “We are Cubans,” he concluded. “We know how to invent. If plan A doesn’t work, we have plan B and C. I had faith that the Cuban people would organize — despite the outage — and we did.”
Another Havana resident and journalist, Sandra Madiedo Ruiz, also reflected on the island’s newfound reliance on a technology only widely accessible on mobile phones since December 2018. “It reminds me of a time before Wi-Fi and mobile data; when we’d communicate by letter and phone calls,” she said. “The internet has brought us closer.”