Opinion | China will help Cuba censor its own internet

Last February, Cuban citizens voted on a referendum to adopt a new Constitution. The text of the law says that it will grant Cubans more Rights, like being able to sue the State for damages and recognizing the role of private property.

Don’t be fooled by this Potemkin-esque measure. The Cuban government didn’t even tone down its authoritarian nature when it came to the popular referendum that “approved” the new Constitution.

Back in February, Cubans who sent text messages containing the phrase “Yo voto no,” spanish for “I vote no,” (for the referendum) found out that their message never reached their intended recipients. The regime also blocked access to popular Cuban-based independent news websites like 14ymedio and TremendaNota, denying citizens the ability to obtain information about the referendum from sources where it might reveal its true farcical nature.

Regardless, the Internet in Cuba remains relatively open for a country where information is tightly controlled by the State.

There is an explanation for this.

The simple answer is that the government does not see the internet as a threat, yet. The connection is too slow, too expensive, has very few users, and when people connect to it, they use it to communicate with their family members outside of the country.

“Cuba wants to go from a model that basically doesn’t need censorship on the internet because there practically is no internet”

Ted Hanken. Sociologist, Baruch College – The Verge, 2015

Few things have changed since The Verge ran that article. The government has since authorized home internet usage, implemented 3G technology for large swaths of the country, and reduced(somewhat) the price for connectivity. But more importantly, Cuban opposition groups have started to weaponize social media against the regime, calling out human rights abuses right as they are occurring.

Back in February opposition leader, Jose Daniel Ferrer, invited the international media to come to an address to witness how Cuban regime agents were abusing dissidents (while it was occurring).

The decision to allow Cubans to get on the internet was a pragmatic, not an altruistic one. It was a means to let off some steam from an increasingly demanding population that was left behind in the information age. As of 2017, Cuba was ranked 137th out of 176 countries by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a United Nations agency that ranks countries based on access to telecommunications. By this measure, the only country trailing Cuba in all of the Western Hemisphere is Haiti.

All these changes have made the authorities nervous.

Their censorship of the internet and cell phone networks during the constitutional referendum is only an indication of what is to come. The noose will tighten, and soon, Cuban internet users will find themselves behind a “Great Firewall” akin to the one imposed on Chinese users by their government.

There are two main reasons why the Cuban regime is perfectly positioned to implement its own version of the “Great Firewall“: First, all internet and telephony services in the island are provided by a single government-run entity, ETECSA. On a technical level, when all information is funneled through a single channel, or gateway, the ability to monitor and control these systems is greatly simplified.

The second and most important reason is straight forward. The masterminds behind the actual Great Firewall, the Chinese government, will make it happen. They are, and have been in the country for many years, and they won’t think twice about helping their Castroist brethren in their quest for Internet censorship.

The groundwork has already been laid. In the year 2000, Cuba awarded a contract to the Chinese telecom giant, Huawei, to build a national fiber-optic network. Huawei has also installed hundreds of public wireless access points through the country, inserting itself into the principal method Cubans use to access the internet. What’s worse, Huawei also controls a large market share of all smartphones being sold in the Island.

Let’s not be naïve by thinking that an authoritarian one-party State like China would allow one of its biggest companies to run with any degree of autonomy. Huawei is the Chinese government. Its own CEO, Ren Zhenfei, has strong ties to the Chinese political and military establishment. With good reason the FBI Director, Chris Wray, has warned that Huawei is –“beholden to a foreign government”. This fact has prompted many countries around the world to explore measures that would restrict their government employees from using Huawei equipment.

Whatever is coming, it won’t surprise Cubans. Six decades of a one-sided forced relationship will acquaint anyone with the ways of their abusers. Like the Chinese, Cuban citizens will begin using VPNs, changing their DNS addresses, using proxies, and whatever else they can get their hands on to go around the government censors.

Life will go on in Communist Cuba.