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In the face of rare protests, Cuba is restricting access to social media, says Watchdog

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  • Access to Facebook, WhatsApp and others is restricted -NetBlocks
  • The protests on Sunday have largely subsided
  • Dozens still imprisoned – rights group

HAVANA, July 13 (Reuters) – Cuba has restricted access to social media and messaging platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp, global internet surveillance company NetBlocks said Tuesday after the largest anti-government protests in decades.

Thousands of Cubans took part in demonstrations across the communist-led country on Sunday to protest a deep economic crisis that has resulted in basic goods shortages and power outages. They also protested the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on civil liberties.

Cuba’s government said the demonstrations were organized by counterrevolutionaries funded by the United States to manipulate frustration over an economic crisis mainly caused by the decade-old US trade embargo.

The protests, which are rare in a country where public disagreements are tightly controlled, largely ended on Sunday evening when security forces took to the streets and President Miguel Diaz-Canel urged government supporters to go out and stand in defense of their revolution battle.

Late Monday, however, another protest flared up in the southern Havana suburb of La Guinera, in which a man died and several others, including members of the security forces, were hospitalized with injuries, state media announced on Tuesday.

It was not said what caused the death. Further deaths and injuries have not yet been officially confirmed.

Hundreds of people took to the streets in La Guinera shouting slogans such as “Down with communism” and “Freedom for the Cuban people,” as two residents and video footage from Reuters show. Some began throwing stones at security guards who eventually responded with gunshots, said 49-year-old resident Waldo Herrera.

“I think the communists have lost control, they won’t have a solution to this situation,” he said. “People are fed up with so much humiliation, so much oppression.”

A Reuters witness saw dozens of people with sticks leaving La Guinera late Monday.

Activists say the government is using so-called Rapid Response Brigades – government-organized groups of civilian recruits – to counter the protesters.

MOBILE INTERNET FAILURES

They also accuse the government of trying to disrupt communications. Mobile internet, introduced just over two years ago, was a key factor in the protests as it provides a better platform for Cubans to express their frustration and the message gets spread quickly when people are on the street.

According to Reuters witnesses, there have been regular and atypical outages of the mobile Internet in the capital since Sunday.

NetBlocks, based in London, announced on its website that Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram were partially disrupted in Cuba on Monday and Tuesday.

“The pattern of restrictions observed in Cuba indicates continued crackdown on messaging platforms used to organize and share messages of protests in real time,” said Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks. “At the same time, a certain degree of connectivity is retained in order to preserve the appearance of normality.”

Facebook Inc (FB.O), which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said in a statement to Reuters late Tuesday that it was concerned that its services would be restricted in Cuba.

“We oppose shutdowns, throttling, and other disruptions to the Internet that limit debate in our community. We hope that connectivity will be restored as soon as possible so that Cubans can communicate with family and friends, ”said Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman.

When asked whether the government is deliberately restricting Internet connections, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said at a press conference that the situation was “complicated”. He said power outages could affect telecommunications services and “Cuba would never give up the right to defend itself.”

Telegram did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) said it found no blockage on its service.

“Our weapon is the internet. If they take the internet away from us, we will be unarmed, ”said Gino Ocumares from Havana when he tried to connect to the internet through a government Wi-Fi hotspot but failed. “The government doesn’t want people to see the truth.”

‘PROVOCATIONS’

The protest in La Guinera was led by “anti-social and criminal elements” who tried to reach the police station to attack their officers and damage the infrastructure, the Cuban state news agency said.

When security forces stopped them, they destroyed houses, set containers on fire, damaged the suburb’s power lines and attacked officers with stones and other objects, the agency said.

State media also reported Tuesday that Raul Castro, who resigned as chairman of the Cuban ruling Communist Party in April, attended a Politburo meeting on Sunday to discuss the “provocations”.

Diaz-Canel said in April that he would continue to consult Castro on very important matters.

The Cuban Bishops’ Conference said in a statement it was concerned that responding to protests over legitimate concerns would be “immobilism” rather than attempting to resolve them, and even counterproductive hardening of positions.

The reaction to the protests in Latin America was divided ideologically: Mexico’s president blamed the US embargo for inciting the unrest, while Chile and Peru called on the government to allow pro-democracy protests.

US President Joe Biden said Monday that the United States “stands firmly by the side of the Cuban people in enforcing their universal rights”.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price urged the Havana government to open all means of communication, both online and offline.

“Switching off technology, switching off information channels – this does not help to satisfy the legitimate needs and aspirations of the Cuban people,” Price said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana and Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Additional coverage from Nelson Acosta and Reuters TV in Havana, Simon Lewis in Washington and Sheila Dang in New York, Juby Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Chang and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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