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How China Enables Cuba’s Mass Censorship

cuba-democrats, El American

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Censorship in Cuba is relentless. Any dissident opinion can be subject to persecution in Castro-style regimes, that’s no secret, but the ways are, at least the details. Since the massive protests erupted last July 11, the first in decades, Cubans have used a scarce access to the internet to denounce via social networks the repression of Castroism. Automatically, after the world saw the demonstrations, the regime cut the internet.

This is not officially confirmed information, however, there are public records and some reports that show that a large part of the communication apparatus of the Cuban regime was installed and developed by companies linked to the Communist Party of China.

An article published in the international magazine The Diplomatic, for example, states: “Chinese companies have played a key part in building Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure, a system the regime uses to control its people, just as the CCP does within its own borders.”

The piece notes, among other things, that “China’s role in helping the regime cut off communications during the protests has exposed one of the many ways Beijing helps keep the Cuban communist regime afloat”; which the CPC has been assisting diplomatically and economically on a consistent basis since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, China is Cuba’s main trading partner today; and the ties between the two nations go back a long way, although they were not always good, especially during the Cold War, when both were distant.

Beyond the historical and commercial Sino-Cuban relations, the role of Chinese companies in the development of the island’s telecommunications is a leading one. A report by the Institute For War & Peace sums it up nicely: “In Cuba, only one company, the state-owned Etecsa, provides internet access. According to its own corporate magazine, Etecsa’s primary technology providers are three Chinese companies: Huawei, TP-Link, and ZTE… In 2017, the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), a global community that measures internet censorship, found traces of Chinese codes in both the surface and the interfaces used for access portals for wifi connections”

“Homeland and life” is one of the slogans of Cuban demonstrators fighting against Castroism. (Image: EFE)

This OONI report, moreover, revealed that more than 40 websites on the island were blocked from the network and almost all of them had messages against the Castro regime.

“OONI network measurement data, collected from eight vantage points across three Cuban cities between 29th May 2017 to 10th June 2017, confirms the blocking of 41 websites. Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) technology, which we suspect to be located in Havana, was used to reset connections to those sites and serve (blank) block pages. Only the HTTP version of those sites was blocked, potentially enabling users to circumvent the censorship by merely accessing them over HTTPS” read the main findings.

The study also says that “Chinese vendor Huawei was found to be supporting Cuba’s internet infrastructure, but it remains unclear if it is implementing internet censorship in the country.”

Why did Castroism enable internet access and how much does China intervene in it?

Despite the secrecy of the Cuban regime, the free access to Internet is a policy that has given economic fruits to the regime, since Cubans abroad pay this service at really high costs so that their relatives can enjoy connectivity. However, it is also a problem for Castroism, since through it the demonstrators denounce the arbitrariness and repression to the world.

But the regime does not flinch, if it is necessary to cut the Internet, it is done without batting an eyelash. This has been denounced by different Republican politicians, among them the Cuban-American congressmen María Elvira Salazar and Marco Rubio, representative and senator for the state of Florida respectively.

In fact, last July 12, before connectivity was lost on the island, Senator Rubio tweeted: “Expect the regime in #Cuba to block internet and cell phone service soon to prevent videos of what is happening to get out to the world”.

Hours later, the regime cut the internet and the senator denounced China’s role in relation to Cuba’s communication infrastructure: “I warned about this earlier today. It is happening and it will continue. By the way, they use a system made, sold and installed by China to control and block access to the internet in Cuba.”

In a 2019 report, the State Department revealed details about connectivity in Cuba. Mainly, it was analyzed that the internet speed capacity on the island is low, its prices expensive and its infrastructure is of very low quality, in addition to the fact that the connection is inaccessible for a good part of the population.

“Cuba connects to the internet both via satellite and via the sole fiber optic cable ALBA-1 from Venezuela and Jamaica (with limited capacity at 160 gigabits per second). Only about two percent of homes in Cuba benefit from dial-up Internet connection,” the report reads.

“While a greater number of Cubans are able to connect to the Internet through their mobile devices, a service that only became available in December 2018, the mobile network uses outdated 2G and 3G technology and lacks sufficient bandwidth, resulting in very slow speeds and a nearly unusable Internet. Only 47% of the population has 3G coverage,” he continues.

Young Cubans using their cell phones. (Image: EFE)

An important detail of this report published by the U.S. Government is that it highlights the participation of Chinese companies in the technological-communication development and, in addition, they emphasize that Cuba can acquire China’s censorship tools.

“China dominates Cuba’s telecommunication sector and provides a challenge to U.S. firms looking to enter the sector. China played a major role in financing and constructing Cuba’s ALBA-1 undersea cable and Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications company, was involved in developing Cuba’s backbone network as well as installing Wi-Fi hotspots across the island” the report says.

“Two other Chinese companies, ZTE and TP Link, provide DSL modems for network users… Chinese dominance in Cuba’s ICT sector is worth challenging given concerns that the Cuban government potentially obtains its censorship equipment from Chinese Internet infrastructure providers,” they add.

The reports, so far, are inconclusive and it has not been established whether or not Chinese companies have an influential role in direct censorship. However, it is clear that the regime is supported by Chinese companies.

Castroism is not the only tyranny in the region that benefits from Chinese technology; Venezuela, which has been under a bloody socialist dictatorship for more than twenty years, also receives support from companies such as ZTE that serve to censor or persecute dissident voices.

In fact, the international news agency Reuters published a special report on how this Chinese company developed a mechanism of social control in Venezuela through the famous “carnet de la patria” (national identity card).

Another Chinese state-owned technology company, China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), collaborated with the Venezuelan regime to restrict freedom of expression on the Internet, which earned it a sanction by the Treasury Department on November 30, 2020.

“Today, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated CEIEC for supporting the illegitimate Maduro regime’s efforts to undermine democracy in Venezuela, including its efforts to restrict internet service and conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents. Chinese technology companies, including CEIEC, continue to challenge democratic values of freedom and transparency by developing and exporting tools to monitor, censor, and surveil citizens’ activities on the internet,” the statement said.

The reality is that censorship is advancing in the dictatorships of the hemisphere. And they are all counting on the technological support of China, which continues to grow in influence in the region and will probably continue to gain followers as it continues to move its geopolitical chips.

Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.

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