WASHINGTON—The Biden administration is still trying to restore internet access cut off by the Cuban government after thousands of protesting Afro-Cubans took to the island’s streets calling for democratic reform.
Florida lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, are lobbying the administration to support the protests, as well as quickly get internet access back to the island as family members and friends in the U.S. struggle to get in touch with Cubans. The crackdown on the internet is intended to keep protestors from communicating with one another in the one-party authoritarian nation, where freedom of expression is restricted and an economic crisis has hit hard.
“These internet blackouts have really been damaging,” Dr. Amalia Dache, an Afro-Cuban-American scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, told States Newsroom.
Most of the Cuban American population is concentrated in Florida, with 66% living in areas such as Miami-Dade County and Hillsborough County, according to Pew Research. There are nearly 2 million Cuban Americans in the U.S., with 1.5 million in Florida alone, according to Pew Research.
About 4% of Cuban Americans, or nearly 100,000, also live in New Jersey; the state’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Bob Menendez, is the son of Cuban immigrants and has pushed for sanctions on Cuba. As many as 30,000 Cuban Americans live in North Carolina.
The Biden administration is “exploring a range of options,” on restoring internet access between the U.S. and Cuba, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a recent press briefing with reporters, without offering many specifics.
“We are quite focused on and interested in restoring internet access to the people of Cuba,” Psaki said.
Food and vaccine shortages
The Cuban government’s curtailment of internet access —and thus social media—is what helped fuel many protests across the island, which were led predominantly by Afro-Cubans, said Dache.
The protests, first sparked by shortages of food and COVID-19 vaccines, began July 11 in one of the most marginalized Afro-Cuban neighborhoods in Cuba, San Antonio de los Baños.
From there, the protests rapidly spread to 62 cities across the country and by the end of that day it was 100, Dache, who conducts research on the Afro-Cuban experience, said.
“These are predominantly Afro-Cuban areas that have high poverty,” she said.
It’s estimated that 70 percent of Cubans are of African descent. A 2020 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which monitors human rights violations, has found that Afro-Cubans face historical racial discrimination in health care, education and food, as well as disproportionately high incarceration rates and excessive use of force by law enforcement.
“The IACHR remains concerned that a situation of institutional racism persists in the country, which is reflected in the State’s historical denial of racism and has been used to criminalize mobilization,” according to the report.
“For example, there is a lack of clear disaggregated statistical data from intersectoral databases on the Afro descendant population and a persistent absence of campaigns aimed at raising society’s awareness of self-identification.”
The Cuban government does not recognize that racism exists, or the term “Afro-Cuban,” and therefore banned all Afro-Cuban organizations and centers of the Afro-Cuban community that existed before 1964.
The protests are a culmination of decades of erasure and discrimination from the Cuban government, Dache said. They are an extension of 2018 protests that were led by Afro-Cuban rappers and artists, notably the San Isidro Movement, which challenged the state for its repression of artists. The movement urged democratic reform.
“It was a call from the Cuban people for the government to change their political system to a democratic system,” she said of the 2018 protests, adding that many of the artists were jailed.
In the current protests, the Cuban government has arrested more than 700 people, according to a public Google spreadsheet keeping track of those arrested to assist families off the island who have lost communication with their relatives and friends on the island.
The Biden administration has put in place sanctions targeting the head of the Cuban military, the Cuban Minister of Defense, as well as the government’s special forces unit called the Boinas Negras, also known as the Black Berets, that the government deployed to crack down on protestors.
“This is just the beginning—the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people,” Biden said in a July 22 statement.
“As we hold the Cuban regime accountable, our support for the Cuban people is unwavering and we are making sure Cuban Americans are a vital partner in our efforts to provide relief to suffering people on the Island.”
Biden added that the White House is working with various organizations to “provide internet access to the Cuban people that circumvents the regime’s censorship efforts,” as well as reviewing policy “to determine how we can maximize support to the Cuban people.”
After Biden announced the sanctions on Cuban officials, the Democratic National Committee launched a digital advertising campaign in Spanish and English, touting the president’s “continued commitment to the Cuban people and condemnation of communism as a failed system.”
Menendez, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement of support for sanctions against Cuban officials.
“This new wave of targeted sanctions on regime officials represents another essential step to put the dictatorship on notice for persecuting the pro-democracy movement on the island,” he said. “The message today could not be clearer: The United States stands with the people of Cuba and there will be consequences for those with blood on their hands.”
Tampa support for human rights
Rep. Kathy Castor, (D-Fla.), sent a letter to Biden stressing that “the goal must be a peaceful transfer of power.”
Castor represents Tampa, and many of her constituents are of Cuban descent, as Ybor City was originally founded in 1885 by cigar manufacturers. Many Cuban and Spanish immigrants worked in the cigar factories.
“The Tampa community has been central and supportive of human rights and Cuban independence since the days when freedom fighter Jose Marti rallied cigar workers in Tampa for support for Cuban independence over one hundred years ago,” she said. “It is no different now.”
Castor added that many of her neighbors and staff have been unable to communicate with family on the island.
“Before the Cuban regime cut off the internet we heard directly that most Cubans do not have electricity, medicine, food, internet or access to a hospital,” she said. “They feel completely betrayed by the Cuban regime and are demanding freedom and a better life. We must do all we can to increase access to internet and communication on the island.”
Florida’s Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, called on Biden for a meeting at the White House to discuss how the administration and Congress could support the protests in Cuba.
“The time of that transcendence in Cuba is upon us, and we must act,” they, along with several other GOP lawmakers, wrote in a letter to Biden. “We must support our Cuban brothers and sisters as they seek to take control of their future and liberate themselves from the communist malignancy.”
“Therefore, we request a meeting with you as soon as possible to discuss how Congress and your Administration can work together to bring an end to the oppressive communist regime in Havana and liberate the Cuban people,” they continued.
The State Department, along with 20 countries, on Sunday issued a statement of support for the people of Cuba protesting the regime, saying they condemn “the mass arrests and detentions of protestors in Cuba and call on the government to respect the universal rights and freedoms of the Cuban people, including the free flow of information to all Cubans.”
“We call on the Cuban government to respect the legally guaranteed rights and freedoms of the Cuban people without fear of arrest and detention,” the statement said. “We urge the Cuban government to heed the voices and demands of the Cuban people.”