The Americas

Protests in Egypt Spark Fears in Cuba Over Growing Internet Opposition Movements

Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul Castro attend a special session of parliament in this 2010 file photo.

Fidel Castro, left, and his brother Raul Castro attend a special session of parliament in this 2010 file photo.  (AP)

MIAMI -- Peering at the upheaval thousands of miles away in Egypt, the Cuban government is increasingly concerned about a burgeoning opposition movement growing through the Internet.

As a result, the Castro regime has intensified its crackdown on dissident groups in an attempt to ensure that what is happening in Cairo will not happen in Havana, according to some observers.

"We do see instances of repression starting since the Egyptian upheaval. There have been brutal beatings on dissidents," said Susel Perez, of the Cuba Transition Project, at the University of Miami. " It is a direct sign from the Cuban government that this is something that will not be tolerated on the island."

In a 53-minute video leaked last week, a Cuban counter-intelligence staffer warned an audience of Castro government officials that pro-Democracy organizers in Cuba and the United States were using social media, like Facebook and Twitter, to foment a political uprising in the island nation.

"The technology in itself is not a threat, but the threat is what the people who use the technology can do with it," the lecturer said in the video, identified by the Miami Herald as 38-year-old Eduardo Fontes-Suarez. "The Internet is a battlefield."

The video lecture was purportedly shot over the summer, months before the situation exploded in Egypt. The impetus behind the unrest was a Facebook page created to honor a young Egyptian man allegedly murdered by corrupt police.

During the lecture, Fontes-Suarez directly blamed the U.S. government for coordinating the new Internet push and says Cuban bloggers like Yoani Sanchez -- creator of "Generacion Y," a blog critical of the Cuban regime -- are part of a U.S. campaign to overthrow the Castro government.

"A network of mercenaries is being organized that are not like the traditional counter revolution," Fontes-Suarez said. "We are talking about young people. Young people who hang out with our children."

But the Cuban government has taken steps that seemingly contradict the premise that they fear the Internet. On Tuesday, Cuban authorities recently unblocked Sanchez' blog, allowing it to be accessed and read within the island for the first time.

The reason may be that the authoritarian regime has such tight control of Cuba's Internet and those who access it -- much firmer than Egypt's Mubarak government-- that they believe they could clamp down on any uprising.

"It is always hard to predict what ends up bringing down a dictatorship," said Dr. Susan Kaufman Purcell, a Latin American expert at the University of Miami. " The Cuban government is fearful, and they have always been fearful of the impact of social media, that is why they control it so much."

The overwhelming majority of Cubans do not have Internet access. According to recent statistics, there are only about 1.5 million Internet users out of 11 million in Cuba – just 14 percent.

According to the CIA's world fact book, private citizens in Cuba are prohibited from buying computers or accessing the Internet without special authorization. Some Cubans buy illegal passwords on the black market or take advantage of public outlets to access limited e-mail and the government-controlled intranet.

"The problem is access. In Egypt, there is much broader access to the Internet. You had numbers that go into the street that could make it difficult," Purcell says. "Cuba is a much more closed society than Egypt and many other Middle East countries."

In the few audience shots of the leaked video, Cuban officials in military uniforms intently watch as Fontes-Suarez brings up the case of American Alan Gross, who is facing 20 years in a Cuban jail for allegedly supplying satellite phones to Cuban-Jewish communities, as an example of the United States helping dissidents expand Internet access.

"Social media sites are the basis of all the actions being taken against Cuba, " Fontes-Suarez says. "But being a blogger is not a bad thing. They have their bloggers and we will have ours. We are going to fight and see which of them will be stronger."

On Wednesday, a Cuban official announced a major achievement in increasing the weak Internet strength on the island nation that sits just 90 miles away from Florida beaches: an underwater fiber-optic cable, across 1,000 miles, which links Cuba to Venezuela and promises faster Internet and telephone service to Cuba.

Sanchez questioned whether the move would do more to increase communication options for Cubans or increase opportunities for the government to monopolize communication, but it probably will do both.

"This international connection looks like it's more destined to control us rather than to interconnect us," Sanchez wrote, according to The Wall Street Journal. But Chavez also predicted that hours of Internet access would end up being sold on Cuba's infamous black market.

"With authorization or without it, the hours of connectivity will end up on sale, in a country where the diversion of resources is a daily occurrence, and a strategy for survival," she wrote.