On Sunday 24 February, Cuban citizens voted in a referendum to legalize the free market on the island, with 86.85 percent voting in favor of the new Constitution. During this time, however, access to several sites that operate from within the country was blocked.
Sites affected included 14ymedio, the first independent digital media outlet in Cuba, and Tremenda Nota, an online magazine focused on minority groups such as women, the LGBTQ+ community and anyone who experiences discrimination.
The majority of these blocks were exposed on Twitter, with Yoani Sánchez (director of 14ymedio) tweeting that her site had been blocked since Saturday 23 February.
A handful of news sites operating abroad were blocked too, such as Cibercuba, Cubanet, and Diario de Cuba. Media sites reported that in simple terms, a general feeling of unease among the authorities meant that anyone believed to be critical of the current Cuban regime was blocked during the referendum.
The ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications regulator, refused to comment on the situation, although it did tweet on February 24 that it backed a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum. However, it is known to block independent news outlets on a regular basis, according to the latest Freedom on the Net report carried out by Freedom House.
According to Cuban journalists on Twitter, there have been complaints from the opposition that the state-run media refused to openly cover the ‘No’ campaign. Therefore, they were forced to limit it to social media, massively restricting the number of people it could reach.
Now that citizens have voted in favor of the constitution change, it’s believed that access to these sites has been restored. Although the ‘Yes’ vote introduces the idea of private property and promotes foreign investment, the ban on private ownership of news outlets remains firmly in place, ensuring the state remains in total control of the media.
Despite Cuba’s many attempts to improve its internet access in recent years, it remains severely disconnected, and even those who are able to access the global internet continue to face extremely slow connection speeds of just 1Mbps. It’s also a hostile environment for journalists, with very restrictive laws on free speech and press freedoms.