US Sanctions Are Blocking Cuban Activists from Online Platforms

OElaine Diaz from Cuba was trying, on the 9th of November 2009 to send a newsletter out to subscribers Periodismo de Barrio,When she was checking her monitor for information on human rights concerns on the island, her watchdog site received an error message.

MailChimp in the U.S. had abruptly and unintentionally deleted her account. “They did it without prior warning, for being based in Cuba,” she wroteTweet. “It’s not the first Cuban outlet to go through this experience. Shameful.”

As Internet access has exploded on the island, an increasing number of Cuban journalists, activists, dissidents and artists find themselves locked out of the online platforms and services used by the rest of the world—not by their communist government, but due to restrictions imposed on American companies by the broad, 60-year-old U.S. embargo. Recent years have seen them being blocked from accessing cloud services and file transfer sites as well as social media managers, editing softwares, mobile apps, NFT markets, and video calling. TIME has heard from young Cubans that this blocks them not only of global digital economies, but also it makes it more difficult to produce content and reach wider audiences.

The restrictions come on top of the Cuban government’s own tight grip on Internet access for its citizens through the state-owned telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, which blocks news websites deemed critical of the regime. In the aftermath of July’s historic protests against food and medicine shortages, some called for President Miguel Diaz Canel to resign.

The two factors have combined to hit the heart of Cuba’s protest movement. Young artists were the ones who spearheaded both last year’s San Isidro protests and this summer’s San Isidro rallies. They rely heavily on online platforms for information dissemination and organizing themselves. Experts claim that Cuba’s decades-old embargo, which is blunt in its effectiveness, is inadvertently suppressing the freedom to express oneself and the robust civil society the U.S. seeks to help.

“It’s a classic case of our own sanctions boomeranging and biting us in the ass,” says Ted Henken, a professor of Latin American studies at Baruch College who has written a book on Cuba’s digital revolution. “The embargo is so ill-targeted and its enforcers know little about the island’s emergent digital civil society.”

Although Mailchimp ultimately reinstated Diaz’ account after she went public, that was a rare exception, according to Cuban artists and activists who spoke to TIME. (A Mailchimp spokesman told TIME the service “operates in compliance with all applicable laws and regulations” but did not clarify how Diaz’ circumstances changed.) A compilation of Cuban programmers from Github shows that at least 107 tech websites, web services, and software are prohibited from Cuba. Github is a platform for sharing code. They cite U.S. law to list the restrictions placed on these services’ users from Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

“As time goes by, more and more websites and services are being blocked for Cubans,” says Gabriel Guerra Bianchi, a Havana photographer and artist. He was disappointed when OpenSea blocked Cubans from its website in May. They cited the embargo as a reason, locking them out the most important marketplace for non-fungible tokens.

“Sometimes one doesn’t even know where these [blocks] are coming from—whether from here or from there,” Bianchi said. He says he doesn’t blame services like OpenSea, which he said expressed regret to their community of Cuban users. “It’s not out of bad faith from these companies, but rather it seems to be part of their security protocols to avoid future problems with the U.S. State Department.”

Cubans are living with its impact. For generations, the U.S. trade embargo. President John F. Kennedy imposed a near-total trade embargo on the country in 1962 after Washington’s failed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro, citing “the subversive offensive of Sino-Soviet Communism” the regime was aligned with. Cuba was heavily dependent upon trade with America, so it became dependent on Soviet Union (and later Venezuela) for its economic and military assistance.

But the embargo’s restrictions on U.S.-based services have gained new urgency as web access has expanded to more Cubans. Internet usage in Cuba grew dramatically in the wake of the historic détente in 2014, when President Barack Obama and Raul Castro agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations, leading to the easing of many restrictions on business with and travel to Cuba, as well as an influx of U.S. dollars. Although Cuba only allowed full Internet access on mobile phones in 2018, more than four million citizens on the island—over a third of the population—now access the web on their smartphones.

The relationship between the two countries deteriorated again under Trump, who promised to reverse Obama’s measures and toughened the embargo by imposing over 240 sanctions during his four years in office. While President Joe Biden pledged during his presidential campaign to restore Obama-era policies that engaged with Cuba, Biden has yet to lift the restrictions.

U.S. companies are prohibited from offering any kind of Cuban service because of the complex web of trade restrictions, regulations and sanctions. While there are exceptions for some telecommunications services that expand actual Internet access on the island and “directly benefit the Cuban people,” according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), this does not include most web services, which would only be able to provide services to Cuba under a special license. Many U.S. companies and platforms have pulled their services abruptly in the past few years due to confusion over how these regulations should be interpreted.

Learn more Food shortages, COVID-19, Instagram, and the Driving Forces behind the Cuba Protests

Since years, access has become more restricted. Coursera is an online platform for education that’s based in California. It offers no-cost classes and blocked access to users from Cuba, as well as those from other countries, on January 14, 2014. The company said in a statement at the time that while export control regulations for educational services had “been unclear,” they had received information from the State Department and OFAC that allowing users in these countries to access their services was in violation of U.S. law. Bitly, a link-shortening site that was used to prevent users from being banned in Cuban countries, stopped functioning for Cuban users in 2016 and caused a wave of broken hyperlinks across Cuban sites.

In 2017, Cuban human rights activist Rosa María Payá saw an error message for her website “Cuba Decide,” an initiative calling for a national plebiscite on free elections. She found that the site had been blocked not by the communist government but because it was using Google’s Project Shield, a DDoS protection service that works with journalists, human rights organizations and elections monitoring sites. In a tweet, Payá called it “the error with which Google joins censorship in Cuba.” Google said at the time the site was being blocked due to compliance with the U.S. embargo. “I would like to know what provision of the embargo forces Google to block an initiative to promote freedom of expression?” Payá asked the Miami Herald.

Four years later, the list of web services used to create and disseminate content and organize online communities has only grown—and with it, the sudden errors that Cuban users encounter. According to Cuban programmers, Google has blocked access to Cuba for a number of web services, including Google Cloud, Google Developers and Google One. Other blocked apps include Adobe, Android Developers and Gitlab.

PayPal, for instance, which will allow transactions that mention the words “bomb” or “cocaine,” will block any transaction with the word ‘Cuba’ in it. (When a TIME reporter tried to send another user in the U.S. $1 with the note “Cuba Libre” on Nov. 17, PayPal immediately restricted their account and put the transaction under review.) Paypal’s terms of service note that its services may not be used by residents or nationals of “any country subject to United States embargo or UN Sanctions.”

Claudio Pelaez Sordo from Cuba, who is a photojournalist and video-journalist, was unable to log in to WeTransfer. WeTransfer had been a vital file transfer platform for many Cuban creators and artists. Unlike Google Drive, it didn’t require users to register for an account, and allowed them to send files up to 2 GB.

“The U.S. government prohibits the provision of certain products and services to specific countries. What this means is that regrettably we are unable to provide our services to you,” the error message read. The company is based in Amsterdam, but has branches in New York City and Los Angeles. WeTransfer did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

“This adds itself to the long list of sites and platforms that [we] can’t access as part of the economic blockade against Cuba,” Pelaez Sordo posted on Facebook on June 10. But “if there’s something the Cuban government has taught us, it’s how to always find a way around it,” he wrote, adding the hashtag #righttolivewithoutblockade.

Learn more Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the leaders within Cuba’s San Isidro movement

To bypass these restrictions, young Cubans increasingly rely on VPNs. They can access all kinds of websites and applications blocked by U.S. sanctions as well as news sites blocked by Cuba. People who spoke with TIME said that low-cost VPNs work slow, which forces Cubans not to use free services in other parts of the globe to purchase expensive VPNs.

Young artists have been particularly frustrated by this trend, as Havana is now a rare hotspot in crypto art. Cuban artists created several art collections using NFTs. This not only opens up new income sources for the country’s devastated economy but also allows them to protest and express their opinions.

“Oh come on!!!! Really!??” tweetedBianchi was a Havana artist and photographer, who was blocked by OpenSea in May. “Cuban artists can’t have access. We are creators. Give us a break!” (An OpenSea spokesman acknowledged to TIME the service had been blocked for Cuban users due to the U.S. sanctions). Bianchi clarified the facts when she received support from all over the globe for VPNs being used to circumvent the block.

“This $10 dollars a month is a 10-day salary in Cuba,” he replied on Twitter. “Not only that, we don’t have credit cards in Cuba to pay, or bank accounts.”

The web is complicatedExperts claim that U.S. trade embargoes and whiplash from the Trump and Obama administrations’ recent opening and close of U.S. Cuban relations have discouraged American businesses and platforms, and prevented them from trying to establish a business relationship in Cuba.

“I’ve worked with a lot of clients over the years who take a very conservative approach and decide they don’t want to run that risk,” says Doreen Edelman, a partner at Lowenstein Sandler who chairs their global trade and policy practice, adding that this is especially true for the start-ups who run many of these services. “They’re not going to want to pay for legal fees for stuff like this, so they’ll just follow the embargo and be done with it.”

But while the blanket Cuba embargo dates back 60 years, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has recently been “much more surgical” in its approach to sanctions, says Laura Fraedrich, senior counsel at Lowenstein Sandler’s global trade and policy team. She mentions specific actions in Russia and Venezuela and sanctions targeting certain people. “It’s targeted at people who are in or have been in the government, and you really wonder why we couldn’t go to something like that for Cuba to mitigate some of these secondary and tertiary effects.”

It is not surprising that the Cuban government blocked these services in their wider criticism of the U.S. embargo. In a report to the U.N. Secretary-General last year, it outlined how the embargo’s impact on online communications had resulted in Cuban representatives having trouble accessing or participating in virtual U.N. meetings related to the COVID-19 pandemic, since digital platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams are restricted in Cuba. (The State Department referred questions to OFAC, which did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.)

It’s a rare point of agreement between the communist regime and some young Cubans. “Solidarity or just appearances?” Rubén Martínez Rojas, who lives in Havana, wrote in a Facebook post in August. “It would be interesting to know how it is possible that the U.S. is so interested in a free access internet for Cubans but prevents us from accessing digital platforms such as WeTransfer, OpenSea, Adobe and dozens of others that are accessed by the rest of the world, adding obstacles to our human development.”

Though a group of Republican politicians, including Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis (Senator Marco Rubio) have been pushing for Biden Administration to make more efforts to open up internet access to Cuba in an effort to foster democratic values. Rojas however pointed out that such a goal would be at odds with the effect of the embargo.

Cubans are unable to create iCloud accounts, or install apps from App Store. They must do this in order to be able to use the iPhone. He also wrote that U.S. sanctions have forced them to purchase expensive workarounds. “No U.S. senator is worried about resolving these issues caused by this decades-long blockade which affect every inhabitant of Cuba.”

The Cuban government is being blamed by lawmakers calling for increased internet access to Cuba. “The U.S. sanctions specifically do not apply to telecommunication,” a Rubio spokesperson told TIME. “It is the regime that is blocking access to it and reporting otherwise is to parrot their propaganda.” His office did not respond to the fact that many of the services in question cite the embargo as the reason for their restricting service to Cuba.

Henken from Baruch College says that the U.S. technology policies towards Cuba as well as the overall embargo policy both suffer from the same internal contradictions. Although they have the intention to attack or isolate Cuba’s government, the policies often harm the citizens they are meant to help and empower. This is contrary to U.S. national interests. “The irony is that the same U.S. politicos that support granting free and uncensored access to the internet for the Cuban people also support an embargo which puts those connections in legal and financial jeopardy,” he says.

He mentions Archipelago in Cuba, an opposition group that attempted to thwart a Nov. 15 demonstration and relies heavily on internet activists. Although the government did not manage to suppress the protests, the embargo could have had an impact on them.

“Just imagine if a group like Archipelago would have had one of its essential social media accounts canceled right during the planned protest, due not to the Cuban regime’s internal blockade on the free flow of information but due to the ham-handed and woefully imprecise U.S. embargo.”

—With reporting by Abby Vesoulis

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