State Security Fines and Blackmails Users of Social Media in Cuba

Decree 370, known as the “whip law,” monitors Cubans’ social media content. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, 7 January 2023 — Yanara called her best friend and said to her in code: “My son’s unwell, could you bring me a thermometer?” This was just a strategy to get her old university friend to visit her so she could then tell her what was really on her mind. Two days earlier she had been called to a police station in El Vedado, Havana.

“At first, when they summoned me, I thought it had something to do with my business, because I’m self-employed and I sell various things from a street stall”, she told her friend. “But when they took me to a small room I realized it had something to do with State Security. There were three plain-clothes officers, all very young”.

Between those four walls, Yanara found out that that the secret police had been monitoring her Facebook account. “They had pages and pages of everything that I had shared or written on my time-line, at least over the last year”, she said. “They began by asking me why I was using this way of criticising the government when there were already existing mechanisms like the People’s Power and accountability meetings”.

After an hour of recriminations and threats over her postings, Yanara left the station with a fine of 3,000 pesos, which she says she’s going to pay. “I think it’s unjust but I’m really scared because I have a little boy, a business to run and a mother who has no one to look after her but me”, she told her friend.

The police justified the fine citing the law passed in July 2019 “concerning digitisation of Cuban society”, the Decree 370, known as the “whip law” — a ruling which claims to “elevate technological sovereignty for the benefit of society, the economy, security and national defence” and to “counter cyber-aggression”.

Amongst Yanara’s presumed ’crimes’ were those of “distributing, via public data networks, information contrary to social interests, morals, good behaviour and personal integrity”, which has been compared, as applied to the virtual world, with the crime of “pre-criminal dangerousness”, a legal term which has been used widely against opponents and dissidents.

The content of her posts, which cost her an interrogation and a fine of 3,000 pesos, included memes, some of which ridiculed Miguel Díaz-Canel, comments about the long queues/lines for food and criticism of the deterioration of Havana. “Nothing that you wouldn’t hear said on the street, but they said this type of thing shouldn’t be published on the internet”.

This Habanera, born in the middle of the eighties, likes to keep everything she does under the strictest secrecy. “If this happened to me, who only posts memes and other friendly stuff every now and then, then I imagine there must be lots of other people who’ve also had to pay this fine for saying next to nothing at all”. In the same police station where she was questioned “at least three other youths  were waiting with a similar summons”.

There have been plenty of reports circulating since the start of Decree 370, about the imposition of fines for posting certain types of content on social media, but the majority of those reporting these reprisals have been activists, government opponents or independent journalists. It’s indeterminate the number of other people who have been punished in this way but prefer to keep silent.

“I set my Facebook to private and deleted some posts”, says Yanara. “I don’t want any problems and they made it clear that they were going to carry on monitoring everything I write, who I give ’likes’ to, or what I share on my time-line. It shouldn’t be like this on social media, it’s like walking down the street and having a police patrol following you”.

Cristian, a young man from Camagüey who is preparing for university entrance this year, went further. “I deleted my Twitter and Facebook accounts after I got a verbal summons, supposedly from the director of my pre-university course, but when I arrived at his office there were two State Security officers waiting for me.

The adolescent was questioned about the show of support he’d given on the internet for the 11 July 2021 demonstrators and for “sharing mercenary content”. The secret police threatened him with the whip law and warned him that university entrance was an honour that was only granted to revolutionaries! His Facebook account lasted until that day. Only his family knew about that encounter.

I don’t know whether any of my fellow students have had the same experience, and now when I’m walking down the street I ask myself if other people have also gone through anything similar and said nothing”, Cristian wonders. “I’ve seen friends suddenly disappear off social media and I thought that maybe they were wrapped up in some project or other but after that interrogation I’ve come to believe that they also must have got a summons for what they were posting”.

Decree 370 isn’t the only law to try and put the brakes on citizens’ criticisms on the internet. In August 2021 Decree 35 came into force which penalised anyone who gave voice to ’fake news’ in Cuba, or promoted it, or published offensive or defamatory messages that prejudiced the “prestige of the country”, or “social and ethical damage, or incidents of aggression”.

The law includes a long list of cybersecurity areas, from digital attacks or physical damage to telecommunications systems up to access to, and dissemination of child pornography content, all of which only merit a level of danger which is ’medium or high’. On the other hand, the category “social subversion”, described as actions which attempt to affect public order, is considered ’very high’ risk.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso


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