On July 11, thousands of people across Cuba took to the streets, fed up with the lack of food, basic products, medicine, and vaccines to combat COVID-19. They were the first large-scale demonstrations in Cuba since 1994, and the largest since Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Protesters used social media to broadcast to the world what was happening, but the communist regime shut off the internet and telephone services, pulling the plug on their connection outside the island.
The key to the regime’s ability to do so was China. Chinese companies have played a key part in building Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure, a system the regime uses to control its people, just as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does within its own borders.
When the protests began, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio tweeted: “Expect the regime in #Cuba to block internet & cell phone service soon to prevent videos about what is happening to get out to the world… By the way, they use a system made, sold & installed by #China to control and block access to the internet in #Cuba.” An article in Newsweek discussing Beijing’s possible links with the censoring of Cuba’s protests noted that the primary technology providers for Etecsa, Cuba’s sole internet access company, are all Chinese: Huawei, TP-Link, and ZTE. A 2017 report by the Open Observatory of Network Interference found traces of Chinese code in interfaces for Cuban Wi-Fi portals. The Swedish organization Qurium discovered that Cuba uses Huawei network management software eSight to help filter web searches. China’s role in helping the regime cut off communications during the protests has exposed one of the many ways Beijing helps keep the Cuban communist regime afloat.
China’s Interests in Cuba
Since the two countries established diplomatic relations in September of 1960, Sino-Cuban relations have been complicated. Cuba enjoys the sole designation as a “good brother, good comrade, good friend” of China, reflecting their shared communist legacy. Despite that common bond, however, their relationship has been complex; the two were on opposite sides of the Sino-Soviet split during the Cold War, and, in some cases, on opposite sides of national liberation struggles in Africa. During that period, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro verbally sparred over ideological supremacy. Mao accused Castro, a Soviet ally, of “revisionism,” a serious offense within communist orthodoxy. When China reduced rice shipments to Cuba, Castro accused it of joining the U.S. embargo. Following Mao’s death, Castro characterized the late leader by saying that Mao “destroyed with his feet what he did with his head.”
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