News Column

Cuba Blocks Calls to Phone System Used by Dissidents

Dec. 7, 2012

Juan O. Tamayo

The Cuban government is blocking calls to U.S. and Spanish telephone numbers once described as a 911 service for dissidents - a system they could use to swiftly report abuses to supporters abroad.

Hablalo Sin Miedo (Say It Without Fear) allowed Cubans to record voice messages of up to three minutes that were later posted on the system's blog and automatically emailed to those who signed up, mostly other activists and journalists.

Launched last spring by a Cuba-born Florida International University graduate, the system borrowed a page from a Google and Twitter facility established after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shut down Internet access during the Tahrir Square riots.

It was receiving hundreds of calls a month with reports that the official media in the Communist-ruled island would never publish, such as accounts of the arrests of the dissident Ladies in White and damage caused by Hurricane Sandy.

But starting Oct. 29, its lines were blocked by Cuba's government-owned telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA. Its U.S. number was blocked first, and when the system was switched to a number in Spain, that was blocked also.

ETECSA even blocked calls from Cuba to his personal phone, said the FIU graduate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wants to keep his activism separate from his job.

"We are exploring alternatives to re-establishing the service. We will soon announce new ways in which it can be used again," the graduate wrote Thursday in an email.

"The fact that they have blocked Hablalo sin Miedo confirms its usefulness for Cuban activists and average Cubans who trusted us to tell the stories that the Cuban government wants to silence," he wrote.

Dissidents can still send fast messages via the Twitter facility, but the outlook for finding another way to send voice messages abroad is unclear because all phone calls in Cuba must go through ETECSA.

The Hablalo facility was being used most heavily recently by members of the Cuban Patriotic Union, a dissident group in eastern Cuba.

Also using the system have been members of the Cuban Network of Community Communicators, a group headed by dissident Martha Beatriz Roque that focuses on reports of neighborhood-level issues.

Roque said Cubans trying to call Hablalo Sin Miedo get a message saying the number is "temporarily disconnected." That message is often heard when Cuba's State Security agents block dissidents' cellphone calls.

Google and Twitter established the Speak2Tweet system after Mubarak shut down Internet service during the Arab Spring revolt there last year. The system received hundreds of thousands of calls, which were then posted on the Web and retransmitted as tweets.

Calls to Hablalo Sin Miedo were fewer because phone calls from Cuba to the U.S. cost about $1 per minute, a high fee in Cuba.

But foreign supporters of dissidents could prepay money into the accounts of Cuban cellphones so they could be used to call the facility, and it was at least theoretically available in case of emergencies.



Source: (c)2012 The Miami Herald Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.


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