For the past three weeks, the upcoming Summit of the Americas has sparked a debate on the pressure on free speech by authoritarian governments in the Americas, after the Biden administration announced it wouldn’t invite the governments of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua to the reunion next week. The controversy escalated when regional leaders (from Mexico, Bolivia, and some Caricom countries) threatened to boycott the event. Kevin O’Reilly, the U.S. summit coordinator, said it would be up to the White House to determine whether to invite Cuba to the June 6-10 meeting in Los Angeles but that Cuban civil society activists had been asked to attend, Reuters reported.
“While we may not support many of the actions taken by the governments…we believe a policy of engagement will yield more fruitful results than isolation.” pic.twitter.com/eu3iKO2Q0a
— Joshua Goodman (@APjoshgoodman) May 27, 2022
The Summit of the Americas is an international event that brings together leaders from the Organization of American States (OAS) from North, South, and Central America, and the Caribbean, to promote cooperation between them to promote economic growth, human rights and democratic values. Of course, it’s also a highly criticized event that has since the 90s been a cause of diplomatic friction between Washington and Latin American countries.
The announcement sparked a conversation about authoritarian practices in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and censorship, persecution, and digital rights have been at the center of the debate. Why? According to the 2021 World Rankings report, by the NGO Reporters Without Borders, the common denominator among the three countries is censorship, authoritarianism, and state aggression that aggravates the violation of digital rights and Internet attacks against communicators. In an environment of violence against independent and digital media in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, journalists denounce how these regimes use hate speech and censorship to control social media.
Social media is more than a source of entertainment in these countries. Censorship and persecution of activists and journalists have turned social media into the most relevant source of information and “a big tool of resistance,” as described by Guillermo Medrano, human rights coordinator for the Fundación Violeta Chamorro, a Nicaraguan NGO that watches over freedom of expression.
“There are clear patterns of censorship in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela: the practice of blocking social media and news websites is the most repetitive one, but cyberbullying, hacking, and identity theft incidents led by the governments don’t fall behind,” explains Norges Rodríguez, journalist, activist, and co-founder of YucaBytes. Rodríguez also explains that these patterns go beyond the national scope: “There’s also a collaboration between all three countries in digital, diplomatic, political and economic dimensions. This joint strategy isn’t a secret, these countries are very open and frontal about it.”
Let’s compare the patterns between the digital ecosystems in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, three countries with similar strategies of censorship, digital persecution, and digital rights violations.
What does freedom of the press look like in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela?
La red de periodistas venezolanas organized a digital space with female journalists from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and El Salvador to discuss what reporting from these countries looks like. It was a great discussion that highlighted the similarities in their strategies of repression. Check it out.
- Cuba is the worst country for freedom of expression in Latin America, explains NGO RSF in its report: the Constitution prohibits private ownership of the media; all active journalists are required to join the Union of Cuban Journalists, controlled by the ruling Communist Party; a non-autonomous judiciary hinders and/or punishes the expression of dissenting opinions; and many legal provisions allow abuse by state officials. Amnesty International has publicly stated that being a journalist is a risky profession in Cuba.
- RSF states that in Venezuela, since 2017, security forces and intelligence services have intensified repression against the media, with the Maduro regime trying to silence any content that questions his authority, but patterns of restrictions on freedom of the press date back 20 years. According to the NGO Espacio Público, in the last three years, criminal persecution has increased and legal proceedings have been opened not only against journalists, but also citizens who report. The report also states that citizens have resorted to installing VPNs on their computers to bypass portal blocking. However, the constant failures in the electrical service and the difficult connection to the Internet, especially outside of the capital, Caracas, further limit the access to information.
- Nicaraguan journalists also suffer daily harassment campaigns and death threats. After the violently repressed protests in 2018, the government prohibited free mobilization and civic protest and intensified the attacks against the media. The UN and the Inter-American System have documented repeated attacks, raids, and forms of censorship against journalists and independent media in Nicaragua.
What about citizen freedom of expression?
The problem doesn’t only impacts journalism. It affects the work of civil society, including universities, unions, activists and humanitarian workers, intellectuals, and even comedians.
In Cuba, social media has been fundamental to organize communities and was used as a tool during the wave of protests in July 2021. The street protests had a huge impact on the digital world, causing President Díaz Canel to increase censorship measures and to overshadow digital protests. Probox wrote a great piece in English about how Cubans organized to tell their stories to the world. “There are countless claims of repression by activists who use social media. People have been fined and imprisoned for their digital activism, and it has been a growing practice while people gain more access to the internet. There were two cases of two people who had to leave Cuba for sharing political memes.”
Nicaragua has enacted laws that criminalize media and NGOs, managing to prohibit and suspend more than 200 organizations and imprisoning over 200 activists, 65 of them remain in jail. Probox has reported on the citizens that have been detained due to the Cybercrime Law.
Venezuela’s strategy looks a lot like Nicaragua’s when it comes to trying to criminalize NGOs. We wrote about the Antisolidarity Law project that could be implemented in the country. Chavismo has also detained writers, intellectuals, and comedians. In 2018, two firemen were imprisoned for comparing Nicolás Maduro to a donkey. In 2021 CONAS and FAES agents arbitrarily detained two poets for posting on Facebook that the attorney general attended a luxury wedding.
Is this the reason why these countries were uninvited to the summit?
The U.S. government has said that neither Maduro nor Ortega will be invited to the Summit because Venezuela and Nicaragua are not recognized as “sovereign governments.” Díaz Canel took to Twitter to express that “under no circumstances” he would attend the Summit because “the United States had conceived early on that the Summit of the Americas would not be inclusive.”
“The Nicaraguan regime keeps more than 180 political prisoners and has committed crimes against humanity, so it’s understandable that it was not invited to the summit that seeks to strengthen relations between the countries of the Americas to better address the problems and challenges facing the region,” explains Olama Hurtado Chamorro, communications director of Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco, one of the most important NGOs in Nicaragua. “Every country that respects human rights and democracy should have strong foreign affairs policies against countries like ours. In Nicaragua, for example, a couple of weeks ago the regime expelled the OAS from the country, seizing its headquarters and expelling all its representatives from the country. This action in particular led to strong condemnation by the OAS permanent council. You can’t commend a country after doing something like that.”
Could this decision worsen the authoritarian context?
None of these three dictatorships has been paralyzed or deterred from exercising its power by these decisions. They keep increasingly seeking to control more spaces. In fact, as a response, they summoned the ALBA-TCP to Cuba to demand “real inclusion and dialogue among equals” and rejecting the exclusion from the Summit of the Americas.
“I don’t see how Ortega can become more authoritarian just because he isn’t invited to the summit. What is certain is that this has made him feel more supported by countries in the region that have stated that they will not attend the summit if not all are invited, as has been the case with the president of Honduras, Mexico, and others,” Hurtado Chamorro explains.
Currently, artists and activists have become the main political target of these dictatorships, who silence and persecute any type of dissidence and democratic ideals. In Venezuela, the International Cooperation Law or the “anti-solidarity law” that seeks to criminalize NGO and civil society movements is under discussion in Maduro’s National Assembly. The Ortega regime has just outlawed more than 83 civil society organizations and academia, increasing persecution. The Cuban regime is currently prosecuting protesters illegally detained for the demonstrations of July 2022.
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