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Cuban dissidents report house arrests and social media blackouts since protest

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban authorities have placed around a dozen artists and activists under house arrest and sporadically interrupted access to social media following a rare rights protest two weeks ago, according to the dissidents and internet freedom observatory NetBlocks.

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The sit-in of several hundred people outside Cuba’s culture ministry calling for greater freedom of expression on Nov. 27 was highly uncommon for the one-party, Communist-run state and came at a sensitive time, given a deep economic crisis.

The protest underscored a strengthening civil society, in particular in the wake of the advent of mobile internet two years ago, and garnered unusually broad support among Cuban creatives who have a high standing on the island.

Culture ministry officials held an unprecedented dialogue with a group of the demonstrators that night. But the next day, the state, which has a monopoly on mass media, started a sustained rhetorical assault on some of the protesters, accusing them of being mercenaries for the United States out to destabilize the government.

The mostly young, tech-savvy protesters say the government is reverting to an anachronistic Cold War playbook and they are instead using newer platforms - albeit with less reach on the island - to document state harassment that might previously have gone under the radar.

Data journalism website Inventario, for example, has been publishing maps showing the homes of those who say they have been kept under house arrest since the protest, like performance artist Tania Bruguera.

The Cuban government did not reply to a request for comment.

Activists said they expected the government to loosen up its grip slightly after Human Rights Day on Thursday, when dissidents typically call for demonstrations.

Cuban institutions held celebrations across the island on Thursday in praise of Cuba’s strong record on health, access to education, and gender equality, and denouncing the crippling U.S. trade embargo as the main violation of human rights.

“The Cuban government lacks the political wherewithal to deal with the current situation and is falling back on strategies that don’t work anymore,” Bruguera told Reuters.

Bruguera said she had been detained briefly by police when she tried to leave her house on three occasions since the night of the protest, adding: “I’ve been warned I cannot go outside and I don’t know until when.”

NetBlocks said on Twitter that access to social media platforms in Cuba via the state-run telecoms monopoly was partially disrupted on Thursday. Such disruptions were first reported the night of a raid on a dissidents’ artists collective that sparked the Nov. 27 protest.

Michael Kozak, the U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on Wednesday the time was ripe in Cuba for a reckoning between the government and its people, thanks not least to economic pressure wrought by U.S. sanctions.

Some activists said such comments were damaging to their cause as they helped back up the government’s narrative about foreign intervention.

Cuban officials have said over the last two weeks that Cuban Americans have sought to capitalize on the protest to brew unrest, hiring Cubans to carry out sabotage like throwing stones at a state-run store.

They have also accused Washington of being complicit with terrorism by not pursuing those individuals. A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Reuters the Cuban government had not communicated the concerns to it directly.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta in Havana and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien