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Memo from Havana: Examining the needs of documenter communities working in Cuba

Cuban human rights defenders face increasing threats for documenting government repression and violence. Our recent needs assessment with Cubalex offers insight into the realities, challenges, and opportunities that human rights defenders in the Cuban context face while documenting and archiving evidence of injustice.

The Cuban government has responded to public criticism with brutal repression and violence in recent years. Dissidents face many threats, such as restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information, which include the blocking of websites and social media sites, as well as arbitrary detention and imprisonment, disproportionate prison sentences for political prisoners, travel restrictions, and more.

Of particular concern is the Cuban government’s refusal to recognize human rights monitoring as legitimate. The government has also targeted civil rights groups like the San Isidro Movement (MSI) and 27N artists collectives. These actions by Cuban authorities, alongside restrictions to freedom of expression and access to information, hinder the ability to share evidence of the government’s often violent repression of dissent.

Cubalex is one of the primary organizations documenting abuse against protesters and other human rights defenders in Cuba. Since one of their top priorities is documentation, much of the organization’s resources are focused on safely collecting and maintaining evidence.

OpenArchive and Cubalex launched the first of two research phases to map the needs, risks, and threats of the communities in Cuba and elsewhere that are recording, receiving, and amplifying evidence of these violations in the Cuban context.

The needs assessment survey, completed in July 2023, yielded insightful information about the challenges and realities shaping the experiences of those working in and with the Cuban community to create this archive. A majority of the survey respondents are members of the diaspora community, who have left Cuba due to myriad factors, including personal safety, but are still passionate about bringing evidence to light about the Cuban government’s human rights violations.

Opportunities for Support

The survey identified privacy as a top concern for most respondents. We asked respondents to rate the importance of privacy software and tools — like encrypted messaging apps and VPNs — on a scale of one to five. In fact, 72 percent of respondents ranked privacy a five, indicating the community would greatly value additional privacy support and training to help keep them and their work safe.

None of the respondents currently use encrypted apps to share evidence in their workflows. This is an opportunity for OpenArchive to provide support for training, skill development, and integrating secure archiving tools to better protect them and their media.

Respondents based in Cuba also identified internet connectivity to be a significant challenge. Spotty and inconsistent internet not only creates limitations to documenting, preserving, and analyzing media but also leads to further risks related to data loss and reliance on insecure network connections.

OpenArchive remains committed to supporting our Cuban counterparts by facilitating training on best archival practices, technical skills, digital security, and expanding organizational capacity through the Save app.

“The documentation and archiving of human rights violations have allowed Cubalex to raise awareness, sensitize the public, and reconstruct the historical memory in Cuba. The security and protection of information are part of the guarantees that victims need to exercise and enjoy their right to truth, justice, and reparation. We appreciate OpenArchive's opportunity to improve our archiving system and its contribution to ensuring that the horrors of the past and present in Cuba are not repeated in the future,” said Laritza Diversent, Executive Director of Cubalex.


OpenArchive approached the survey analysis by grouping participants by role. This method is rooted in findings from previous needs assessments through which OpenArchive identified three key roles within communities: documenter (one who records and documents evidence first-hand), receiver (one who oversees and manages the receipt, organization, and potential distribution of media/data), and dual-role (one who plays both a documenting and receiving role in their work).

Cubalex and OpenArchive received eighteen responses to the needs assessment. Two of these respondents are based in Cuba, while the others reside elsewhere.

Threat Landscape and Challenges

Survey respondents face both physical and digital threats.

Documenters identify their primary risks as digital threats, cyber-surveillance, hacking, defamation, physical surveillance, physical attacks, imprisonment, interrogation, prohibition of re-entry into Cuba, and the targeting of their family members.

Receivers identify their primary risks as digital threats, surveillance, hacking, discrediting/defamation, prohibition of entry into Cuba, threats to family members who are in Cuba, negative impacts on mental health, and data loss. Receivers based in Cuba note additional risks of internet shutdowns, government attacks, imprisonment and exile.

Those in a dual role identify their primary risks as digital threats, prohibition from entry to Cuba, attacks from the government, and internet shutdowns in Cuba, which prevent access to necessary information and connection to victims.

Connectivity and Technical Constraints

The Cuban government frequently disrupts internet access to suppress dissent. In July 2021, amid anti-government protests, authorities shut down the internet for two nights. Messaging apps like Signal, Telegram, and Whatsapp, alongside social media platforms, were also restricted. This is particularly repressive as Cuban authorities control the country’s only telecommunications network.

Connectivity differences were observed between those based in Cuba and those based elsewhere but did not vary significantly based on the user’s role.

Most of the respondents outside of Cuba preferred to connect to the internet via WiFi. However, the respondents in Cuba preferred to use cellular data over WiFi for security and safety reasons.

While connectivity is not identified as a significant challenge for those outside of Cuba, it is worth noting that internet shutdowns and restrictions inside the country can affect the ability to communicate with those on the ground and exacerbate concerns over data loss, reliance on WiFi, and insecure network connections.

Lastly, given that survey respondents indicated they had a median technical ability of three on a scale from one to five, there is an opportunity for educational and outreach efforts to strengthen the community’s technical capabilities.

User Personas

OpenArchive is leveraging the findings from this survey to enhance our tools to be more responsive to Cubalex’s needs. We have carefully assessed their threats, needs, technical capacities, and current archival workflows through user persona building and other research methods outlined in the human-rights-centered-design (HRCD) methodology. This allows us to gain deeper insight into the structural harms that Cubalex and its partners experience and enables us to adapt our tools to better protect them and their media.

User personas are modeled after a particular individual or role but also incorporate fictional aspects that researchers use to create archetypes that describe the behavior patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, background information, and the environment in which the role operates. This HRCD strategy is an intersectional, thorough, and secure approach to developing a robust archetype representing key characteristics relevant to the role.

Read about the following user personas: Maribel, Oscar, Elena.