The Hardliners and the Cynics Fight to use the Internet as a Weapon against Cuba

By Rosa Miriam Elizalde on December 9, 2018

The State Department’s Internet Task Force for Cuba, meeting for the second time since its first meeting in February, ended without agreement. The hard liners, who demand more money from the taxpayers in order to finish off the revolutionary government in any way possible, was confronted by the cynics, who want the same thing, but take out all moral criteria out and with the compensation of the market .

From last Wednesday’s meeting in Washington, the indignation of the head of the governmental Office of Transmissions for Cuba of the United States, Tomás Regalado, has transcended. The former mayor of Miami told every journalist he came across that he was totally against U.S. telecommunications companies having commercial exchanges with the Cuban government, even if the only reason is to punish Cuba more.

Regalado described as “unacceptable” the fact that “certain elements” that make up the commission asked the U.S. government “to alleviate some parts of the embargo so that Cuba would have access to Internet infrastructure improvements. With him were other hardliners who rushed to declare more or less the same thing, and took it for granted that this point of view prevailed over those who promote the negotiating route with Havana.

This fight between the hardliners and the cynics for the “democratization” of Cuba via the Internet is not new. Both groups alternate their projects of subversion and it is already a regularity that when the ultraconservatives manage to impose their strategies for Cuba in cyberspace, it is because the U.S. government has gone on the defensive. As soon as the White House perceives any possibilities of development on the island with the use of so-called new technologies, the rhetoric of the kind Uncle Sam that advocates making a pact even with the devil to improve “access to free information” ends with the reaction of the hard hand of the those who want to maintain at all costs the technological blockade.

But when the strategists’ calculation is that the Revolution is at risk, the narrative that the Internet is an opportunity to reverse the Cuban process soon reappears. The cynics enter the game and the U.S. government raises some of the barriers that the hard guys had nailed shut before.

A bit of history

Since the Internet began to be the central nervous system of contemporary society, the hardliners and cynics alternated with defensive or offensive actions, according to the dominant predictions for Cuba in Washington.

While Europe and most Latin American countries began to connect to the Internet in the mid-1980s, Cuba was subjected for more than a decade to a National Science Foundation (NCF) “route filtering” policy that blocked links to and from the island to U.S. territory. The Caribbean nation’s social and economic indicators were then the best in the region.

With the Special Period – the crisis that followed the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe – the situation changed dramatically. The United States calculated that, as had happened in Eastern Europe, that the days of socialism in Cuba were numbered. It was the turn of the cynics.

In October 1996, a permit was issued to link Cuba to the international network under the Cuban Democracy Law (Torricelli Law), passed four years earlier. Although it gave carte blanche to information trafficking, it maintained draconian limits for any normal U.S. citizen who favored electronic commerce, tourism, or any other area that generated economic benefits for Cubans, including the provision of technologies. It explicitly prohibited investments in “domestic communications networks within Cuba,” in particular “the contribution (including the donation of funds or anything of value […] and the granting of loans for that purpose.

In spite of the restrictions that have lasted until today for the use of the commercial services that the network supports, the cynics had managed to open a crack in the shielding of the blockade imposed by the hardliners. Economic opportunities would open sooner rather than later with these changes, speculation was made in those days.

What few know is that the AT&T lobby was instrumental in the Torricelli Law’s inclusion of Cuba’s Internet access clause. The telecommunications company combined commercial bait with the enthusiasm to destroy the Revolution. The company’s interests came from afar. In 1921, AT&T inaugurated the first submarine cable between Havana and Key West. After the triumph of January 1, 1959, telephone traffic between the two countries became a target of the U.S. blockade, although the technological giant was allowed to continue operations with the Cuban government through existing connections. However, the U.S. government forbade any modernization of these connections. The laws established that all revenues corresponding to Cuban participation in bilateral telephone traffic could not be paid to the island government, but would be deposited in an account in the United States.

Over time the 1921 cable connections became hopelessly outdated. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission estimated that out of 60 million attempted calls per year, less than 1 percent were completed. This situation changed after the Torricelli Act made a major shift in U.S. communications policy to the island.

But the hardliners would deliver another blow in February 2001, seven months before the attack on the Twin Towers, when the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), Admiral Thomas R. Wilson, identified the Cuban government as a possible “cyberattacker,” making Cuba the first country in history to be accused as such, at a time when the entire Caribbean nation had less connection capacity than a single hotel in Miami.

In May of that year, Geoff Demarest of the Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Studies Office published an analysis of the “transition in Cuba,” admitting that “computer literacy is widespread on the island,” that “Cubans could take advantage” of the Internet, and “if [the U.S. government’s] thought was to accelerate Cuba’s transition to freedom [thanks to access granted under the Torricelli Act], this did not work. The Pentagon hawks had come to the conclusion that, in the short term, Cuba would be in a position to make a leap in its technological, scientific and economic development. The US government was, once again, on the defensive.

This attitude began to readjust in 2003, with the escalation of tensions between Cuba and the United States in the context of the war in Iraq and the provocations and threats of the George W. Bush administration against the island, forcing the leadership of the Revolution to concentrate on this scenario. They also weighed the limited investments in the extension of the network, the dissemination of ministerial regulations that limited access, the scarce connection outside institutions, the high prices of connectivity services in tourist centers and a certain over dimension of the perception of Internet risk.

The cynics prevailed again, now with the Republicans in power. The Report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, of May 6, 2004, contemplated “encouraging third country governments to provide Cubans with public access to the Internet from their diplomatic missions on the island. The update of this Plan, announced by George W. Bush on July 10, 2006, further advanced this path by focusing its strategy on the decision to “break the information blockade,” for which it granted the State Department $20 million annually, dedicated primarily to providing “uncensored information through conventional broadcasts and via satellite and the Internet.

On February 14, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice officially created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force (GIFT), which, under libertarian rhetoric, had among its main objectives to monitor Iran, China and Cuba around the clock and to develop specific strategies for them with the power to convene multidisciplinary teams capable of making U.S. government decisions viable and to create, among other resources, highly specialized tools against “the censorship”.

Hillary Clinton, who replaced Condoleezza in office, gave the order to revitalize GIFT “as a forum for addressing threats to Internet freedom worldwide, and urged U.S. businesses and media to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments that practice censorship and surveillance”.

Since 2008, and in a sustained manner, the government of Barack Obama directed towards Cuban cyberspace the majority of the public budget allocated to the policy of “regime change” on the island. Regulations issued in September 2009 by the Bureau of Industry and Security created an exception to the export license to Cuba for “donated communication devices” – cell phones, SIM cards, PDAs, laptops and desktops, flash drives, Bluetooth devices, and wireless Internet devices. Suddenly there was the gaseous impression that in this area the blockade did not exist.

Obama expanded Bush’s plan and developed an “opportunity” policy for Cuba’s telecommunications sector. On December 17, 2014, the White House went so far as to publish a fact sheet entitled “Charting a New Course on Cuba,” which stated that “telecommunications providers will be able to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services that will improve telecommunications” between the two countries.

On March 21, 2016, in an interview with ABC News in Havana, the U.S. President assured that in order for the island “to prosper, we have to bring new technologies to Cuba. He barely concealed that the concept of prosperity was associated with free enterprise and the end of socialism in the Caribbean, a goal that seemed to be just around the corner. The cynics were enjoying a moment of maximum breath.

Is the reign of the hardliners coming back?

The first meeting of the Task Force took place on February 7, 2018 at the State Department, with the objective of “examining the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding Internet access in Cuba” in two sub commissions, one investigating the role of the media and freedom of information and the other focusing on expanding the Caribbean nation’s access to the network of networks. In the public attending by invitation to the Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) meeting, representatives of the hardliners and cynics coincided, and among the latter, some with investments in digital private media in Cuba that survive in a legal limbo.

Ten months later and before the same attendees, both subcommittees presented a preliminary report with recommendations that, according to former Mayor Regalado, “have taken a complete turn” with respect to the preceding line – that of the cynics. The final document with the recommendations to “democratize” via the Internet should be on the table of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May 2019.

Regalado opposes the faction that unites the desire to change Cuba with the economic convenience of subversion on the Internet. By the way, it speaks of its participation in the “Task Force”, a military term used to refer to the Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) of the State Department.

This meeting coincided with the opening of the mobile data service on the island (3G), which has been very well received by Cubans. The performance of the service is good enough to predict that mobile access will be more convenient than current WiFi access points or navigation rooms, so it will become the way most Cubans connect online. Jorge Luis Perdomo, Minister of Communications, assured that the next stage will be to extend the 4G technology, which will allow greater and better quality access.

Good news for Cubans on the digital stage; bad news for U.S. telecom cynics, Republicans and Democrats. As we have seen, the politics of the Internet as a subversive weapon, used by the United States for more than 30 years against Cuba, does not depend so much on which party sits in the White House, as on the perception that is installed on the destiny of the Revolution.

Regularity is fulfilled. The hardliners are already in combat mode to prevent Cuba from connecting with the world under its own rules. The Trump Administration is on the defensive.

Source: Dominio Cuba, translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North America bureau