U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force’s Final Report

On June 16, 2019, the U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force released its Final Report.[1] It identified what it saw as the following four key challenges to Cuban access to the Internet along with recommendations for expanding such access and the unregulated flow of information on the island.

The Final Report

“I. LIMITED INFRASTRUCTURE, HIGH PRICES, LOW SPEED, AND GOVERNMENT-REGULATED ACCESS”

“Cuba’s Internet penetration rates and speed lag behind regional averages, and access is extremely restricted due to limited infrastructure, high prices, low speed, and Cuban-government regulated access points.”

“Recommendations”

Construction of a new submarine cable: Support efforts to enable construction of new submarine cables, as appropriate.”

Support organic network growth: Some entrepreneurial Cubans have built local-area networks to connect devices at home and in their neighborhoods. These local networks have the potential to support economic growth in the emerging private sector. Increased exportation of U.S. networking tools to private consumers in Cuba could support the organic growth of local networks.” (Emphasis added.)

 U.S. exchange programs: Promote [U.S.] exchange programs that permit Cuban students and faculty, who specialize in technology and computer science, to learn from top U.S. scholars and practitioners about network developments and technology.” (Emphasis added.)

“II. HIGHLY AUTHORITARIAN GOVERNMENT, CENSORSHIP, AND SURVEILLANCE”

“Cuba’s one-party communist state severely restricts freedoms of the press, assembly, speech, and association, and initiatives to promote Internet freedom and increase Internet access on the island are viewed with suspicion.”

“The Cuban government has tightened surveillance and persecution of Cubans who acquire their own satellite Internet stations or create their own networks to expand Internet service with imported technology. Surveillance of ICT [Information and Technology firms] in Cuba is widespread, and dissident bloggers are subject to punishments ranging from fines to confiscation of equipment and detentions. Anonymity and encryption technologies are strictly prohibited, and web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafés, and access centers are closely monitored. There are concerns that as Cuba acquires sophisticated technologies and increases Internet access, its surveillance and censorship tactics could potentially improve.”

“Recommendations”

Digital safety educationAll Cubans would benefit from educational initiatives that inform them how to keep their online activity and data secure. Support for educational and public awareness campaigns that introduce basic concepts on digital safety could help Cubans more effectively protect themselves from security threats online.”

 “Support Cubans’ unfettered access to the InternetSupport for initiatives that promote the free flow of information to, from, and within the island could make online media and private communication more readily available to the Cuban people amid government censorship of specific content.”

“III. UNLEASH THE POWER OF THE INTERNET: DIGITAL LITERACY”

“According to a June 2018 survey conducted by Freedom House, 80 percent of the 1,700 Cubans surveyed said they use the Internet mostly to communicate with friends and relatives and for entertainment. Very few said they used the Internet to exchange views on social and political issues, read about news and other developments, consume educational content, or to learn about topics of general interest (e.g. health, law, etc.). Increasing digital literacy in Cuba could transform the Internet in Cuba from a simple communication tool to a means through which Cubans can express social, economic, and political beliefs. Given the highly authoritarian political context, it is difficult to separate Internet freedom in Cuba from the broader quest for freedom of expression and human rights. Full access to free and unregulated information online will occur only if the Cuban government relaxes its tightly controlled grip on society and communications.”

“Recommendations”

ICT literacy: Collaborative educational initiatives hosted by academic institutions, foreign governments, and multilateral bodies could help expand ICT literacy in Cuba. The focus of such programs should be on using the Internet for education, civic engagement, community building, economic activity, and the free exchange of opinions.”

 Promote freedom of expressionSupport for independent stakeholders could help advance rights for all Cubans. That support could include the development of projects that train Internet users to produce compelling online content that encourages diverse perspectives on society, politics, and culture.” (Emphasis added.)

“IV. U.S. MARKET ENTRY”

“China dominates Cuba’s telecommunication sector and provides a challenge to U.S. firms looking to enter the sector. . . . [China] is able to offer robust financing packages to support its exports to Cubasomething the U.S. government is prohibited from doing and which presents a major obstacle for U.S. companies wishing to invest in ICT [information and technology firms] in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

U.S. companies informed the subcommittees they are often deterred from entering the market due to uncertainty caused by frequent changes to U.S. regulations concerning Cuba. Other [U.S.] companies have chosen not to offer key products and services, citing reasons ranging from regulatory ambiguity to banks’ reluctance to process payments originating in Cuba due to the U.S. embargo.” (Emphasis added.)

“Recommendations”

“Facilitate exports and servicesConsider expediting the review of National Security controlled encryption items, provided such treatment would be consistent with U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. In addition, review banking and financial regulations related to Cuba to ensure that Cubans can access paid applications and cloud-based technology.” (Emphasis added.)

Engage with U.S. private sectorThe U.S. Government could continue discussions with the U.S. private sector to clarify current regulations and seek feedback on how the regulations affect their ability to invest in ICT in Cuba.” (Emphasis added.)

Cuban Government’s Criticism of the Task Force

To date I have not found any Cuban comments about,  including criticism, of this Final Report. Therefore, here are previous criticisms upon the creation of the Task Force in January 2018.[2]

On January 31, 2018,  the Cuban Foreign Ministry sent a note protesting the U.S. recent creation of the Cuba Internet Task Force. It expressed Cuba’s “strong protest for the pretension of the US government to violate flagrant Cuban sovereignty, with respect to national competence to regulate the flow of information and the use of mass media, while rejecting the attempt to manipulate the Internet to carry out illegal programs for political purposes and subversion, as part of their actions aimed at altering or changing the constitutional order of the Republic of Cuba.”

This Task force has “the stated objective of promoting in Cuba the ‘free and unregulated flow of information.’ According to the announcement, this task force will ‘examine the technological challenges and opportunities to expand Internet access and independent media’ in Cuba.

Cuba again demands that the Government of the United States cease its subversive, interfering and illegal actions against Cuba, which undermine Cuban constitutional stability and order, and urges it to respect Cuban sovereignty, International Law and the purposes of and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

The “Cuban Foreign Ministry reiterates the determination of the Government of Cuba not to tolerate any type of subversive activity or interference in its internal affairs and, as a sovereign country, to continue defending itself and denouncing the interfering nature of this type of action.”

“Cuba will continue to regulate the flow of information as is its sovereign right and as is practice in all countries, including the United States. Cuba will also continue advancing in the computerization of its society, as part of the development of the country and in terms of the social justice objectives that characterize its Revolution.”

Other Cuban Criticism of the Task Force

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, said, “In the past phrases like promoting ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘expanding access to the internet in Cuba’ have been used by Washington as a pretext for schemes to destabilize the country using new technologies.”

One of Granma’s journalists, Sergio Gómez, declared, “If the administration of President Donald Trump intends to use new technologies to impose changes in the internal order of Cuba, he chose very old roads that have already demonstrated their ineffectiveness, without mentioning the obvious fact that they violate the laws of the affected country, even those of the United States.” Moreover, the “terrain chosen for the new aggression, Internet, clearly demonstrates what the true objectives of Washington are when it demands ‘free access’  to the network in the countries that oppose it, while in its territory it maintains a tracking system and accumulation of data about what citizens do on the web.”

Gómez also asserted that the U.S. “shows a clear pattern of the use of social networks and the internet with objectives geopolitical and domination. All part of a doctrine of unconventional war designed to destabilize nations without the direct use of military forces, which has taken root after the failures in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In another article, Gómez added details about Cuba’s expanded Internet access apparently to reject the implicit premise of the U.S. announcement that Cuba was continuing to suffer from lack of such access. Gomez said, “Cuba, by sovereign decision and to the extent of its economic possibilities, is increasing the access of its citizens to the network of networks. According to information provided by specialist Rosa Miriam Alizada, ‘2017 will be remembered as the boom in the expansion of access to the network in our country, with 40% of Cubans connected to the Internet, 37% more than in 2010, and for the naturalization of the internet connection in urban spaces from one end of the island to the other.’”

Gomez also said, “Although the State Department tries to camouflage its . . . [Task Force] as a philanthropic project to improve access to the network of networks in . . .  [Cuba], the list of participants in . . . [its] first meeting . . . betrays its true intentions.”

  • One participant, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, “is the umbrella of Radio and TV Martí, two relics of the Cold War designed to issue enemy propaganda and carry out psychological operations against Cuba. Millions of dollars of American taxpayers have been wasted in the failed projects of this organization, [which has been] subjected to several audits for corruption scandals and embezzlement.”
  • Another participant, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), ”is the public arm of the CIA and financier of subversive projects against Cuba such as ZunZuneo and Commotion, whose disclosure by the press was a shame for the US authorities due to its ineffectiveness and violation of international laws.”

Gomez and co-author Iramsy Peraza Forte added that “the U.S. has been using communications technologies to attack Cuba ever since the age of shortwave radios and the emergence of television.” Indeed, “From psychological warfare propagated by the mass media to unconventional warfare, which has been adapted to the internet age, Cuba has been a test site for U.S. schemes designed to overthrow governments which do not respond to its interests.”

Another Cuban journalist with a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of Havana, Randy Alfonso Falcón, reported this was not the first time the U.S. had attempted to use the Internet regarding Cuba. On February 14, 2006, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice created the Global Internet Freedom Task Force for “maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas, especially in Cuba, Iran and China.

Therefore, Falcón believes, “In the face of US action In the Cuban digital public space, our response cannot be merely defensive. We must look forward with a scientifically based vision that mobilizes responses and alternatives from Cuba to the extraordinary ideological and cultural confrontation that arises. Take by assault, from the knowledge, the tools of the new colonizers, build ours and endow them with symbols and emancipating essences.”

The day before the Task force’s inaugural meeting, Reuters reported from Havana that there are now “a handful of web-based news outlets in recent years in Cuba in the wake of the expansion of internet and broader social and economic freedoms. . . .These new outlets have been tolerated as long as they are not ‘counter-revolutionary’ and “have been chipping away at a half-century state monopoly, offering independent reporting and winning prestigious journalism prizes.”

Moreover, several representatives of these independent media, according to Reuters, have expressed opposition to the Task Force.

U.S. Criticism of This Task Force

The creation of the Task Force was criticized by Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University. He said, “By casting the issue of internet access in an explicitly political frame, it will only create greater obstacles for those U.S. telecom companies that have made inroads toward partnerships with the Cuban side. Measures like these strengthen the hand of those in Cuba for whom the prospect (and reality) of external meddling justifies maximum caution with respect to internal reform.”

Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in New York, said, “”The solution proposed by the Trump administration is perhaps even worse than the disease. It will likely empower not the independent media or citizens but only the Cuban government to more easily justify the unjustifiable – more control and repression of independent media and unmediated access to information.”

Alan Gross, the previously mentioned U.S. citizen who was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for illegally bringing communications equipment to the island, has objected to the Task Force.  “My first response was ‘Are you kidding me?’ We are supposed to learn from our mistakes. I learned the hard way that it’s illegal to distribute anything in Cuba that’s funded in full or part by the U.S. government. Until the government of Cuba wants the kind of assistance United States is capable of providing, the United States shouldn’t be doing stuff there.”

Conclusion

The Task Force, from its creation to its Final Report, is based upon the false and illegal premise that the U.S. unilaterally may and should decide what Internet services Cuba or any other country should have and then take unilateral steps to provide those services and equipment. Instead the U.S. should politely ask Cuba or any other country whether there was any way the U.S. could assist in improving their Internet service.

In addition, the Cubans correctly point out that the U.S. through USAID and other means previously has attempted to change Cuban policies about free access to information with the U.S. intent of changing Cuba policies and even its political and economic system. Cuba has a right to be sceptical and hostile to any recommendations by this Task Force.

The Final Report also makes clear that a significant motivation of the Task Force was to improve U.S. private firms’ access to the Cuban market for Internet products and services, which is a legitimate U.S. interest. The Final Report also correctly, but somewhat surprisingly, points out that the U.S. embargo and changing policies about Cuba make that access more difficult. Therefore, the Task Force should have gone further and called for the end to the U.S. embargo of the island and other acts of hostility towards Cuba.

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[1] State Dep’t, Cuba Internet Task Force: Final Report (June 16, 2019).

[2] See these posts to dwkcommentaries: State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task Force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property (Jan. 25, 2018); Cuba Protests U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force (Feb. 1, 2018); U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force Holds Inaugural Meeting (Feb. 8, 2018); Objections to the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force (Feb. 9, 2018).

 

U.S. Considering Re-Designating Cuba as “State Sponsor of Terrorism” 

According to the Miami Herald, the U.S. is considering re-designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” if Cuba’s government and military continue to support Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. A senior U.S. official said,  ”What Cubans are doing in Venezuela is unacceptable,. And the United States is evaluating options to address that behavior.” [1]

This unnamed official added, ““The Cubans are executing a strategy to keep the military from second-guessing their support to Maduro. The only thing that is preventing the generals from supporting President Juan Guaidó is the surveillance Cubans are doing. What is keeping [Nicolas] Maduro going is Cuba’s logistical support.”

Another potential reason for such a re-designation is Cuba’s refusal so far to extradite Colombian leaders of the guerilla group ELN — in Havana for currently suspended peace negotiations —for suspected involvement in. last week’s fatal car bombing in Bogota. The Cuban government, however, condemned the attack, but said it would follow the protocols agreed at the start of peace negotiations in 2017. These provide security guarantees for guerrilla commanders to return to Colombia or Venezuela within 15 days of an end to talks and bar military offensives for 72 hours. [2]

Reactions

This possible re-designation predictably was endorsed by Senator Marco Rubio. He said, “Maduro had ‘bought’ the loyalty of the largely corrupt generals. They are also loyal, by the way, because the Cubans are spying on them. The Cuban intelligence agencies quickly pick up on any of these military officers that are being disloyal or expressing doubts and those guys are arrested. There has been a massive purge of Venezuelan military officers over the last two years … And it wasn’t because of corruption … It was because the Cubans caught them and reported them.”

According to William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert and American University professor, “Putting Cuba back on the list of state sponsors of international terrorism would not have a major practical impact on Cuba because almost all the financial sanctions that such a designation entails are already in place under the broader Cuban embargo. However, Cuba would take it as a great insult, and it would certainly have an extremely negative effect on state-to-state cooperation on issues of mutual interest.”

LeoGrande added, ““The Cuban government certainly recognizes that Maduro’s situation is dire and the worst outcome for Cuba would be complete regime collapse through civil violence or external military intervention. Regime collapse would probably mean an immediate end to Venezuelan oil shipments to Cuba — a blow to [Cuba’s] already fragile economy. Cuba would be willing to help find a negotiated political solution to the Venezuelan crisis . . . but only if both Maduro and the opposition are willing to seek such a solution. At the moment, neither side seems willing to accept any compromise. As a result, the Cubans are essentially stuck with Maduro, even as the chances for his survival diminish.”

Another U.S. expert on Cuba, Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College, said, “Returning Cuba to the list could be disastrous for the Cuban economy because it would scare away desperately needed foreign investments, already very small.”

Background

The State Department summarizes the statutory requirements for “state sponsor of terrorism” as a state that has been “determined [by the Secretary of State] to have repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” [3]

The Cuban government was on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism from 1982 until 2015, when the Obama administration ruled the island was no longer supporting terrorist organizations. More specifically, the State Department in April 2015 stated its recommendation to President Obama for rescission “reflects the Department’s assessment that Cuba meets the criteria established by Congress for rescission . . . . whether Cuba provided any support for international terrorism during the previous six months, and whether Cuba has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” This conclusion was based, in part, upon “corroborative assurances received from the Government of Cuba. [4]

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[1] Gamez Torres, U.S. considers putting Cuba on terror list over island’s support of Maduro, Miami Herald (Jan. 25, 2019).

[2[ Reuters, Cuba Urges Colombia, ELN Rebels to Follow Peace Talks Protocol, N.Y. times (Jan. 26, 2019).

[3] State Dep’t, State Sponsor of Terrorism. The three statues are section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act, section 40 of the Arms Export Control Act, and section 620A of the Foreign Assistance Act.

[4] President Obama Rescinds U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” dwkcommentaries.com (April 15, 2015). See also other posts listed in the “Cuba: State Sponsor of Terrorism?” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical (CUBA).