Objections to the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force

The original post about the U.S. establishment of the Cuba Internet Task Force (CITF) set forth the objections from Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, and two Cuban journalists (Sergio Gomez and Randy Alfonso Falcón) and another post focused on the Cuban Government’s objections to the CITF.

Now other objections have been registered by Cuban and other sources

Cuban Objections

Cuban objections came from representatives of its independent media and more from journalists Sergio Gomez and Randy Alonso Falcon.

Cuban Independent Media [1]

The day before the CITF’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.”

Several representatives of these independent media, according to Reuters, have expressed opposition to the CITF.

Elaine Díaz, 32, in 2015 founded Periodismo de Barrio which focuses on the environment. She said, “We are not just talking about something that heightens tension in the country’s political situation but . . . [the CITF] could also damage the credibility of the independent media.” She added that “her outlet would refuse any money that the Trump program might award because in Cuba, people who receive aid from the U.S. government are branded mercenaries. These media are called independent, and that means independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government.”

José Jasán Nieves, 30, director of El Toque, an online platform that focuses on entrepreneurship and citizenship, offered this comment. The CITF was “damaging us by giving arguments to [Cubans opposed to the independent media] … who are trying to link us to the enemy to minimize our presence in Cuban society.” Trump’s new policies were damaging the normalization of relations initiated by the Obama Administration.

Miguel Alejandro Hayes, 22, who writes for the outlet La Joven Cuba (The Young Cuba), said, “Trump’s policy is aimed at destruction: toppling the Cuban government. We don’t agree with that,” as elaborated in its open letter complaining to the State Department.

Sergio Gomez [2]

Gomez provides two additional comments.

In the first he says, “Although the State Department tries to camouflage its . . . [CITF] as a philanthropic project to improve access to the network of networks in . . .  [Cuba], the list of participants in the first [CITF] 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.”

“If we take into account the history of those who make up . . .  [CITF], nothing good can be expected.”

The second offering from Gomez with Iramsy Peraza Forte as co-author states 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.”

They then provide a list starting from March 17, 1960, of 14 U.S. schemes  to do just that in Cuba before the CITF. Here are the ones specifically involving the Internet:

  • In 2004, the “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba . . .is created . . . to identify additional ways to hasten an overthrow of the ‘Cuban regime.’” It proposes  to ‘encourage willing third-country governments to create public access Internet facilities in their missions in Cuba” and to expand “‘the distribution of information and facilitate pro-democracy activities,” and “‘greater access to these types of equipment’ in order to do so.”
  • In 2006 the “Cuba Fund for a Democratic Future was created, providing 24 million USD worth of funding for anti-Cuban propaganda, including online initiatives.”
  • In February 2006 the State Department  “creates the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, specifically aimed at ‘maximizing freedom of expression and free flow of information and ideas’ in China, Iran and Cuba.”
  • In December 2009 “U.S. citizen Alan Phillip Gross [is] arrested [in Cuba] for bringing illegal communication devices into Cuba as part of a USAID program. In March 2011 Gross was [convicted and sentenced by a Cuban court for violating Cuban law] to 15 years imprisonment.” On December 17, 2014, Gross was released from prison and returned to the U.S. “following the announcement of a process of rapprochement between the two countries.”
  • In March 2011 Cuban officials discovered and stopped the U.S. “Operation Surf,” which “consisted of smuggling equipment and software into the country to install illegal antennas to access the internet.”
  • In April 2014 USAID financed the launch of ZunZuneo, which “was designed as a messaging network similar to Twitter through which thousands of Cubans [eventually] would receive “political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize mass demonstrations akin to ‘smart mobs’ to destabilize the country.”
  • Also in April 2014 the U.S. “Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) which oversees Radio and TV Martí, launched a service similar to ZunZuneo.”
  • In September 2016 OCB “organized the ‘ . . . [for] independent” journalists from the island and digital innovators and activists who support the use of new technologies to bring about a regime change in Cuba.”

Randy Alonso Falcon [3]

In CubaDebate, Randy Alonso Falcon attacked the CITF premise that Cuba has subnormal access to the internet and information. He asserts, “there are more than 4 million Cubans who access the internet services through various means, among them tens of thousands of students, professors, health workers, journalists, scientists and other workers who receive free connectivity by virtue of their professional needs.”

Moreover, according to Falcon, “Cuba was the fastest growing country in social networks last year, according to the  Digital in 2017 Global Overview report . [It] highlights the growth of new users in the networks-with more than 2.7 million new users and 365% increase over the previous year-and the use of mobile phones to access social networks had 2.6 million new users and an increase of 385%.” Falcon also provides graphics to emphasize the rapid growth in Cuban access to the internet.

“Much remains to us to advance in the utilization of the new technologies, and especially in his better [means] to attain productivity and economic efficiency; but it will not be with Trump’s interventionist and subversive plans that we will achieve it. Political disposition, created talent, unity of action, culture and knowledge, will be our best weapons in that sovereign walk along the roads of the Internet. Without fear, with amplitude, with better contents and greater connectivity, but without naiveties.”

Other Objections [4]

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 CITF.  “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.” 

Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in New York, author of Freedom House’s annual report on Cuba, 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.”

Conclusion

The CITF 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.

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[1] Reuters, Cuban Independent Media Say No Thanks to Trump Free Press Initiative, N.Y. Times (Feb. 6, 2018).

[2] Gomez, Operational Force on the Internet Against Cuba: the same as always with the same objectives, Granma (Feb. 7, 2018); Peraza Forte & Gomez, Internet wars: U.S. plans to  overthrow the Cuban Revolution with new technologies, Granma (Feb. 8, 2018). Many of the previous U.S. covert efforts to promote regime change in Cuba have been discussed in posts listed in the “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries–Topical: CUBA

[3] Falcon, US Special Group for the Internet meets to draw the digital guidelines of subversion (+Inforgraphics and Video), CubaDebate (Feb. 7, 2018).

[4] Reuters, Ex-Cuba Prisoner Gross Criticizes U.S. Plan to Foster Internet on Island, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2018); Reuters, Trump Task Force on Expanding Cuba Internet Meets for First Time, N.Y. Times (Feb. 7, 2018). 

What is Wrong with the White House’s Plan for Democracy in Cuba?

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[This is a re-posting of a blog post by Zuleika Rivera, an Intern at the Latin American Working Group (April 08, 2014), http://lawg.org/action-center/lawg-blog.]

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ZunZuneo or the “Cuban Twitter” continues to dominate headlines as details regarding U.S. Agency of International Development’s (USAID) failure to inspire a “Cuban Spring” through a “discreetly” funded social networking platform remain unclear. The  Associated Press (AP) first broke the story on April 3, 2014 outlining the parameters of the USAID and Creative Associates International program to develop a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cell phone text messaging to evade Cuba’s strict control of information and its restrictions of the internet. The idea behind the development of the social media platform, according to AP, was to create a credible news source for Cubans on the island. ZunZuneo drew more than 40,000 followers and gathered data (such as location, cell phone numbers) on its users which was hoped to be used for political purposes. According to the AP, the social network managers hoped to use this information to trigger “smart mobs” that would protest the current Cuban government and generate a “Cuban Spring,” head nodding to the “Arab Spring,” a series of protests and uprisings that swept through a handful of Arab countries from 2010-2013.

How did the United States successfully keep ZunZuneo a secret for so long? USAID used shell companies and foreign banks in the Cayman Islands, United Kingdom, Spain and Costa Rica in order to conduct its programs. USAID contracted with Washington Software Inc who was given $3.2 million to text subscribers of TV and Radio Marti. They were required to send 24,000 messages a week and no fewer than 1,800 an hour. They were also required to create an account and give full access to the Authorized Representative for the contracting officer, the government’s technical experts who are responsible for developing and managing the technical parts of a contract. USAID subcontractor, Creative Associates, received $6.5 million to carry out work in Cuba and later another received $11 million from USAID. The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors gave to Mobile Accord $60,000, and USAID also gave Mobile Accord $1.69 million to help run ZunZuneo. Similarly, the New America Foundation was given $4.3 million in 2012 under the Open Technology Institute; their role in the program, if any, remains unclear.

Soon after its creation in 2010, ZunZuneo gathered a lot of followers; and when famous Colombian-born singer Juanes hosted his “Peace Concert” in Cuba’s revolutionary plaza, the ZunZuneo took the opportunity to begin collecting data on Cubans. They polled all of their users on their general thoughts on the concert line-up; and as Cubans innocently answered, ZunZuneo gathered their data. In 2010 when ZunZuneo was at its height, they asked a Denver-based mobile company to join in (Mobile Accord). In their article, the Associated Press mentions a Mobile Accord memo that indicates that they were fully aware of their involvement, stating, “There will be absolutely no mention of the United States government involvement. If it is discovered that the platform is, or ever war, backed by the United States government, not only do we risk the channel being shut down by Cubacel [Cuba’s cell phone provider], but we risk the credibility of the platform as a source of reliable information, education, and empowerment in the eyes of the Cuban people.”

At this point Creative Associates had moved all corporations abroad and had made sure there was no money trail leading back to the United States. By 2011 Creative Associates was thinking of expanding their program and had agreed that the management team should not find out the United States government was involved. At this time they asked Mobile Accord to become independent from the United States government; but that became increasingly more difficult to do, as revenue from text messages was not enough. Finally, in September 2012 the program had to be cut, and it disappeared mysteriously from the Cuban landscape.

The White House has said that the program was not covert because they had disclosed the program to Congress and the program was intended to foster the free flow of information amongst Cubans on the island. Congress denies ever knowing about the program. The legality of this program is also in question since according to U.S. law any covert action by a federal agency must have presidential authority and Congress should also be notified. USAID has said that it is a “congressionally mandated and congressionally supported effort” and that it was reviewed by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). But the GAO report does not list any programs by name or any specifics about what programs were being carried out. It only says that USAID is conducting programs with “greater focus on information technology to support independent bloggers and developing social network platforms.”

Similar to the White House, USAID said this was a discreet, not covert program. USAID came out with its own statement claiming that much of what was reported is false. While ZunZuneo doesn’t portray the full scope of the Obama Administration’s plan towards democracy promotion in Cuba, it is certainly the ugly side of it.

ZunZuneo proved it had little success in promoting freedom of expression on the island to support a more open civil society through a covert, or “discreet” program; and when compared to the White House’s policy to facilitate cross-cultural communication through people-to-people exchanges, ZunZuneo’s success diminishes to zero. In 2011 President Obama took a big step towards “promoting democracy” in Cuba by easing restrictions on travel for U.S. citizens to Cuba. While Cuba remains a sovereign state with its own political system, the legacy of U.S. policy towards Cuba doesn’t recognize this. The Obama Administration has taken steps to engage Cuba in a different way but still under the guise of “democracy promotion.” The President has liberalized travel regulations for purposeful travel as a way to empower and engage civil society in Cuba and in the United States. Its success was immediate: in 2011 73,500 U.S. citizens traveled legally to Cuba, and in 2012 that number increased to more than 98,000. Since the easing of restrictions, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued more than 250 people-to-people licenses, nine charter companies have been set up and there are more than 20 active travel service providers. People-to-people travel has led to authentic interactions between Cubans and U.S. citizens, which has deconstructed the Cold War image of Cuba as the enemy and presented a more accurate Cuban reality. Current regulations have allowed researchers and students to travel to Cuba, to study Cuba “on the ground,” and come back to the United States ready to share their experiences of a different Cuba, a Cuba that is changing.

People-to-people travel has created a new class of ambassadors: citizen ambassadors that in their exchanges on the island promote the core values of democracy. The exchange of ideas between real people via a different brand of “democracy promotion,” program, such as people-to-people travel, is what will inform Cubans about “democracy,” not spam social messaging. The Obama Administration should focus on initiatives such as un-restricted travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens, and high level dialogue with the Cuban government to talk about a variety of issues of common interest. These tactics will not only save money from unknowing taxpayers, but educate about U.S. ideals and realities by real people who are not trying to destroy Cuba, in a much clearer, less secret, non-covert manner. Rather than staining USAID’s reputation around the world, and smearing the Obama Administration as cold war re-enactors, the time is long overdue to sever our ties with difficult-to-clarify, “discreet” democracy promotion programs.

ZunZuneo proved to be a failure; the 53-year-old economic embargo on Cuba, another failure, and the list could go on. Cuba is not our enemy, rather our neighbor; and we should begin to treat them as such. Behind closed doors, judgments can be passed; but in the world arena, we should be “keeping up with the Joneses”—the 188 countries that annually vote in the UN General Assembly to end the embargo—and begin on the path toward a respectful, normal relationship with Cuba.