Friday, December 19, 2014

Is the Internet a priority for Cuba? The ball is in their court.

Yesterday, a reporter asked me to comment on two quotes following the release of Alan Gross:

1. President Obama: "Unfortunately, our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe."

2. Senator Rubio: "The reason why they don't have access to 21st century telecommunications -- like smart phones, like access to the internet -- is because it is illegal in Cuba."

The reporter asked which statement I thought was closer to the truth.

While there is something to be said for both, I had to side with Senator Rubio. There are three primary causes for the sad state of the Cuban Internet:

1. Fear of an open Internet by the Cuban government: When the Internet first came to Cuba, there was high level debate over how to deal with it. Raúl Castro led the anti-Internet faction and they decided to restrict access. (Around the same time, the Chinese decided to encourage the growth of the Internet, but tightly control content and monitor users).

2. Financial constraints: The Cuban economy was in terrible shape at that time due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and they remain poor, but today they are better off than many Latin American and Caribbean nations with better Internet infrastructure.

3. The US trade embargo: The embargo raised the cost of computers and communication equipment in Cuba, which has had a dampening effect. This effect has been diminished with the emergence of China as a major manufacturer of communication equipment, but it is still a factor. The 2009 US decision authorizing the provision of communication services in Cuba could have enabled Cuban satellite connectivity -- the sort of thing Alan Gross was imprisoned for.

Senator Rubio could also point to the ironic facts that Cuba's first connection to the global Internet was over a Sprint link funded by the US National Science Foundation and that nearly all Cuban traffic flows through the United States today.

But, that is history. Cuba now says they want to give the Internet priority. I hope they mean what they say -- the ball is in their court.

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Update 12/20/2014

A number of politicians and Cuba watchers discussed these quotes. Their consensus was:
The U.S. sanctions have played a role in limited availability of technology. However, Rubio is right that the Cuban government has nearly complete control over the Internet. That isn’t a result of sanctions on telecommunication business activity in Cuba. Even if the United States fully repeals its embargo, government control over Internet access could continue.

We rate Rubio’s statement Mostly True.

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Update 12/29/2014

Diario de Cuba asked Cuba experts José Remón, Iván Darias Alfonso, Ted Henken and me what we thought about the future of the Cuban Interent. Each reply is worth reading, but they seem to agree that the ball is in Cuba's court now -- that the growth of the Internet will not be constrained by the US.


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Update
December 31, 2014

I should have posted these earlier, but here are the Cuba policy changes the President has announced "in order to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely:"
  • The commercial export of certain items that will contribute to the ability of the Cuban people to communicate with people in the United States and the rest of the world will be authorized. This will include the commercial sale of certain consumer communications devices, related software, applications, hardware, and services, and items for the establishment and update of communications-related systems.
  • Telecommunications providers will be allowed to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba.
The US will license the export of any Internet-related goods and services Cuba will allow -- what will they allow?
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