Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Cuba Internet Task Force -- a win for Trump, Castro and Putin

President Obama began working on Cuban rapprochement during his 2009 presidential campaign. After over five years of thought and negotiation, the Whitehouse announced a major shift in Cuba policy, which included allowing telecommunications providers "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."

When President Obama's trip to Cuba was announced, I speculated on possible Internet-related advances but was disappointed by the results. While in Cuba, the President held optimistic public meetings and several Internet-related projects were announced, but, as far as I know, none of them materialized. Can we expect more from Trump?

Last summer, Trump said he would be changing our Cuba policy and I speculated on how it might affect the Internet, but could not think of anything reasonable. When he published his Cuba policy memorandum, one of its purposes was to restore Cuban's "right to speak freely, including through access to the Internet" and one of its goals was to "amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services."

Trump said he was "canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba," but his Internet policy sounded a lot like Obama's. The only concrete difference I saw was that Trump had ordered the State Department to convene a task force "to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba."

Last week, the State Department issued a public invitation to attend the first meeting of that Cuba Internet Task Force on February 7th.

I called the State Department to ask whether the meeting would be streamed or archived and was told that it would not. I asked if they had any information on the meeting agenda, the charge of the task force and who the members were. They referred my questions to the Press office, but they did not answer.

We will hopefully learn more after the meeting, but what might Trump do? Will we see the laissez-faire Trump who promised Saudi Arabia that "America will not seek to impose our way of life on others" or some sort of digital Bay of Pigs like the failed smuggling of satellite equipment into Cuba, Zunzuneo or the Alan Gross affair?

My guess is that not much will happen -- that this task force and the rest of Trump's Cuba policy is for domestic political consumption by anti-Castro politicians and voters. The Cuban government is also using the task force for domestic political consumption. Their reaction to its formation was predictable -- saying that Cuba is being attacked by a powerful, hostile nation. Within a few days of the formation of the task force, many articles like this one were published by the Cuban government and allied publications like China's Xinhua and Russia's RT. (Perhaps rekindling the Cold War is part of making America great again).

Ironically, this task force is a political win for both Castro and Trump -- autocracy thrives on fear and mistrust.

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Update 2/2/2018

Last night I saw The Final Year, a documentary on the final year of the Obama administration. In it, former Whitehouse staff member Ben Rhodes says it took them time to realize that Putin was not motivated by the interests of Russia, but by self-interest. That may be true to some extent for nearly all politicians, but it seems to fit Castro and Trump well in this case.

(As an aside -- Rhodes was one of the two White House staff members handling the negotiations leading up to our opening with Cuba).

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Update 2/3/2018

Following up on Ben Rhodes' comment on Putin -- establishing this task force or any other act that drives a wedge between Cuba and the US benefits Putin as well as Trump and Castro.

While Castro and Trump use the rift between their nations for domestic political advantage, Putin uses it for international political advantage and commerce.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused an economic crisis in Cuba, sharply cutting trade and cooperation with Russia and other Soviet republics, but in the last few years, trade and cooperation have picked up. In 2014, Russia forgave 90 percent of the $35 billion debt Cuba incurred during the economically difficult "special period" of the 1990s, with the remaining $3.5 billion to be settled by giving preferential treatment to Russian investments on the island.

Cuba and Russia are also cooperating on oil exploration, extraction and refining and Cuba is importing oil, cars, trucks, and railway infrastructure and equipment. Trade between Russia and Cuba rose 73 percent in the first half of 2017 to $176 million. There has even been talk of Russia reopening it's cold war Signals Intelligence base, which once had a staff of 1,500 in Cuba.

While Russia is building commercial and political ties with Cuba, China remains their largest trading partner and a major supplier of Internet and computer equipment. (For more on Cuba-China trades, click here). Even Iran is allying with Cuba.

Russia is also on the "right side" of public opinion of the Cuban embargo. The embargo is unpopular in Latin America and the rest of the world. (The US and Israel support the embargo in the UN and the remaining 191 UN member states oppose it).

Evidently making America great again entails having a hostile ally of Russia and China 90 miles from Florida -- sound familiar? Putin may be the biggest winner from our Cuba policy shift and the Cuban and American people the biggest losers.

Castro and Putin meeting at the UN (source)

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Update 2/7/2018

Reuters reports that Cuban independent media outlets oppose Trump's Cuba Internet policy.

Elaine Diaz, founder of Periodismo de Barrio, José Jasán Nieves, director of El Toque and Miguel Alejandro Hayes who writes for La Joven Cuba are all quoted as opposing the Trump initiative.

Nieves said civil society initiatives had "flourished" after the Obama-Castro detente and Diaz said she would refuse any money the Trump program might award and stressed that they are independent media "independent of Cuban authorities as well as any other government." Hayes does not agree with Trump's goal of toppling the Cuban government.

Of course, these are only three of many independent journalists in Cuba and they are not extremists.

I suspect that this Task Force will be given a budget and, if independent journalists are not interested in assistance from the US, they may end up funding secret projects like those mentioned above. That will allow Trump to claim to be tougher than Obama and the Cubans will discover the projects and overstate their significance -- propaganda wins for Trump and Castro. Putin will smile quietly.
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