Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Decoding the Digital Cold War

Reading Time: 7 minutesCould newly rekindled U.S.-Cuba relations lead to more Internet access in Cuba?
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Students waiting for a cell phone signal outside a Havana building in April 2014. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Among the pressing issues raised by the historic thaw in U.S.–Cuba relations is the role the Internet might play as the two nations enter a new chapter in their shared history. Cuba has one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the Western hemisphere. Government data suggests that over 25 percent of Cubans are using the Internet, and only 3.4 percent1 of households have an Internet connection. But these figures include Cubans who use the global Internet, in addition to those who use local and national-level intranet networks on the island. The percentage of Cubans who use the global Internet is likely much lower. With just one state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA, that tightly regulates citizens’ access to the network, and a single fiber-optic cable connecting the island to global network infrastructure, Cuba seems to lack both the technical infrastructure and the political will to increase Internet access on the island.

But it didn’t always look this way.

In 1996, Cuba became one of the first countries in Latin America to connect to the global Internet.2 At the time, the island’s Internet environment did not look much different from its forward-thinking counterparts in the global South.3 Cubans working in medicine and various academic research fields had slow but operative Internet connections at their workplaces, where they could access online research and communicate with colleagues in other parts of the world.4 Over the past decade, however, as the Internet has become a keystone component of global communications, trade, governance, and financial systems, Cuba has slipped to the back ranks.

Rationing Internet Access

It seems counterintuitive for a country that prides itself on its achievements in medicine and education to shy away from information and communications technology (ICT) development, but there is a clear trade-off between this type of development and the particular balance of political power and social control that the Cuban government has maintained for over 50 years.

In theory, Cuba’s commitment to egalitarianism would require the state to provide Internet access to all Cubans. Yet such a goal remains far out of reach. Cuba currently lacks the technical infrastructure and financial means to make telecommunications hardware and connectivity available to all Cubans. Until recently, U.S. law and trade regulations made it prohibitively expensive for Cuba to develop its telecommunications infrastructure in keeping with modern standards. In effect, the government “rations” the Internet to those who are deemed to need it most: individuals in research and other high-level professional sectors, which are almost exclusively state-operated.6 Internet cafés and hotels offer Internet use at exceedingly high prices for all others seeking access, though there is a substantial underground market for access cards that can be used at these venues.

Of course, the financial and infrastructural barriers to technological development on the island form only part of the picture.

Cuban authorities have openly raised concerns about the sociopolitical implications of the Internet and social media. They have declared that the government must protect Cubans from “damaging” and “imperialistic” content on the Web, which is often described as a “media weapon” of the United States.7 “We are facing the most powerful weapon that’s ever existed,” Fidel Castro said in a 2010 interview with the Mexico City-based daily newspaper La Jornada.8

More recently, the political rhetoric has sharpened to suggest Cuba is now vulnerable to “cyber warfare,” as authorities perceive the Internet to be a new theater of conflict in the half-century-long ideological battle with the United States.

The Island Under Cyber-Siege?

Indeed, there is some justification for the regime’s fear that communications technology has been deployed as a weapon to undermine the Cuban government. Since the 1980s, U.S. government agencies have lent support to Cuban groups promoting human rights, advocating for prisoners of conscience and pushing for democratic reforms. Rather than seeking to simply topple the government, as it did in earlier decades, U.S. policy toward Cuba began to focus on changing minds and altering the behavior of Cuban civil society.

Washington’s long history of attempting to influence Cuban politics in the pre-Internet era involved support for opposition media and the cultivation of dissidents. Such efforts were often successfully countered by Havana. Radio Martí and TV Martí, the U.S. government-funded news services broadcast out of Miami aimed at Havana (akin to Radio Free Europe), provide an example. While these services are consumed by many Cubans in Miami, few Cubans on the island have access to them, thanks to signal blocking by the Cuban government.

The Internet presented a new and different challenge. As the influence of social media became obvious in other areas of the world, such as during Iran’s 2009 Green Movement (informally dubbed the “Twitter revolution” by Western media) and the Arab uprisings in 2011, Cuban authorities, like authoritarian governments elsewhere, felt threatened by the emerging use of technology as an avenue for citizen empowerment and social change that could not be easily controlled.

And then there are the bloggers

The rise of a small but vociferous blogger community on the island brought those anxieties close to home. Despite the technical, economic and political barriers to Internet use in Cuba over the past 10 years, the Cuban blogosphere has become a diverse, unique and highly politicized space for online discussion. From Internet access to prisoners’ rights and same-sex marriage to hip-hop culture, the topics and perspectives in this space vary widely.

Perhaps the best-known example is the internationally recognized Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, who has described the range of voices and opinions in the blogosphere as having created a “virtual” public sphere—one that does not quite exist in physical public space in Cuba. Pointing to the various institutional and unwritten restrictions on free speech and association in Cuba, she described bloggers as “learning to be citizens in cyberspace.”9 The questions of citizenship and participatory democracy that she raises remain central to ongoing debates about the evolving relationship between the two countries, and the role of technology within it.

There is no question that both the Cuban and U.S. governments saw the emergence of Cuba’s blogging community as a telling sign of social currents that could take hold on the island if Internet access were to increase. Where Cuban officials may have seen a disturbing trend of anti-government speech in the blogging circles of figures like Sánchez, the U.S. saw an opportunity to support systemic change through a seemingly organic, pre-existing channel.

The experiences of Cuba’s bloggers speak volumes about both U.S. government priorities in Cuba and Cuban government priorities for the Internet and civil society at large.

Once largely absent from the media spotlight, these dissenting young men and women were suddenly being depicted as traitors and “mercenaries” of the U.S. government, regardless of whether or not they were receiving support from the United States. At the same time, Western media organizations began to pay attention to the Cuban blogosphere, occasionally featuring and typically applauding the work of some of the island’s more outspoken anti-government bloggers.

Tech Development: “Democracy Promotion” or the New Subversion?

Since at least 2012, the U.S. government has devoted substantial amounts of money to technology-based projects under the mantle of human rights and democracy promotion. While such projects have a unique and largely covert character in Cuba, they do occasionally end up in the public eye.

One especially searing example came last spring, when we learned of ZunZuneo, the USAID-funded project that sought to develop a Twitter-like phone-based communication network for basic feature phones (non-smartphones) with the intention of “promot[ing] human rights and universal freedoms.”10 Now popularly known as “Cuban Twitter,” ZunZuneo was conceived, deployed and promoted clandestinely by U.S. government workers and subcontractors. The story was made public thanks to the investigative work of the Associated Press, which also found that platform operators had been surveilling the content of subscriber messages, along with demographic information about its users, including gender, age and “political tendencies.”11 The project was in clear violation of Cuban laws that prohibit U.S. government agencies from working on the island. But more importantly, the platform’s surveillance component violated the privacy rights of its Cuban users.

It is hard to believe that the concept of ZunZuneo was not inspired and informed, at least in part, by social movements in the Middle East, Turkey, Brazil and beyond. It is equally difficult to imagine that the Cuban government, known for its surveillance capabilities, has not interpreted these developments as thinly veiled attempts at subversion.

No case better illustrates this point than that of Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor released in December 2014 after spending five years in a Cuban prison. Gross’ conviction and imprisonment took the tenuous state of the two countries’ relationship—and the role of technology within it—to a new level. When he first traveled to the island in 2008, Gross was not carrying food or medicine or school supplies—he was carrying satellite-based hotspot hardware and end-user equipment like computers and mobile phones.

The international aid worker, now 65 years old, brought these goods into the country without a permit and traveled to Cuba under a U.S. government agency grant, both of which are prohibited by Cuban law. Gross was convicted of “violating the integrity of the Cuban state”—in other words, attempted subversion—because he was trying to set up a digital communications system for ordinary Cubans.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton firmly denied that Gross’ work had anything to do with “subversion,” arguing that his intent was to help regular citizens get online. While this was a perfectly legitimate goal in and of itself, Gross’ actions and the intentions of his employers—namely, the U.S. government—cannot be extricated from the historical and political context in which they occurred.

Inevitably, any U.S. government move to widen technology access for Cuban citizens is complicated by the official U.S. efforts to overthrow the regime. Gross was tried and convicted in a Cuban court, and this gave the Cuban authorities the opportunity to prove their point, even if it largely fell on deaf ears. The amount of planning and funding that went into projects like ZunZuneo and the work of people like Alan Gross suggest that they were not isolated, but rather part of a broader political strategy to influence Cuban politics through information and communications technologies.

While these particular projects were based on newer forms of communication technology, they stem from a critical assumption about the power of communication to influence and instigate civic action. U.S. efforts to undermine the Cuban regime through technological tools are inevitably counter-productive. They add fuel to the ideological fire and can put program workers (like Gross) and recipients of aid at risk of political and legal repercussions.

A glance ahead

Cuba may continue to view the Internet as a highly contested political space, but greater cooperation with Washington could perhaps persuade it to exercise authority over this space in a different way. If the economic benefit of increased connectivity is great enough, Cuba may increase Internet access. Recent murmurings from the Ministry of Information and Communications suggest that while access may become more affordable, it won’t come without a price—it appears likely that surveillance and information control will be part of the package.12

It makes sense, therefore, to consider a shift in Washington’s approach to the use of technology in Cuba—if there’s a genuine willingness to pursue the promise of a new, open relationship in good faith.

This would mean not only talking openly with Cuban officials about partnering to build and improve technical infrastructure on the island, but also about working toward dismantling tech-focused programs carried out by U.S. government agencies. If the economic barriers to increasing connectivity do in fact dissolve on the U.S. side, the onus will be on the Cuban government to remove the barriers blocking its citizens’ access to technology.

Sánchez’ idea that Cubans can “learn” to be citizens in cyberspace underlines the potential. The Cuban blogosphere faces some hard questions: In what ways can a virtual space serve the interests of a citizen or community, and in what ways might it fail to do so? What is the value of a virtual public sphere if there is no physical public sphere to which that virtual space corresponds?

These questions should not only be brought before Cuban officials, but also put to U.S. policymakers and technology companies seeking to engage with Cuba on telecommunications. Ultimately, the rights and interests of the Cuban public must be the central drivers of technology policy on the island in the years to come.


Tags: Alan Gross, Cuba, Internet
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