The agreement to restore diplomatic relations and liberalize trade and travel between the United States and Cuba will have far-reaching implications for Cuba. The transformative potential of moving from Cold War-era hostility towards cooperation is particularly apparent for Cuba’s relationship with the Internet. The opening of relations will increase access Cubans have to the Internet and digital technologies, such as smartphones. However, what increased access should mean for Cuba is contested and will be a bellwether issue for how thawing relations change Cuban governance, commerce, and culture. Will Internet freedom ring from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, or will its communist leaders ensure that Cuba’s expanding cyberspace serves the revolution?
Cuba, the Internet, and Normalizing U.S.-Cuba Relations
As the Internet became globally important, Cuba has consistently ranked as one of the worst countries for Internet access and freedom. Cuba did not follow the example of other authoritarian countries, such as China and Russia, which significantly increased Internet access and maintained government control over Internet use. The Cuban government has made efforts to increase Internet access and usage, but, even so, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates only around 25 percent of the population accesses limited, expensive, and strictly controlled Internet services. Other estimates state that only 5 percent of Cubans have direct access to the global Internet. In Freedom House’s 2014 “Freedom on the Net” rankings, Cuba was the world’s fourth worst country, barely better than only China, Syria, and Iran.
This track record made the Internet an issue in the hostility between the United States and communist-led Cuba. Cuba blamed the U.S. embargo for its Internet problems, supported Chinese and Russian efforts in ITU negotiations to weaken U.S. influence on Internet governance, and backed Latin American countries that offered Edward Snowden asylum. As it did with radio and television, the United States attempted to use Internet-enabled technologies to provide Cubans access to uncensored information. In April 2014, the press disclosed a covert U.S. program to create a “Cuban Twitter,” called ZunZuneo, designed to help undermine Cuba’s government.
As part of the deal to open relations, the United States agreed to loosen trade restrictions on exports of telecommunications equipment and services, believing this decision would increase Cuban Internet access and freedoms. Cuba undertook to increase access, and, in June 2015, announced plans to create thirty five public WiFi hotspots around the country and reduce the costs of going online.
Cuba Cyber Libre?
Although increasing Internet access is on the U.S.-Cuba agenda, what purposes it serves remain contentious. One perspective sees U.S. support for increased access as important in freeing Cubans from communist rule. In May 2015, House and Senate bills for a Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act (Cuba DATA Act) were tabled to facilitate U.S. exports. In announcing the Senate version, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) stated that “this bill paves the way for the Cuban people to have more freedom by having the Cuban economy enter the digital age.”
U.S. critics of the normalization of relations do not believe it will lead to greater freedom for Cubans in cyberspace. One critique blasted the Cuba DATA Act because it would strengthen the Cuban government’s telecommunications monopoly, which “works with the secret police . . . tapping phone lines, monitoring conversations, censoring the Internet and persecuting Cubans discovered with homemade satellite dishes.” Disagreements about whether U.S. engagement with Cuba will foster Internet freedom mirror the larger debate pitting those who want to keep Cuba under political and economic pressure and those who believe this strategy has failed.
By agreeing to normalize relations with the United States, Cuba’s leaders have not given up on communism and the revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Despite decades of U.S. enmity and the devastating collapse of Soviet support in the early 1990s, the communist party has maintained its grip on power. No doubt Cuba’s leaders believe they can re-engage with the United States without losing control. Cuba has friends, including China, from which it can learn how to increase Internet access without embracing Internet freedom. Indeed, just before the Cuba DATA Act was tabled, news stories reported Cuba was talking with China’s Huawei about investing in Cuba’s new digital economy.
A third perspective emphasizes that ordinary Cubans should determine the future of their Internet. Tech-savvy Cubans have been finding ways to circumvent censorship, creating a digital culture at the grass roots. Just as these Cubans do not want more government repression, they might not want Internet freedom and digital commerce as determined by the United States or dictated by the U.S.-Cuba rivalry. Two Cuban experts warn that, as Cuba begins a new phase in its relationship with the Internet, “it will be important to keep in mind what Cubans want and need—and not what we think they do.”