You are on page 1of 12

Cuban Communications Policy: From Technology to Democracy

Clincy & Associates Political Consulting Promoting Human Rights and Democracy in the Caribbean

Alexia Clincy SIS 645 Venturelli

Introduction The Internet has put the possibility of communicating with the world into our hands. We had nothing like this before. We are facing the most powerful weapon thats ever existed The power of communication has been, and is, in the hands of the empire and of ambitious private sector groups that have used and abused it [A]lthough theyve tried to keep this power intact, they havent been able to. They are losing it day by day as many other [voices] emerge each moment. -Fidel Castro, 2006 (Biddle, 2011) The importance of communication technologies and policy continue to increase as a result of rapid technical development and massive global investment in telecommunication infrastructure allow computer networks to become an important factor in state growth. In a developing nation such as Cuba, networks can improve the economic productivity, education, health, democracy and human rights, and quality of life (Press, 1996). As demonstrated by the quote above and according to discussion by Boas (2000), Cuba recognizes the benefits of information technology for education and health care development, yet the government continues to hamper the basic freedoms of speech and access to information by means of heavy monitoring and censorship. The Castro regime views the Internet as a double-edged sword, one that may bring many benefits to the island,

3 but at the price of coming with many potential threats. This report to the U.S. Department of State will review the communications policies of Cuba, with a focus on the Internet, in order to understand why the technology itself will not lead to regime change in the country without being partnered by appropriate changes in the policies themselves.

Cuban Communications Policy The world is not ignorant to the restricted communication policies of Cuba. The US State Department maintains that Cuba is among the least wired countries in the world due to limited Internet access and monitoring and blocking technologies that limit the freedoms of the Cuban population (U.S. Department of State, 2011). Overall, the country is behind technologically. About 40% of the Cuban telephone system was installed in the 1930s and 1940s (Press, 1996). The island was not connected to the Internet full time until 1996, and the use of mobile phones was banned until 2008 (Deibert, Palfrey, Rohozinski, & Zittrain, 2008; Reardon, 2008). Before the Internet was adopted, most officials thought of it as an influence coming from the North, the land of the enemy (Boas, 2000, p. 61). Viewed as a tool of imperialism, the Castro regime recognized the importance of imposing regulations and restrictions that would allow for the Internet to only be used in ways deemed appropriate by the government. The simplest form of restriction was to limit the purchase

4 of the computer hardware itself to foreigners and government officials in 1998, followed by the banning of private purchase of computers, printers, modems, etc. by 2002 (Deibert et al., 2008). For those individuals who are lucky enough to find a computer to use, access to the Internet is extremely restricted. Advocacy groups such as Reporters without Borders and Freedom House call Cuba an Internet enemy, and rightly so (Biddle, 2011). Only about 3% of the Cuban population has web access and millions of adults and teenagers have never been online (Miroff, 2011). For natives who are able to find a connection, they are only allowed to use the government created intranet, Red Cubana, which allows Cubans to connect within the country, under high scrutiny of course (Biddle, 2011). It is quite clear that Cuba has promoted Internet access only where it directly benefits the regime and has restricted it everywhere else (Boas, 2011, p. 63). The Cuban telecommunications company ETECSA is controlled 73% by the government and 27% by Telecom Italia, and holds a monopoly on Internet and mobile services (Internet World Stats, 2010). In the frequently asked questions section of ETECSAs website, the company answers questions such as who can have internet access? and why is my user name blocked and how can I fix this? ETECSA is pretty straightforward in replying that Internet access is only offered to some government officials and foreigners, and informs users that all blockages are for security reasons (ETECSA,

5 2010). In order to protect the political ideology of the Cuban government, these restrictions concerning the Internet were put in place (Deibert et al., 2008). Not only has Cuba maintained limited access to ICTs; the country also monitors and censors them along with all media products originating from the Island. In May, Goldman of the Business Insider (2011) reported the top ten most censored countries in the world, rating Cuba with a censorship score of 93 out of 100 due to strict press laws and government ownership of all media outlets. Many NGOs and human rights groups criticize Cuba for the criminalization of free speech. The Americas director of the Human Rights Watch notes that publicly criticizing the government can still earn you a harsh prison sentence, as demonstrated by four people sentenced in May 2011 for distributing pamphlets that did so (Human Rights Watch, 2011). Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008, which includes the right to freedom of expression in article 19; yet their laws still empower officials to penalize all forms of dissent in direct violation of this covenant (Human Rights Watch, 2011). Freedom House (2011) recognizes the tight control of Internet access and speech in their 2011 report on Cuba, noting improvements such as 25 famous bloggers that have emerged and have been able to write without systematic persecution. Ironically because of access issues, very few people within Cuba will ever be able to indulge in these blogs.

6 By keeping a tight leash on ICT sales and Internet access, Cuba is able to effectively shelter the majority of the population from communicating with the world and indulging in the World Wide Web.

US-Cuba Relations & Communication The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been a shaky one, consequently ending in one of political and economic isolation from the West. In 1960 an embargo was imposed in order to restrict commercial and economic activity between the two countries. It was codified into law in 1992 and the United States has held to these restrictions in an effort to weaken the Cuban government and make a way for democracy to emerge on the island. As a result of the embargo, Cuba cannot afford the high prices for the resources needed that provide Internet access throughout the country (Deibert et al., 2008). The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 was even expanded to exclude the donation of computers and all kinds of electronic equipment to Cuba (Casas-Zamora, 2011). Through these actions, the US has hoped that Cuba would fall apart economically, destroying the Castro regime in the country. Cuba has continued to thrive however, and while the United States chooses not to invest in Cuba, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs boasts 46 countries operating in almost 400 ventures in 32 sectors of the Cuban economy, one of which is Telecoms (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Cuba, 2003).

7 In 2009, President Obama pledged to eliminate telecommunications restrictions on Cuba but has not yet made progress (Biddle, 2010). Then in 2010 he extended the embargo through September 14, 2011, determining that the embargo is in the national interest of the United States (White House, 2010). In actuality however, the US embargo is a major policy that has helped Cuba gain international sympathy and support. According to polls held in 2007, the US embargo is opposed by 56 percent of the US population (Bustamante, & Sweig, 2008, p. 225). According to the research of Bustamante and Sweig (2008) it is also condemned almost unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly year after year (p. 231). Perhaps it is time for the embargo to be revamped or thrown away altogether. Eliminating telecommunications restrictions on Cuba could potentially lead to more access on the island, and eventually a democratic government.

Cuban Advancements In order to keep up with the rest of the world and be an effective global player, Cuba realizes that technological advances must be made. In the UNESCO Science Report, Arxer (2010) agrees that Internet access remains low and that connectivity must be expanded in order for access to increase. Moreover, they list the embargo as a hindering factor to connectivity, making it hard for Cuba to access

8 information and advance in the sciences. In an effort to reap the benefits of the Internet, Cuba has recently increased access slightly while continuing to apply censorship. Cuban IT reported that connectivity had increased 10% by December 2010 due to an improved satellite connection (Miroff, 2011). An optic-fibre cable between Venezuela and Cuba was also completed in February and is expected to improve the quality of telecommunications on the island but will not necessarily give more access. According to the Global Post, the cable is due to go online this summer [2011] and once Cuban authorities finally turn up the juice, bandwidth capacity for the least-connected country in the hemisphere will leap by a factor of 3,000 (Miroff, 2011). While the US holds firm to the embargo, other countries such as Venezuela and China have worked to keep Cuba out of the Stone Age by investing heavily in technology on the island. American NGOs also try to aid in the advancement of technology in Cuba, but face more obstacles in doing so. As of June 2011, USAID reports that they want to continue programs in Cuba worth $21 million, of which $6 million will be dedicated to the expansion of information access on the island. Congress however, has not yet approved these programs; and Cuba has made it illegal to cooperate with the programs (Tamayo , 2011). According to USAID, one of the programming goals is to increase the free flow of uncensored information to, from, and within the island through the provision of

9 informational materials and Internet access, as well as building the capacity of Cuban independent media (Tamayo, 2011). NGOs such as USAID, Freedom House and UNESCO recognize that with increased information access, human rights violations could decrease.

Recommendations & Implications Upon exploring the communications policies of Cuba, having analyzed the goals and hindrances of Internet use and the Castro regime, I recommend that the United States do the following: 1) Approve all aid with the aim to increase information access in Cuba. As long as Congress approves NGOs efforts to provide Cuba with the hardware, education and means for Internet accessibility, even if it is refused by the Castro regime, the United States can no longer be labeled the bad guy that is preventing the growth of the island. If this aid is accepted, more connectivity on the island creates the foundation for more people to be potentially exposed to the Internet. While censorship no doubt continues, the Internet black market will also likely continue and enforce what some government officials are starting to believe-- that the proliferation of unauthorized access may become impossible to control (Biddle, 2011) 2) Tweak the embargo so that US affiliated telecommunications companies are given access to Cuba as a new market. The Cuban government may not allow these telecoms to conduct business on the island; however, by lifting these restrictions, the Obama administration could cease to stand in the way of increasing digital and telecommunications access for Cubans, and put the political ball in Cubas court. (Biddle, 2010). The US does have the ability to cease being Cubas number one excuse for the implementation of such strict regulation and restriction by providing Cuba with more options for communications expansion. 3) Keep an eye on Cuban-Venezuelan relations as well as CubanChinese relations. Because the US is not financing technological advancements in the country, Cuba looks to Venezuela and China for financing, countries that are not at the top of the United States list of allies. If ties are strengthened between these countries, the embargo

10 will prove to have only strengthened the Castro regime and sense of socialist unity. Without a doubt, Cubas censorship efforts reflect the fear that more access will lead to the end of the Castro regime. This may hold especially true given the recent events in the Middle East and North Africa, facilitated by mobile phones, Internet access, and social media. Boas maintains that technologies such as the Internet do not necessarily favor a democratic political system, due to its impact being mediated by government regulations (Boas, 2000, p. 65). However, with more access and less censorship, revolution may seem inevitable. And in order to increase the opportunity for access, US policy towards Cuba should be market oriented. If US affiliated telecommunications companies have the opportunity to expand in Cuba, perhaps the Castro regime would make considerations for new markets in an attempt to boost the economy, which in turn may lead to more information access and a more knowledgeable population. According to Larry Press, we can expect gradual investment in Cuban telecommunication. In spite of the political risks, Castro sees that modern communication and computer networks are necessary for the economy (Press, 1996). By revising the embargo and promoting aid in the region, the US can better facilitate the democratization of Cuba.


Works Cited Arxer, I. (2010). Cuba. In S. Schneegans (Ed.), UNESCO Science Report (pp. 123-131). France: UNESCO publishing. Biddle, E. (2010, November 12). Cuba: telecommunications, internet access, and us-cuba policy . Global Voices, Retrieved from Biddle, E. (2011, February 15). Digital rations: internet policy in castros cuba. Owni.EU, Retrieved from Boas, T. C. . (2000). The dictator's dilemma? the internet and u.s. policy toward cuba. The Washington Quarterly , 23(3), 57-67. Casas-Zamora, K. (2011, June 27). Communications embargo on cuba: let them surf, not float. Brookings, Retrieved from a.aspx Deibert, R., Palfrey, J., Rohozinski, R., & Zittrain, J. (Ed.). (2008). Access denied: the practice and policy of global internet filtering. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. ETECSA. (2010). Empresa de telecomunicaciones de cuba s.a.. Retrieved from Freedom House. (2011). Country report: cuba. Retrieved from page=22&year=2011&country=8022 Goldman, L. (2011, April 6). The 10 most censored countries in the world read more: Business Insider, Retrieved from Human Rights Watch. (2011, February 23). Cuba: stop arbitrary arrests

12 of dissidents. Retrieved from Internet World Stats. (2010, July 14). Cuba internet usage, broadband and telecommunications reports. Retrieved from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Cuba. (2003). About foreign investment in cuba . Retrieved from about%20foreign%20investment.htm Miroff, N. (2011, June 10). With a little help from venezuela, cuba emerges from the data dark ages. Global Post , Retrieved from /110608/cuba-venezuela-internet Press, L. (1996). Cuban telecommunication infrastructure and investment . Proceedings of the Conference of the association for the study of the cuban economy, Reardon, M. (2008, March 28). Ban on cellphones lifted in cuba. Cnet News, Retrieved from Tamayo , J. (2011, June 15). Usaid requests proposals for cuba programs. Miami Herald, Retrieved from The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2010). Presidential memorandum-continuation of authorities under the trading with the enemy act Washington, DC: Retrieved from U.S. Department of State. (2011, April 28). Background note: cuba. Retrieved from