Havana Calling

It's time to lift the communications embargo on Cuba.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Fidel Castro may have looked weak and confused at times during his TV appearance this week, but the rare prime-time address by the former Cuban leader had the desired effect: He managed, for a day, to recapture the media spotlight and demonstrate that he was lucid enough to be aware of his government’s promised release of 52 political prisoners. Most of the attention afterward was spent commenting on the softball questions he was asked and his apparent decision to trade in his olive fatigues for a tracksuit. But sartorial issues aside, the reappearance of Cuba’s octogenarian revolutionary (an oxymoron if there ever was one) sent a strong signal to Cuba watchers that the prisoner release does not herald a softening of policy under the rule of his brother, Raul Castro.

This leaves Washington in a quandary. Last week’s release of the 52 prisoners — independent journalists and human rights activists rounded up in the March, 2003 Black Spring crackdown — may have reduced the number of political prisoners rotting in Cuban jails to the lowest level in decades, but it was still, at best, a superficial act. Restrictions and state control over freedom of association and expression remain and there are still scores of prisoners being held for the inventive and uniquely Cuban offense of peligrosidad — "dangerousness" — often used to round up opponents under vague accusations of espionage. In addition to the now-estimated 120 political prisoners held in Cuban jails, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross, arrested in December for distributing laptops and cell phones to Cuba’s small Jewish community, remains in prison without formal charges brought against him.

Given this, it would be a mistake for Washington to overreact, engaging Havana with open arms over what was, in effect, a publicity stunt by the Castro brothers. On the other hand, intentionally antagonizing the regime by ramping up demands or dismissing the gesture would be equally damaging.

But the United States can respond to this gesture in a way that benefits Cuban society and individuals without legitimizing the regime or provoking a hostile reaction by the anti-Castro lobby in the United States. Ironically, that means doing what President Barack Obama has promised to do all along: follow through on his pledge from last April to loosen restrictions on U.S. telecom activities in Cuba and assist U.S. business in providing the tools for Cubans to communicate beyond the prison walls of the Castros’ island nation.

Unlike lifting the trade embargo on Cuba, which would require an act of Congress, these changes could be made by executive order, avoiding a politically costly battle with pro-embargo legislators. But more importantly, granting greater scope for U.S. telecom companies to sell cell-phones, software, and laptops in Cuba and establish the necessary infrastructure to make them work — such as cell phone towers and routers — would look generous, while loosening the Castro regime’s control over its people.

Imagine a scenario in which Cubans on the island could buy cell phones (or their relatives visiting from the United States could buy the phones for them) ,allowing them to talk with colleagues inside and outside the island, send pictures and videos, and tweet. (Yes, Cubans do have access to Twitter. In fact, when she was detained several months ago world-famous Cuba blogger Yoani Sánchez tweeted to her followers as it was occurring.) Imagine also a scenario in which Cubans could purchase laptops or software that would allow them to blog, Skype, instant message and participate in social networks. (Yes, Cubans do have access to Facebook. Many suspect the Cuban government balks at censoring it because it is popular with foreign tourists visiting the island.) 

Would the Cuban government allow this? Some things — such as licensing for satellite radio and television — would clearly challenge the regime’s monopoly on information. Yet some telecommunication investments, like establishing roaming agreements with U.S. carriers, the government would likely view as a much needed source of revenue. As for authorizing the purchase of laptops, software, and mobile-phone handsets? Well, that’s already in large part out of its control as the increase in blogging and tweeting has demonstrated. But the benefits for individual Cubans’ access to technology (with all the economic implications) will outweigh the benefits to the government.

This type of bold action has been too long in coming. The Obama administration has admitted that the Bush policy toward Cuba was a failure, but has only made some timid moves to roll back the more onerous Bush-era policies, such as the limits on Cuban-American travel and remittances to the island. But those were easy fixes, and other Bush policies, such as the restrictions on cultural and educational exchanges, officially remain in place. In truth, in terms of engaging and opening up to Cuba, Washington is not yet back to where it was during the Clinton era.

Nowhere is this timidness more in evidence than telecommunications policy. In April 2009, Obama’s announcement that he would relax regulations governing U.S. telecom activities in Cuba was met with tremendous expectation. In revising the regulations, Obama said he hoped to "help bridge the gap among divided Cuban families and promote the freer flow of information… to the Cuban people." Despite what appeared to be an opening, there was not so much as a peep of opposition from traditional anti-Castro groups — which generally frown upon Washington softening toward Cuba. On the island, it was met with relief. In December of that year, Yoani Sánchez declared optimistically that the "period of silence is coming to an end.  Now we must bring the power of the Internet and Twitter to all citizens."

Moreover, as a recent Cuba Study Group, Americas Society/Council of the Americas, and Brookings Institution report notes, greater Internet access to the Internet for average Cubans would help set the stage for technically and economically empowering Cuban citizens for the eventual transition away from its anachronistic, decrepit economy to a more globally integrated market system — a huge step in a country with only a 16 percent Internet penetration rate, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere.

But something was lost between Obama’s hopeful words and the marching orders given to regulators. The final regulations prohibited export licenses for anything that could be considered "domestic infrastructure," such as cell-phone towers, satellites, wireless routers, even cell phones. Worse, the sale of items such as SIM cards, PDAs, laptop and desktop computers, USB flash drives, Bluetooth equipment, and wireless Internet devices remain prohibited. For long-suffering Cubans it was as if the U.S. government had given them a certificate that could only be redeemed outside the island. Without these physical elements, Internet and mobile connectivity remain a pipe dream for many Cubans. For now, all that really remains changed is the possibility for telecom representatives (but not representatives of what can be deemed infrastructure companies) to travel to Cuba and the possibility for the licensing of roaming agreements.

Between "domestic infrastructure" and all the items banned for export, there’s little room for any real U.S. business activity that could link the island to the Internet and provide citizens with the tools of communication. Instead, the provisions only allow for the donation of these items, rendering a critical foreign-policy objective to philanthropy. 

The effect has been to take the wind out of the sails for many industry representatives. But it also missed the opportunity to turn the much-criticized, misinterpreted and expensive USAID programs, like the one that landed Alan Gross in jail, to good-old private initiative.  

The reluctance to move forward on Cuba policy stands in stark contrast to the administration’s well-intentioned rhetoric on the ability of the Internet to empower the powerless. The president and his team have repeatedly hailed the potential of the Internet to empower citizens and change history. In a January 21, 2010 speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that "We need to synchronize our technological progress with our principles. … Today, we find an urgent need to protect these freedoms on the digital frontiers of the 21st century." One has to wonder if the secretary is aware of the inconsistencies of her government’s policy toward Cuba. 

The restrictions stand in stark contrast to other authoritarian states, such as Burma and Syria. In the case of the former, the U.S. Commerce Department can license basic communications technology (laptops, etc.) to non-sanctioned Burmese citizens. In the case of the latter, since 2004 the Commerce Department has exempted telecommunications equipment and software from a general policy of denial.   In both cases it has allowed independent citizens to gain access to equipment, free of the suspicion of being associated with U.S. government programs and the shadow of "regime change."  Why are Cubans still restricted from access to the tools the United States makes available to Syrians and Burmese?

Now is the time for the United States to demonstrate that its policy toward Cuba is not frozen in time and that an embargo is not monolithic. After the Cuban regime announced the prisoner release, the Internet-freedom-championing secretary said that while it was a "positive sign" it was still "overdue."

It’s long overdue for Washington to offer its own positive sign and lift the communications embargo on Havana. U.S. businesses and Cuban citizens are waiting.

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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