The Key to Freedom in Cuba Is Internet Access

In his Dec. 17 announcement, Obama said that one of the main objectives of his new policy toward the island is to help connect the Cuban people with the rest of the world. With this aim, he said, Washington will eliminate several regulations that prevent U.S. companies from exporting smartphones, Internet software, and other telecommunications equipment. However, judging by what I’ve been told by several visitors who have recently returned from the island, there is good reason to be skeptical of whether the Cuban regime will allow it.

Cuba has the lowest Internet penetration rate in Latin America and one of the lowest in the world. Only 5 percent of Cubans have unrestricted Internet access, according to a recent study, “Freedom on the Web,” carried out by the Washington-based organization Freedom House.

For some time, the regime has been saying that it isn’t able to expand Internet across the island because of the U.S. trade embargo. According to the Cuban government, Internet penetration on the island is 25.7 percent, but the majority of this is a censored intranet system, which allows access to domestic emails, a Cuban government version of Wikipedia and websites sympathetic to the regime. Moreover, the only Internet service provider in Cuba is the government.

Rubens Barbosa, a former ambassador for Brazil in Washington and London and now the current international relations director for the powerful Brazilian association of industrialists FIESP, says that it is very unlikely the Cuban government will allow greater Internet penetration on the island. On his return from a visit to Havana during which he met with Cuban civil servants and foreign diplomats, Barbosa wrote in the Brazilian daily newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo and told me in a later interview that “the first thing that any visitor notices is how resigned the population is to its limited living conditions.”

“There is a shortage of food and of almost everything else, of services, of transport, of housing, with as many as three generations of the same family sharing little apartments in precarious buildings,” said Barbosa.

As for negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba to normalize their relations, Barbosa says that “Cuba will only allow an increase of foreign investment in those areas where the Cuban government has an interest, which are tourism, oil, renewable energies, biotechnology and food.”

Investments to increase Internet access are not on that list. Like China and Vietnam, Cuba has embarked on a “gradual opening up of its economy within those areas that are of interest to the state, with rigid political control from the party and the army.”

My opinion is that if Obama wants to fulfill his promise of trying to begin a process of change on the island, he should put increasing exports of smartphones and Internet technology at the center of his negotiating agenda. Neither a U.S. embassy in Havana nor a million U.S. tourists seeking sun in Varadero, nor a flood of U.S. exports of building materials will help bring Cubans out of their isolation.

Though millions of foreign tourists have visited the island in recent years and almost everybody trades with Cuba without any problems, none of this has helped much in increasing fundamental freedoms. In the next rounds of negotiation, Washington should focus on the Internet. And if Cuba doesn’t want to talk about it, the U.S. and Latin American countries should denounce the Cuban regime for what it is: a military dictatorship that can no longer justify prohibiting Internet access on the island.

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