Obama in Cuba: Good Will and Pressure

During his trip to Cuba, Barack Obama has made use of the tools of diplomacy: friendliness, good humor and an easy manner. Important attributes, certainly, for after half a century of anti-Cuban hostility, the landing of Air Force One at Cuba’s José Martí Airport was a particularly critical and risky operation. Let’s hope the intelligence services don’t read too much into the metaphor, because this one refers to political risks, not the threat of terrorist attacks.

The field of play is a narrow one. In the United States, Obama has the lively animosity of the Republicans and Cuban-Americans, and in Cuba, the remembering and retelling of Washington’s systematic aggression against Cuba and its effects and consequences. The second of these is perhaps not so evident right now amid all the overwhelming expressions of hospitality and friendliness, both real and media-induced, but that is not to say that the historic wounds of five decades of attempted annihilation can be healed with a single presidential visit.

Perhaps for that reason Obama has been careful to maintain a rigorous formula of 33 percent respect, 33 percent interventionism and 33 percent goodwill in his public messages.

At one point, he did upset that balance, saying in an interview with ABC News that aired on March 21 that he would be announcing Google’s plan to expand Internet access in Cuba: “One of the things that we’ll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island.” In a blog post, Google has announced a partnering agreement with the Romerillo Organic Museum [in Cuba] to exhibit Google products such as VR Cardboard and Chromebooks, adding that the exhibition is “just a start … to bringing a variety of services to the island — including potentially WiFi and broadband providers” along with “increasing and improving Internet access.”

In a joint statement, Cuban President Raúl Castro measured his words carefully: “As a result of President Obama’s decisions to modify the application of some aspects of the blockade, Cuban companies and their U.S. counterparts are working to identify the possibilities for commercial operations within the still restrictive framework of current legislation. Some of these have already taken shape, especially in the area of telecommunications, in which our country has a program based on its development priorities and on the necessary technological sovereignty to guarantee these are used appropriately in the service of the national interest.”

Castro was referring to telephony, the U.S. license to provide telecommunications between other countries and Cuba, the arrival of Netflix on the island — which is merely symbolic, given the broadband and international payments restrictions — and service contracts between U.S. service providers and ETECSA, the Cuban state-owned telecommunications company.

In January last year, Raúl Castro was already complaining that Obama was loosening the still effective economic blockade for his own convenience: “He could use his broad executive powers in a determined effort to substantially modify the application of the blockade, which is within his power to do, even without the support of Congress. He could make the same concessions in other economic sectors as he has made in the sphere of telecommunications, for the obvious purpose of wielding political influence in Cuba.”

More than a year later, Obama is unilaterally putting forward an alleged agreement — its existence has not been confirmed by the Cuban government — under which Google (or Alphabet) would offer Internet access to the island, when the only thing certain for now is an exhibition. It is clearly a way of applying pressure to produce the opening up of Cuba in a particularly sensitive and strategic terrain.

In its precarious Internet infrastructure, Cuba has discovered one of the few virtues of poverty: It has escaped the governmental and corporate vigilance that allows U.S. officials and businesses to spy on hundreds of millions of people and entities across a good portion of the planet. Exclusion strengthens sovereignty and national security. Does this mean that Cubans must go on being marginalized from Internet networks? Of course not. Perhaps they will be able to conceive and develop networks that are not at the service of investors and foreign intelligence services. It would not be the first time Cuba showed the world a new path.

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