Sitting at an outdoor café, Alian Rojas deftly thumbs the small keyboard on his iPhone as he calls up The New York Times website. Then he shows a reporter how easily he can use WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube.
“I can access any website I want,” says the 30-something tour guide.
Over the past 10 years Cuba has made great progress in internet accessibility. Nevertheless, U.S. government officials, right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami, and conservative human rights groups assert that Cuba intentionally limits internet access.
Freedom House, a conservative think tank, argues that the Cuban government keeps the country technologically backward and censors dissident websites as part of repressing political dissent.
“Cuba remains one of the world’s least connected and most repressive environments for information and communication technologies,” according to a Freedom House report on internet usage.
That claim plays well to those who assume that governments led by communist parties must, by definition, be totalitarian. As Rojas’s ready access to a wide array of sites shows, however, Cuba’s reality is far different.
As part of enforcing the unilateral embargo of Cuba, the U.S. government prohibits Cubans from using hundreds of commercial websites, including Amazon, computer companies and banks. The U.S. government blocks more websites than the Cuban authorities, says John Nichols, a Cuba expert and professor emeritus at Penn State University.
“The U.S. government has long criticized Cuba for violations of human rights,” he tells Truthout, “yet the U.S. policy response restricting the right of both U.S. and Cuban people to freely communicate via the internet is both hypocritical and counterproductive.”
The Cuban government would like to expand internet usage as part of a plan to develop new computer-related industries. Cuba’s free education system has produced high-caliber computer scientists anxious to compete with their peers worldwide. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who came into office last year, has been promoting computer sciences.
In the early 2010s, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the U.S. government agency in charge of propaganda broadcasts to Cuba, smuggled in smart phones loaded with apps called ZunZuneo and Piramideo, which sought to mobilize Cubans to create a Cuban version of the Arab Spring.
“My students started getting text messages on their cell phones with news reports about demonstrations that never happened,” said Nestor Garcia, former head of Cuba’s Mission to the UN. “The U.S. is trying to create a climate to protest against the Cuban government.”
The social media apps failed to spark rebellion, but that didn’t stop the U.S.
In 2018 the Office of Cuba Broadcasting funded creation of phony Facebook pages designed to appear as if they were posted by Cubans discontented with the government. When Russian hackers carried out similar activities during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, U.S. politicians across the political spectrum expressed outrage.
U.S. actions against Cuba are similar to Russia’s actions against the U.S., according to Nichols. “It’s covert interference in the communications system of another country for the purpose of changing the relationship of the government and people,” he said. “If we do not like others interfering in our domestic affairs, it only makes sense we shouldn’t do the same to other countries.”
Needless to say, the phony Facebook pages also failed to spark an anti-government rebellion.