Category Archives: Cuba in Washington

The cyberwar continues

Two weeks ago, AP’s Desmond Butler obtained copies of several reports filed by USAID subcontractor Alan Gross on his ultimately ill-fated “tech support” mission to Cuba and wrote a long piece detailing his findings. Gross is now serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba after being found guilty of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” for bringing a large amount of tech equipment into Cuba without obtaining authorization to do so.

According to Butler, Gross coordinated the transport of “12 iPods, 11 BlackBerry Curve smartphones, three MacBooks, six 500-gigabyte external drives, three Internet satellite phones known as BGANs, three routers, three controllers, 18 wireless access points, 13 memory sticks, three phones to make calls over the Internet, and networking switches” from the US into Cuba. All told, these numbers are substantial—I have to imagine that immigration authorities in any country would look on such actions suspiciously. Only an extreme few would go so far as to call this a threat to national sovereignty. But this is Cuba—and Gross was sent there by the US government.

The reports also describe the lengths Gross went to in trying to cover his tracks. In the eyes of the Cuban government, Gross’ good intentions of bringing technology to a needy community were irrelevant: he was bringing in communications technologies that are highly contested in Cuba, and are increasingly characterized as “weapons” in the ideological war against the US.

I believe that increasing Cubans’ access to technology has become vital to civil society on the island, but Gross’ experience has shown that US-based organizations, particularly those receiving public funds, must find a new and more transparent way to approach this kind of work.

While the case has brought a terrible set back to US-Cuba relations on a number of levels, it also has coincided with an increasingly belligerent conceptualization of the Internet and social media in official discourse.

While authorities there have rarely lauded the Internet as a space of information exchange and connection, over the last year there has been a noticeable hardening of official rhetoric about the web. In press statements, “leaked” videos, and television news programs, the Internet has been portrayed as a space of conflict, an ideological battlefield where the “ciberguerra” being fought is simply a virtual rendition of the “war” in which Cuba and the US have been engaged since 1961. I imagine that many Cubans, particularly those living outside the capitol, have been introduced to the Internet in this way. And I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t accept many of these ideas as fact.

I had held out hope that Cuba’s fiber optic cable would bring some degree of change to the nature of Internet use for at least some Internet users on the island. But we haven’t heard an official peep about that cable since March of 2011—just days after Gross’ trial.

The covert nature of his mission, to which the reports attest, does little but reinforce the idea that ICTs are a new, powerful weapon in the ideological battle between Cuba and the United States. This nasty paradigm has dominated relations between the two countries for decades; perhaps the Internet piece of it is simply a new iteration of the same argument. But it’s upsetting. There have been moments of progress in US-Cuba relations in recent years, many of which have been associated with family relations as well as cultural and scholarly exchange. Fundamentally, these moments have reflected the importance of connection and mutual understanding across borders. The potential for the Internet to allow Cubans and Americans to build on these kinds of connections is immeasurable. But I’m not sure what it will take for Cuban leaders to begin to see it this way.

1 Comment

Filed under Cuba in Washington, Technology in Cuba

After Fidel?

I took an extended vacation from blogging this summer,* and this felt okay until last week, when someone tweeted that Fidel Castro had died. My rational mind knew that this was probably not true. The likelihood that the news of Fidel’s death would hit Twitter before international news sources seemed slim, and false rumors of Fidel’s death have circulated in the past. But this didn’t stop the rest of my brain from zooming away into a strange, frantic oblivion where I began to sweat, as if I had a fever coming on. A friend had texted me the news and I raced to Google to find that the rumor had already been squashed. It took several minutes for my heart rate to return to normal.

What caused this to happen? I am not Cuban, nor do I live in Cuba. The effects of Fidel’s death, when it does come, will be indirect for me. They will not mean a change in my way of life, an end or a beginning in my path. It will be an intellectually overwhelming thing, and an emotional one. But it is the uncertainty of what will follow that sent me down this road.

Photo by Leon Kasparov, CC BY-NC-SA

Fidel’s death won’t be like the many events over the years that have caused Washington wonks to gather task forces on post-socialist societies, exiles to gas up their motor boats for a 90-mile trip and resort executives to pack their guayaberas up and book a seat on the next charter flight to José Martí Airport. These moments—Mariel, the balsero crisis, the collapse of the USSR—came and went, but Fidel and the revolution continued onward. Somehow, Fidel’s strange combination of shrewd and misguided policy efforts have pulled the nation along, but Cuba’s survival isn’t just about policy—it is rooted in the complex, wondrous dimension of Fidel as a political and spiritual leader.

I had the great privilege at the University of Chicago of studying with the Mexican journalist and memoirist Alma Guillermoprieto, who has written several fine essays on el comandante. She opened a 1998 New York Review of Books essay on Fidel in old age with the following sentence:

“If you are in the neighborhood of forty years old and Cuban, Fidel Castro has been at the center of your heart and thoughts, for however small a second, each day of your life.”

So what happens when this omnipresent, unavoidable leader, the father of Cuba’s national project, is suddenly gone? When that leader—whose voice has dominated the radio and the pages of the newspaper for decades, whose face appears everywhere on paper, concrete, the walls of giant cement apartment buildings and on the chests of young men proud of their leader or uncertain of how to do anything but show love for the patria by burning an image into their skin—is suddenly gone, it will be a shock. Identities, opinions, morals, life goals are all built around an idea about Fidel, whether you love him or despise him or fall somewhere in between. He has often been compared to a religious figure—he has been worshiped and loathed and mythologized in a way that is much more personal, much more spiritual, than any other political leader in recent history.

I’m not sure what will happen when Fidel dies, and I’m scared to find out. To think that  his absence will instantly give rise to a tide of liberty for Cubans is too simple. Of course I think things need to change in Cuba. I have written in the past about how difficult (and necessary) it will be for Cuba to re-structure the state so that it does not control every good and every industry and every activity down to the level of bicycles and ice cream and shoe repairmen. But I don’t see Fidel’s death as the key to these kinds of changes. There is no guarantee on this great improvement in the lives of Cubans that so many people assume will follow.

And then there is the question of identity, of what will happen to the island’s social fabric when this person is suddenly gone. Who will you spend your time hating? At whom will you direct your salute? Who will you worship? From a policy perspective, it’s going to be difficult. Spiritually, it may be even more complex.

*I spent most of this summer on an unexpected break from half-wired. I finished my work in Chicago, packed up my things, moved to San Francisco, and began a job with the Center for Democracy and Technology. July and August took more out of me than I expected. But half-wired is now officially back in action.

2 Comments

Filed under Cuba in Miami, Cuba in Washington

This Cold War isn’t over yet

This week on Global Voices I interviewed Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger who recently began the Cuba Money Project, a non-profit research and reporting initiative that aims to investigate and bring greater transparency and accountability to US federal spending on ‘pro-democracy’ programs in Cuba.

I focused on the Cuba Money Project’s Vimeo channel, a telling archive of interviews that Eaton has conducted with people on all sides of the opposition movement, both in Cuba in the US. The interviews defy the common assumption that there is a single narrative, or a black and white, to the relationship between Cuba and the US today. Cubans that Eaton interviews express a diverse range of emotions about politics on the island—there is frustration, ire, ambivalence, and among some, fervent support for the revolutionary government.

Tracey Eaton interviewing a man in Baracoa, Cuba. Posted with permission of Eaton.

¿Cambio con qué?

In practice, the majority of these funds are allotted for opposition groups, but the range of recipients is impressive—on one end of the spectrum, there are initiatives to support important causes like LGBT rights and benefits for the physically disabled, and on the other, there are Miami-based groups manufacturing condoms with the word “cambio” (change) printed on them and shipping them off the Cuba.

In another example, a youth group in Havana received help from a USAID subcontractor to organize a rap concert. I question the value of this. Scholars like Sujatha Fernandes have done well to document the political role of rap and hip-hop in Cuban society, which the government has come to accept and sometimes support since the late 1990s. In brief, she argues that these art forms function as a socio-political “release valve” or space where Cuban youth can express and share their frustrations through music, rather than through much more dangerous and controversial activities of political demonstration.

My sense overall is that some of the programs that USAID funds are fine, and probably providing much-needed resources to Cubans. Others are misguided, and reflect a significant lack of understanding of life on the island. But all of these are overshadowed by the funds allocated to opposition groups.

What is certain, and what Eaton’s research speaks to, is that programs funded by the US in Cuba are politically untenable from the start. In most (if not all) cases, it is illegal under Cuban law for Cubans to accept financial support from US government agencies, because this money is seen as a means of supporting subversive activity on the island. Government agencies can say all they want about helping Cubans to “freely determine their own future,” but the fact is that these programs have not changed very much since their express, stated purpose was to undermine the Castro government. In Cuba, ‘pro-democracy’ is just another way of saying ‘counterrevolutionary.’

“Rights come out of histories”

One of the most powerful commentaries in the Cuba Money Project interviews comes from John McAuliff, founder of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, a non-profit organization that advocates for ending the embargo. McAuliff, who has worked on issues related to US-Cuba relations for over twenty years, seems to be one of few voices on the US side that understands what it may take for the relationship between the two countries to change.

[The US] seems to insist on [carrying out programs that provoke] the most basic nationalist reaction…[this] discredits the US, discredits the Cubans who work with the US…[And these programs] are tied with the legitimate Cuban suspicion that US policy is still grounded in an effort to create system change if not regime change in Cuba.

“Rights come out of histories,” McAuliff says. He talks about the lack of free speech and free assembly in Cuba, and invokes the Civil Rights movement in the US, calling on viewers to think about how strange it is that less than five decades ago, US citizens lived in a fundamentally and legally unequal society.

If so recently in American history that was part of our culture and our legal system, the fact that these things exist today in Cuba doesn’t mean that they’re going to exist ten years from now or twenty years from now.

Eaton asks McAuliff how the US should proceed. We must begin, McAuliff says, by respecting Cuban sovereignty, no matter how strongly we disagree with Cuban law and policy.

You have to do it starting on the premise of their history and respecting who they are. […] [The US] has to say, ‘we’re not going to put programs in your country unless you find them acceptable.’

Opposition support as political discrimination

I can’t overstate the irony here: the supporters of these programs are desperately seeking ways to funnel money to Cuban dissidents, while we simultaneously cling to a failed trade embargo that makes it impossible for most Americans to spend any money in Cuba at all.

If we really want to help Cubans “freely determine their own future,” we may need to take the long road and find a way to lift the trade embargo. This would drastically impact the Cuban economy and the ability of all Cubans to access capital, goods, and technological tools. Right now, by sending money and supplies only to those who are openly involved in opposition work, we are stoking the anger of the Cuban government, and simultaneously carrying out a policy of discrimination.

What of those Cubans who simply want better lives? Or those who want information technologies because they want to learn more about the world, or to share information with one another? It seems unfair, and politically ignorant, to focus our efforts on a marginal sector of the population that has never been able to consolidate broad support on the island.

This would take time, but it would bring change to Cuba in a way that ‘pro-democracy’ programs never will. The US Congress should find a way to shift its focus from politics to policy: discontinue programs that send money to Cuba in violation of Cuban law, and lift the trade embargo. Then we just might be looking at a clean slate.

1 Comment

Filed under Cuba in Miami, Cuba in Washington, Technology in Cuba

Are ICTs the new Bay of Pigs?

The Alan Gross trial raises important questions about the relationship between Cuba and the U.S., and the political meaning of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in Cuba.

First, who decides what constitutes a crime? While Cuban courts say that Gross committed “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” Hillary Clinton,  Phillip Crowley and other State Department officials say that Gross’s delivery and installation of ICT equipment for a small group of Cubans “was not in any way criminal, in our view (my emphasis).” U.S. officials have conceded that Gross did not have legal permission to enter Cuba on these terms. But they have barely acknowledged that USAID and Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI) have been working in Cuba for decades without the permission of the Cuban government.

Continue reading

6 Comments

Filed under Cuba in Washington, Cuba news, Technology in Cuba, Uncategorized

Notes on USAID

I finished my graduate work this week, so I’ve been a little behind on Cuba news (and a little exhausted.) As per my most recent post, here are two really interesting items on the subject of USAID work in Cuba:

The Cuban Triangle‘s Phil Peters posted  statements from USAID, regarding their work in Cuba, and lines from the Cuban criminal code that address USAID assistance to Cuban citizens. The comments that follow are worth read too.

Tracey Eaton, a journalist and blogger at Along the Malecon, posted his latest findings on the site of his new project, Cuba Money Project. I am fascinated by what Eaton is doing with this, and hope to dedicate a post to the project in the near future. Although it looks like some of these numbers are still rough, they indicate that federal spending allocations on programs devoted to Cuba (through USAID, State, etc.) from 2007 to 2010 cumulatively reached nearly $100 million. That’s a lot of money! Visit Cuba Money Project for updates.

Lastly: Alan Gross has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but US authorities are optimistic that he may be released as soon as this year.

1 Comment

Filed under Cuba in Washington, Cuba news, Technology in Cuba

Development Alternatives, Inc. and the case of Alan Gross

Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba in December of 2009 for distributing IT equipment to Cubans on the island. Gross came into the country on a tourist visa, did not declare the items that he brought, and did not seek permission to distribute them. Sent by Development Alternatives, Inc., a subcontractor to USAID, Gross has paid a high price for this unauthorized activity—he’s been in jail in Cuba ever since. At long last, his trial took place last week. A verdict has yet to be announced.

Though he may not have realized it, Gross was breaking the law.* From the perspective of the Cuban government, he was not just violating customs regulations and donating unauthorized hardware to citizens–he was helping to lay the groundwork for a tech-supported opposition movement, funded by the US. He has been charged with espionage and engaging in “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state,” and may face up to twenty years in prison if convicted.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Cuba in Washington, Technology in Cuba

On Global Voices: Obama eases restrictions on travel, remittances, airplanes

President Obama signed an executive order on January 14 that will ease embargo restrictions on travel to Cuba for academic, religious, journalistic, and cultural purposes. Policies on charter flights from the US to Cuba will also be loosened, as will regulations on remittances. The new policy will allow all US residents (not just those with family on in Cuba) to send remittances to Cubans on the island, provided that they are not senior government officials, or senior members of Cuba’s communist party.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Cuba in Miami, Cuba in Washington, Cuba news