From Nokia with love

Cubans, Cuban-Americans, Cuba policy experts, and now even big telecom (AT&T, Nokia, and Verizon) are pleading with the Obama administration to lift telecommunications restrictions in the embargo. This would be relatively easy–the legislation could be eliminated by executive order. But Obama hasn’t budged.

In July, I posted a link to Christopher Sabatini’s op-ed in Foreign Policy, where he explained that telecom regulations in the embargo keep companies (that have an affiliation with the US) from doing business in Cuba, and that this should change. Of course, I agree with him: half-wired is nothing if not proof that Internet and telephone connections have had a powerful, positive impact on the lives of Cubans thus far–why not allow these forces to continue building?

It is hard to understand why the administration hasn’t made a move on this. True, there is no guarantee that the Cuban government will allow foreign companies to come in and sell computers, cell phones, and other such hardware on the island. But by maintaining the status quo, the US allows the Cuban government to continue blaming the island’s limited Internet access on the embargo. It perpetuates the game that the two countries have played against each other since 1961, one of which citizens on both sides of the Florida Straits are tired.

Cuban author José Manuel Prieto, who lives in New York City, once compared this to a “lovers’ quarrel.” In a 2009 essay in The Nation, he wrote of the shock that Fidel Castro gave the United States in 1959 when he refused aid, agreements, a fatherly hand of any kind. The US had expected nothing less than to be Cuba’s doting benefactor, but Fidel knew that were Cuba under any agreement with the US of any kind, a revolution could not succeed.

Prieto writes: “[The] tone for all these years has always been that of bitter domestic complaint, the voice of a betrayed spouse, the kicking and screaming of an abandoned lover.”

The essay merits another post entirely, but I think of it here because I feel like I’m being hit over the head with Prieto’s metaphor: Obama, like his estranged lover, refuses to be the one to pick up the phone and end the silence. But how has this (inherited) feeling of betrayal blinded him to the value in changing this policy?

When faced with questions like this, he cites Cuba’s lousy human rights record. This would be fair if weren’t evidence of a double standard. Lots of countries have bad human rights records, and we do business with many of them. One could argue that China (ever the pertinent example in this discussion) violates human rights in order to preserve its strange blend of free market economics and communist politics, while Cuba violates them in order to preserve communist economics (with a dash of capitalism for the tourists) and a communist political system. And we stand by our impotent, moronic policy in the Caribbean while sending our corporate giants and trade officials skibbling off to Beijing to invest, invest, invest and then occasionally frowning or issuing a statement when another Chinese blogger gets thrown in jail. Do we for some reason care much more about the human rights of Cubans than we do about those of Chinese citizens? Or is it that we will gain nothing (economically) by reinstating relations with Cuba?

I think it is much more complicated than this. The history of the relationship between Cuba and the US is intractable–it can’t be left out of the discussion, even if it is only there in essence. I hope Prieto has it right. I hope it is a bitter lovers’ quarrel, because that notion (almost too historically conscious to be accurate) is at least somewhat satisfying as an explanation.

If only big telecom could force them into couples’ therapy.


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