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.

Clinton has implied that what she recently termed the universal “freedom to connect” trumps Cuban sovereignty and makes the illegality of Gross’s actions, and USAID and DAI, irrelevant. We are to assume that the U.S. has the moral upper hand, and to leave it at that. But for Gross, this moral upper hand is irrelevant. He is now incarcerated because Cuban prosecutors proved that he brought technological tools into the country with the express motive of political subversion.

This raises a second question: has illegal ICT development become the new Bay of Pigs? Information has long played a role in U.S. efforts to undermine the Cuban government (Radio and TV Martí provide good, earlier examples of this), and it’s no coincidence that many who once clamored for Fidel’s downfall have suddenly begun promoting ICT development on the island. In a report released last summer, “Empowering the Cuban People through Technology,” the Cuba Study Group urged Congress to loosen ICT restrictions in embargo legislation so that Cubans could connect with other parts of the world, and obtain better access to information. They explicitly stated that the U.S. should have no intention of influencing what Cubans choose to do with these technologies. But in sections that described how ICTs could bring civil society development and economic growth to the island, it would be easy to interpret a subversive undertone in the piece. This suggests that there may be no way for the U.S. government to promote this kind of development without the Cuban government assuming such nefarious motives. I don’t blame them.

If all of this holds, then is there a way for ICT development to take place in Cuba without it being seen as a weapon of subversion, or of a (partially-imagined) cyber war?  The recent viral “ciberespirro” video of Eduardo Fontes describing U.S. tech-based counterrevolutionary activities, and several recent articles in Granma and Cubadebate, are laced with facts about U.S. efforts to promote tech development on the island. But these have been framed as tactics in an alleged “cyber war” that the U.S. is waging on the Castro government–if ICTs really could influence social action in Cuba, this assessment wouldn’t be off base. Regardless of the unexplored power of ICTs in the Cuban context, this rhetoric has created a strong association between these technologies (about which most Cubans know very little) and counterrevolution. It is disappointing that this has happened in the wake of the installation of Cuba’s new fiber optic cable, but it is not surprising, lest anyone assume that the cable would bring a new era of public access to knowledge through the Internet. For now, it seems that technology remains a privilege for (revolutionary) professionals, and a dangerous thing for the general public.

As for USAID, I truly hope that the Alan Gross case helps to convince Congress to terminate this and all unauthorized aid programs on the island. If the U.S. government really wants to build a strong, mutually respectful relationship with Cuba, this should be seen as a critical first step in the process.


6 thoughts on “Are ICTs the new Bay of Pigs?

  1. Larry Press says:

    > there may be no way for the U.S. government to promote this kind of development without the Cuban government assuming such nefarious motives.

    Profit is another motive — US companies would like to sell equipment and services in Cuba. China would seem to be a likely supplier if the US can or will not enter the market.

    > As for USAID, I truly hope that the Alan Gross case helps to convince Congress to terminate this and all unauthorized aid programs on the island.

    I also wrote a couple of blog posts on the Alan Gross affair in which I argued that what he did would have had a negligible impact even if it had succeeded. Cuba has overstated the threat and gotten a lot of PR mileage out of it (internally and externally) and the US spent a lot of money on something that would not have made much difference even if it had succeeded.

    The comments to those posts suggest that, while there is little illegal satellite Internet connectivity of the sort Alan Gross tried to bring in, there is widespread illegal satellite TV from the US in Cuba. They are watching The Real Housewives of Orange County and Sponge Bob Squarepants.

    The blog posts with comments on TV are at:

    Larry Press

    1. halfwired says:

      Thanks for these notes, Larry. I agree that the US is essentially throwing away money on a program that will not have much impact (if any), regardless of whether it succeeds or fails. And the Cuban government and media have chosen to overstate and embellish upon the threat of these programs, an effort that seems more directed at the Cuban public than at any external force. Although I wouldn’t expect them to do this, because I think there are some fringe benefits to having certain unauthorized aid programs there, it would be better if they would just criticize the US on the much more legitimate subject of USAID being there in the first place. It’s not so much the (negligible) impact of the program, but rather the principle of the thing that gets me: if the US really (as Obama says) wants to strengthen relations with Cuba, we have to be more respectful of their policies. Keeping programs like USAID (known for its association with the CIA) there just perpetuates the very tired Cold War-era game that these two countries insist on playing with each other.

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