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.