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.