Remarks at Google-Heritage Foundation Event

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Remarks by Mauricio Claver-Carone at today's event, "Cuba Needs a (Technological) Revolution," hosted by Google and The Heritage Foundation:

Thank you so much for the invitation. It's great to be here with all of you.

Let me start with a very simple and key premise, which should be obvious, but sometimes gets muddied due to misinformation (at best) or malice (at worst).

Internet access in Cuba is severely restricted due to one reason and one reason alone -- because the island is ruled by a totalitarian regime that has taken -- and will continue to take -- extraordinary measures to maintain absolute control.

The Castro regime will no more voluntarily ease its grip on Cuba's population than any other brutal dictator -- regardless of whether the media paints them as "reformers" or not. Case in point, the "reformer" Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Thus, it's illusory to try to rationalize ways to collaborate with the regime in order to improve Internet connectivity for ordinary Cubans and -- even less so -- to improve connectivity for pro-democracy activists. It's simply not going to happen.

As Ernesto Hernandez Busto of the famed blog Penultimos Dias has analogized, it would be like an IRS agent trying to explain to the Mafia why they shouldn't launder money.

To ignore this premise would risk providing the Castro regime with even greater tools of censorship and repression than it already possesses. Let's not forget -- as our hosts at Google can attest to -- that technologies have inherent dual-uses. Moreover, as our other hosts at Heritage (the cradle of trickle-down economics) can attest, trickle-down requires open markets and free societies to succeed. Neither of which exist in Cuba.

Plus, the proof is in the pudding. In 1995, amid critical cash-strapped times for the Castro regime, Telecom Italia bought a 27% stake in ETECSA (Cuba's telecommunication monopoly). Many believed this was a huge breakthrough that was going to lead to the "inevitable" liberalization of the lucrative Cuban telecommunications sector. Wrong.

Just last year, Telecom Italia finally grew weary and announced its intentions to sell its share. It was repurchased by the Castro regime at a premium price of $706 million through a holding company named Rafin, SA, which disturbingly, former regime insiders allege stands for Raul-Fidel Investments. True story.

Needless to say, Castro spares no expense to repress.

Then came the infamous fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela. Since 2008, we heard how this fiber optic cable presented a unique opportunity to press the Castro regime for increased connectivity for ordinary Cubans -- despite Castro officials constantly warning this would not happen. Meanwhile, in the U.S., critics ignorantly blamed U.S. sanctions (despite the explicit telecom exception in the Cuba Democracy Act) for handing over this "opportunity" to Venezuela. The cable was completed and supposed to be active by mid-2011. The net connectivity gain for the Cuban people has been zero.

The trajectory of the cable was surmised by famed blogger Yoani Sanchez, who wrote in August 2011: "At first it was announced it would multiply the data transmission speed by 3,000 times, but now, absurdly, they declare that it won't provide broad Internet access to nationals. After accumulating several corruption scandals, the investigation of two deputy ministers, and official guidance to journalists not to talk about the details, the controversial cable has now become an urban legend."

So let's shift from what could have been in an ideal world to the reality of what we're actually dealing with and how to confront it.

As regards the Castro regime's degree of web repression, there is not just a "Great Firewall" of censorship in Cuba, as is applied in China and other authoritarian regimes. In Cuba, the Internet is under a "Great Deadbolt" with access limited to foreigners, the regime's privileged class and the very few Cubans given access to its prohibitive rates.

Let's not forget that the regime's Decree Law 209 requires accreditation for Internet use and outlaws Internet use "in violation of Cuban society's moral principles." Thus, subjective penalization is only a click away.

Even those Cubans with web access are unable to surf the Internet's waves of free information. Instead, they are limited to an internal system of monitored communications and propaganda called the Intranet -- equipped with its own regime-monitored social media sites.

To give you an idea of just how repressive this policy is, remember that Iran is currently emulating the Castro's Intranet system -- not vice versa.

So unlike the countries of the Arab Spring and China, the challenge is not just in circumventing censors, which is difficult enough. The challenge is in finding ways to provide connectivity, direct and indirect access to information and its distribution.

It's nonsensical to talk about the tools of the Internet and its social media sites -- such as Google and Facebook -- until we have first achieved connectivity. Connectivity first, then content.

So the challenge is to create alternative (stress alternative) platforms, much like Radio and TV Marti have sought with traditional media, but for new media. Let's call it e-Marti -- not a website, but simply a network of wireless connectivity for the Cuban people.

I would be remiss not to mention that Alan Gross, an American development worker, is currently being held hostage by the Castro regime for trying to creative alternative connectivity platforms on a small scale. In his case, for Cuba's Jewish community.

I'd be even more remiss not to mention that what Alan Gross was doing to help the Jewish community with such connectivity -- and what all free people should be doing -- in helping Cubans receive and impart information is protected under international law.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Now for some strength and weaknesses.

Currently, we are seeing great success with what I like to call the vertical transfer of information. Despite primitive cell phones and limited technology, Cuban democracy activists have dramatically increased the amount of information they are able to send out of the island. This is key to their protection.

Through cell phones, activists are documenting and sending real-time information regarding protests and acts of repression. Thus, immediately notifying international human rights observers. They indirectly use vehicles like Twitter and creative sites like Hablalo Sin Miedo to fight against the impunity that has historically plagued their plight.

Just last week, the world got a first glimpse at images taken by a cell phone camera of the notorious Combinado del Este prison. Please note that the Castro regime does not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to visit the island. As expected, the content was shocking.

Just imagine what these courageous pro-democracy activists could do with smartphones and connectivity.

Information is also filtering into the island through creative programs like Cuba Sin Censura, which blasts unfiltered news through cellphone texts.

However, the main challenge remains the horizontal transfer of information. The ability for activists in Havana to know -- in real-time -- what is happening in Placetas or Palma Soriano (currently hotbeds of pro-democracy activism). Or even more elementary, to know what's happening in the next neighborhood, or simply that they're one of the 3-in-5 Cubans that believe economic reform is NOT possible without changes to the political system (as the latest IRI poll attests to) and thus have a means to mobilize.

Many of the successes I mentioned have been due to people that have been working on the ground for years -- some are here in the audience and should be recognized.

The good news is that Castro is way behind the rest of the world in technology. Thus, we need to empower Cuban activists with that technological advantage. We must keep our eye on the ball though -- the priority must remain technology that creates alternative and accessible connectivity for the Cuban people.

So I urge companies like Google, which have such technology -- to put it to good use; for the cause of Cuban freedom is a cause of human freedom.

Thank you so much.