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Unleash the Googles on Cuba

January 29, 2010

by Liz Harper

U.S.-Cuba dynamics continue to follow the traditional script of mixed signals. The romance is there; the trust is not.

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Shortly after U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams returned from extended talks in Havana, the Cuban regime seized Alan Gross, a U.S. subcontractor for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) democracy program in Cuba.

Another kicker came on Thursday when the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, told reporters that immigration talks in Havana were scheduled for February 19.

Part of the Cuban agenda presented to the government of the United States is a proposal for a new immigration agreement and solidifying cooperation in the fight against people trafficking,” Rodríguez is translated as saying in English by Reuters. Let’s hope that Cuba’s wishes to exchange Gross for the Cuban Five will remain a non-starter.

The imprisonment of Mr. Gross (or “Harold,” as he was first named to me in early December) serves as a good reminder of the criminals-in-office we are dealing with in Havana. And also a reminder of our ill-conceived, yet well-intended, Cuba policies and programs.

Why didn’t we complain louder about Gross’ continued detention? For one, the man and his family did not sign a privacy waiver with the State Department, and without that waiver the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad cannot release information on an individual—even when it hurts our national interests.

In this context, the calls in and out of government for overhauling our policies have only gotten louder.

What Cuba programs could—and should—be on the chopping block? Some USAID-funded groups, such as the one Alan Gross worked for, are also saying they are running out of money. Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Senator Russ Feingold (WI) this week proposed axing Radio/TV Marti, which has been around for more than a decade.

Why fund programs, such as the one that Alan Gross worked for, when we do not see clearly positive results? They just make us feel good that we’re trying to fix how horrible it is in Cuba, as one diplomat told me.

Are these our only tools to affect change in Cuba?

“Insanity [is] doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” as Albert Einstein once said.

The timing couldn’t seem better for a total rethink—a re-examination of our paradigm on Cuba—since Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton has initiated the State Department’s very first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. USAID will also be under the microscope.

The bottom line is that, to date, the Cubans are defining the terms of how we talk. We can turn the policy paradigm to what works for our own interests.

At the DC watercooler the pop talk is still “end the trade embargo” and “allow travel for all U.S. citizens,” even after the beating of blogger Yoani Sanchez and Alan Gross’ imprisonment. This is not satisfying.

Jake Colvin, Vice President of Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, says “removing sanctions and travel restrictions on Cuba could create tens of thousands of new jobs in the U.S. tourism sector and generate anywhere from $300 million to nearly $1 billion annually, in addition to agriculture and food sales.”

Colvin is on the money with the removal of trade sanctions. But we can’t do it overnight. Further loosening on U.S. technology would be step in the right direction.

With Google vs. China underway, I’m feeling quite bullish about the influence that American private enterprise can have on another country. This is not a new phenomenon. But we wouldn’t know with Cuba since both the U.S. and Cuban governments have blockades on information access and trade. We will not affect Cuba’s restrictions the way we’re going about it now.

“Google is already causing the Chinese government to liberalize their censorship policy, allowing more access to ‘controversial’ information to Chinese people,” says Dan Abrams, president of MassLight Inc, which consults for the Defense Department among others.

With the rising prominence and expansion of the Cuban blogosphere, Cuba is an opportunity for U.S. policymakers. Unfortunately, Secretary Clinton didn’t note this in her recent Internet freedom speech.

Granted, there are many more barricades to the Internet, computers and software in Cuba than in China. Still, the Internet/Google example in China, as it develops, could very well be a paradigm for Cuba and the influence of the American private sector. Unfortunately, our current trade restrictions prevent them from exploring this opportunity.

“Ending the ban on travel by U.S. citizens—or better yet, removing all trade and travel restrictions—would be much more effective than tinkering with U.S. telecom sanctions. There's something to be said for the low-tech approach,” Colvin points out.

His points are solid. What has resulted from Obama’s move to lift restrictions on U.S. telecom companies? Nothing yet. Maybe we need to move more aggressively in other trade matters?

I’m not saying that dropping trade sanctions on telecommunications and technology firms will topple the regime, or that Cubans can order millions of iPads. They cannot afford them.

And, even if they did, it would be equivalent to giving someone a car with no gas. For now. The technology sector moves faster than any government can keep up with. And this could be one way to nurture the capitalist spirit in Cuba.

“Some entrepreneurial company will figure out a way to make some small inroads into imports or exports, then another, and newer technologies will be introduced. It’s not an overnight prescription but it will have a significant impact over time,” says Abrams.

If our goal is to improve unadulterated access to information in Cuba as a way to promote political freedoms, why does the U.S. government believe it can do it by paying its own staffers—or subcontractors, like Alan Gross—to do it? Note: Cubans do not trust the U.S. government.

We’re fooling ourselves to think the U.S. government is going to influence the Cuban government or people through our existing means. This is a waste of time and money. Let’s try public diplomacy through private enterprise.

*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in WashingtonDC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: aqinfo@as-coa.org

Tags: U.S.-Cuba relations, Bruno Rodríguez, Alan Gross, Senator Russ Feingold, Radio/TV Marti, Secretary Hillary Rodham, Google

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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