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Google Search: “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back”

David Gomez

#CubaNow Blog Post

Jul 16, 2015

For the first time in generations, U.S.-Cuba relations are being led by officials on both sides who are more interested in engaging than provoking one another. Despite—or even because of—disagreements over major issues including human rights and immigration, the U.S. and Cuba have been involved in more direct discussions over the past seven months than at any point in modern history. In a speech to the National Assembly yesterday, Cuban president Raul Castro said his government was "willing to advance toward the normalization of relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized, mutually beneficial way."

Naturally, this shift has resulted in hardliners on both sides working overtime to derail the progress that’s been made. In Congress, long-time embargo defenders in the House like Mario Diaz-Balart have inserted a number of policy riders into appropriations bills, hoping to defund the new policy and prohibit new flights and cruise ship travel to Cuba. In the Senate, like-minded Senators have vowed to block ambassador appointments and embassy funds until Cuba unilaterally resolves the kinds of issues typically addressed through ambassadors and embassies.

These Senators who a year ago lamented the lack of Internet in Cuba are now outspoken opponents of allowing American companies to invest in expanding telecom access across the Island.

Their goal? As Sen. Marco Rubio recently told the Guardian: to roll back every step taken by the Obama administration to normalize relations and help the Cuban people.

Not to be outdone, hardliners in Cuba are also doing their part to put the kibosh on things. While critics of our new policy toward the Island like to portray the Cuban government as a single-minded monolith, the reality is something closer to a multi-layered bureaucracy, complete with differing factions that include several hardliners just as determined to keep U.S.-Cuba relations in the Cold War. There are the weekly crackdowns* on dissidents that advance the interests of no one except those who want to impede progress; or the unpopular limitations on small businesses, such as the lack of a wholesale market for household goods; or bans on private 3D home movie theaters over concerns of “subversive programming.”

More recently, the Second Secretary of the Communist Party José Ramón Machado Ventura expressed concerns about American companies trying to undermine the Revolution. In an interview with the state-run Juventud Rebelde, Machado Ventura acknowledged the need for increased access to the Internet, but worried that American businesses offering to expand WiFi on the Island like Google sought to “soften” Cuban youth ideologically.

This skepticism towards American businesses might seem like a natural, if overly wary, reaction in the wake of failed USAID-funded programs like Zunzuneo. But as the Secretary goes on about what he sees as the social benefits of the Internet, you almost expect him to reference its "series of tubes":

“We must use technologies to influence more young people and take advantage of them to defend what we have built during these years of Revolution.”

We’re curious as to how this view would gel with the vast majority of Cubans who still lack any access to the Internet. What good are steps like live-tweeting the National Assembly speech or setting up official social media profiles if most of the Cuban people don't have the means to access it?

Machado Ventura’s comments are a display of how some in the Cuban government—like their old guard counterparts in the U.S.— are still mired in the days of the Cold War, viewing every decision through the prism of Us vs. Them and reluctant to cede any of control regardless of how it would benefit the people. Increased Internet access and telecommunications isn’t about indoctrinating youth—or, for that matter, attempting more Zunzuneos. It’s about bringing the Cuban people into the 21st century and providing them with the means to expand and grow.

We believe more reasonable heads—the kind that believe in leaving the past in the past—will ultimately prevail in Cuba's internal debate over how to create a truly prosperous and sustainable society. That’s exactly why Congress should bypass hardliner squabbling on both sides and pass legislation with 21st century priorities at the forefront. Bipartisan legislation in the Senate, the Cuba DATA Act, is one such bill that seeks to expand and codify badly needed telecom exports and services to Cuba.

That might not be to the liking of certain members of the old guard on both shores, but it’s a step towards empowering those in Cuba who truly want to pull it out of the Internet Dark Ages.

*On hand to helpfully prove our point, the Heritage Foundation's Ana Quintana didn't waste time in claiming this was a criticism of dissidents--and not their treatment--before making an embarrassing backpedal.