July 2010
Position Papers

Empowering the Cuban People through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders

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Information has always been a liberating force, and throughout history, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes have always attempted to control it. Traditionally, they have resorted to isolation and the outright banning of information media to achieve their goals. Yet these closed societies have often faced a different kind of dilemma: that of information’s usefulness to economic activity versus its liberalizing powers. Attempting to deal with this contradiction, modern dictatorships have manipulated information by propagandizing and controlling the media rather than banning it. However, modern information and communications technology (ICT) has presented two serious and fundamental challenges to dictatorial regimes:

1) It has democratized information in an unprecedented manner by empowering every citizen to be a producer, rather than a simple consumer, of information.

2) For those regimes that seek to prioritize economic growth, they are forced to balance the politically liberating technology access with the powerful demands for the technology to conduct business and maintain competitiveness in an increasingly global and competitive marketplace.

ICT is inherently politically neutral in that it has the potential to repress, propagandize and liberate. Yet the force of ICT is powerful and indisputable. ICT has become a requirement, not a by-product, for economic development. Several modern-day dictatorships that value economic development have allowed for the growth and development of the technologies but have made major investments in control tools. Examples include China, Iran, Syria and Burma. Other dictatorships that do not value economic growth simply hinder or block the technologies’ development. A perfect example is North Korea, while Cuba probably represents a dictatorship transitioning from one modality to the other.

Nonetheless, as we saw in Iran in the aftermath of its rigged electoral process in 2009, once the technology is widespread it tends to favor the people, not the regime. Thus, for those who advocate for the growth of democracy and freedom, promoting widespread access to ICT is an important liberating tool. For democracy advocates, exploiting the aforementioned challenges that ICT presents to dictatorial regimes acquires paramount importance.

Cuba is not exempt from these challenges; rather, it is attempting to balance these key challenges. Cuba needs to fundamentally reform its economy but deeply fears the political impact of widespread access to ICT. How it pursues that balance can be greatly facilitated, or made difficult, by U.S. policy toward Cuba.

We know that there is a strong correlation between access to ICT and economic growth and development. Conversely, the large investments required for ICT infrastructure will only take place when there is a revenue model to support the investment and provide investors with market-based return rates. This became exceedingly clear with cellular phones. As little as five years ago, there were just a few thousand mobile phones in Cuba, almost all of them in the hands of government officials, foreigners and members of the elites. Since President Raúl Castro’s 2008 announcement lifting the ban on cell phones, the number of cell phones will rapidly approach one million by the end of 2010. The reason is simple: Cell phone revenues have become an important source of hard currency. The economic benefits outweigh political concerns.

It is unreasonable to wish for the development of other forms of ICT in Cuba, such as the Internet and social media, without economic models to make them work. Thus, the challenge for U.S. policy-makers consists not only of effecting targeted reforms to its sanctions for Cuba, but also of broadly lifting all restrictions that hinder the development of an economic model capable of sustaining the requisite investments in ICT on the island and the corresponding consumer demand for the services. A piecemeal approach will not do the job.

Current U.S. regulations restrict the very access necessary to make this happen. Expanding the opportunity for U.S. telecom investors and companies to provide cell phone and Internet service to the island will help ensure that Cuban citizens possess the tools to become productive economic citizens once the shackles of political and economic state control are removed. To say this does not deny or minimize the real controls that the Cuban government places on its own citizens’ access to the Internet. But expanding citizens’ access to even the most rudimentary technology in Cuba would be a giant step forward in economically empowering a new, independent generation of Cuban citizens. Laying an effective ICT infrastructure foundation is essential for the long term economic prospects of the Cuban people. The following three steps would greatly facilitate getting there:

1) More explicit and flexible U.S. regulations governing the export and investments in ICT infrastructure in Cuba.

2) More flexible and explicit U.S. regulations to allow for the development of an ICT consumer market in Cuba.

3) Scalable donation efforts from outside of Cuba of ICT materials, equipment and software to Cubans on the island.

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