If Google wants to help advance the cause for freedom in Cuba, it should focus on changing hearts and minds in Havana, not U.S. law or policy in Washington, DC. From what I read in the media about Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent visit to the island, as well as his blog post, it appears that Mr. Schmidt’s advisors, the media, or both, are not fully up to speed on current U.S. laws, regulations, and policy with respect to Cuba.
The “economic sanctions” component of the U.S. approach toward the island nation are important and necessary, but not a policy. U.S.-Cuba policy is statutorily designed to accomplish two things: (1) support the Cuban people, and (2) isolate the Cuban regime. Yes, it sounds somewhat neurotic but it can be done. That is why there are many exceptions to the sanctions that allow for the export of U.S. food, medicine and medical supplies, as well as certain telecommunications and Internet-related services and equipment.
In addition to the economic sanctions, there are also a series of export controls in place to ensure that certain high-tech products are not sold to the regime by U.S. companies or persons. These are all common sense restrictions. The Cuban government is a state-sponsor of terror, is a well-documented human rights abuser, it harbors many fugitives from U.S. law, it runs political prisons, and it collaborates with nations that seek to acquire vast amounts of U.S. corporate and government information via illegal means. Any technology that makes it easier for Cuba to do any of this must be restricted for export.
But even with these sanctions and export controls, there is a quite a bit of room for Google, and other tech companies, to help support the Cuban people — the first and most important prong of the U.S. approach to the island. The Communist Party of Cuba is well-aware of this and that is why the Internet is tightly controlled by the regime; and, so long as this crew remains in power, that is the way it will be.
In blog post about his trip, Mr. Schmidt, using the Cuban’s favorite term for economic sanctions, “the blockade”, Schmidt concludes that:
The “blockade” makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.
He’s half right. As I said at the onset of this post, U.S. sanctions are a tool that is part of the overall U.S. approach towards Cuba. Sadly, the sanctions are small part of overall U.S. efforts because both Republican and Democratic Presidents have barely enforced the laws as the Congress intended when the laws were modernized in the late 1990s when three Americans, on a humanitarian mission, were murdered by the Castro regime.
U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies that wish to explore the Cuba market, should do so but only under existing laws and regulations. The burgeoning freedom movement on the island needs help and there is a lot U.S. companies can do, under the existing policy and legal structure, to help Cuba’s next generation of leaders step up and lead. Anything more than that, including criticizing U.S. policy, only plays into the hands of the regime and does little to advance the cause of freedom. The true “bloqueo” is the one that the Communist Party has on its people.
Mr. Schmidt’s blog makes for an interesting read (observations about healthcare are not accurate though), and I think his heart and business mind is in the right place; however, his advisors need to better prepare him for trips such as these or they risk another Google/China-like political problem in this town. The people of Cuba need more access to information about the rest of the world, and U.S. companies should lead the way so long as they are aware to the national security and human rights concerns that apply in this particular situation.