Next month in Miami, the U.S. government will host a Cuba Internet Freedom Conference. It is being billed as a two-day event aiming to bring “together digital innovators and independent journalists from Cuba with other individuals focused on improving digital rights and fostering uncensored access for the island.” Sounds innocent enough, promising even. But is it worth our taxpayer money or the risk? You can learn a lot more about it at this U.S. government website; however, I’m certain, the Cuban regime has archived this site for future use against civil society leaders.
While there is no doubt that Internet freedom is an important democracy promotion tool, one that works over time, when it comes to totalitarian police states such as Cuba, these programs can land people in prison or worse. Just ask Alan Gross. Mr. Gross, a senior U.S. citizen spent five years as a political prisoner in Cuba for engaging in Internet freedom work. His crime involved training Jewish community center volunteers on the island to use phones, wireless networks, and personal computers. Gross was subjected to psychological and other forms of torture.
I suspect that the only reason Mr. Gross did not die in custody is because the Cubans needed him alive. The Cuban regime used Mr. Gross to secure political concessions from the Obama administration. A state sponsor of terrorism at the time, secret negotiations were initiated to secure Gross’s release in exchange for improved relations with the United States. Of course the establishment media, as well as supporters of Obama’s engagement policy have generally ignored this political nugget.
The Gross family sued the U.S. government contractor and State Department. The cases reportedly settled out of court. Yet one of the many lessons from the Gross case, and others like it, is that you do not send civilians to do work that should be left to professionals in another line of work. For the safety of those involved, as well as long-term U.S. policy goals most, if not all of these democracy-building programs should be classified. The Congress has ceded way too much ground on this point, especially for programs in countries such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and a few other hot spots.
With respect to the upcoming Cuba Internet Freedom Conference, the Obama administration, as well as those who support the president’s flawed engagement policy are either naive or, frankly, fools. Why would the U.S. government openly advertise a democracy promotion program and then invite internet users from Cuba to join? Cuban participants, at least those who are not Cuban intelligence officers or collaborating with the regime, would be placing a target on themselves by hanging out in Miami.
The reality is that most Cubans who will attend this conference support socialism or a soft landing transition, with one or two exceptions, they are not advocates of true political change in Cuba. Most Cubans who travel to Miami to engage in these conferences are tools of the regime sent to the U.S., Europe, and Latin America to give an appearance to the outside world that there is tolerance of alternative points of view in Cuba.
The reality is that political repression against Cuban civil society and opposition leaders is at an all time high. Sooner or later the U.S. will also be forced to revisit U.S. policy, laws (some drafted when the Internet and encryption was in its infancy), and regulations that of allow the for the export of certain telecommunications products to Cuba since Cuba is using its telecommunication systems to spy on its people – it has become a tool of repression.
U.S. taxpayers have squandered billions in these sort of programs. To what end? Cuba remains a totalitarian police state. The only tool that works, and that was working up until December 17, 2014, was the enforcement of economic sanctions against regime officials. Yet as the Alan Gross matter demonstrated, this administration is willing to sacrifice civilian human life for policy gains, an approach that is not limited to Cuba. Think Iran, where the mullahs have taken to kidnapping Americans and dual-nationals and holding them for monetary ransom as well as other political concessions.
The truly independent journalists and internet pioneers of Cuba will not attend the Miami conference next month. We need to support these people who do not travel outside of Cuba, but who tough it out on the island day by day. They deserve U.S. taxpayer funds to build more networks and spread the word about the power of the Internet for civil society. And what about risks posed from cyber terror or non-white hat hackers? How can we trust regime picked attendees to begin with?
To make Internet programs truly successful in Cuba, give trusted individuals the money and other support without announcing it to the world. Classify it. In addition, enforce existing sanctions and implement new ones targeting regime officials, their family members, as well as many other characters that make up the Cuban totalitarian police state. At this juncture, however, neither this President, nor the Republican Congress, is politically able or willing to do any of this because both camps are blinded by old ways of dealing with the Cuba conundrum.