Communications Embargo on Cuba: Let Them Surf, Not Float

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

January 22, 2009

The Cuban Revolution has turned 50 in subdued fashion. The economy is, once more, in a dire situation and Raul Castro’s commitment to liberalizing reforms remains uncertain. Ideological stubbornness continues to keep Cuba from realizing its potential as a regional economic powerhouse. Indeed, despite the dead weight of socialist mismanagement, the fundamental assets that Cuba has to succeed economically in the long run are numerous and significant. They include an educated and healthy population, an unbeatable geographic location, and very low levels of crime, an obvious allure in one of the world’s most violent regions.

Yet, a serious economic hurdle has received very limited attention. Cuba is lagging desperately behind the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean when it comes to information and communication technologies (IT). According to figures from the International Telecommunications Union, at the end of 2007 Cuba had less than 2 subscribers to mobile phones per 100 inhabitants, roughly on a par with Ethiopia and Eritrea. This is one fifteenth of Haiti’s rate, the second lowest in the region. The number of fixed telephone lines in Cuba stood at less than half the regional average. Internet penetration figures were dismal too. At 12 users per 100 people, Cuba was only slightly above Haiti and Belize, and way behind the Latin American average of 28. A 2006 report from the organization Reporters without Borders considered Cuba one of the world’s most backward countries regarding Internet usage, ranking it as the worst in Latin America and comparable to Uganda.

None of this is likely to have changed significantly in the past few months, after the Cuban government lifted bans on the purchasing of mobile phones and computers, which remain unaffordable for the vast majority of Cubans. A Cuban computer scientist recently interviewed by Inter Press Service described the country’s IT prowess rather amusingly, “in Cuba you don’t surf (the Internet), you float.”

The primary responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with the Cuban regime government, which harbors deep fears of the spread of IT. Yet, the U.S. is hardly helping. One of the most unfortunate consequences of the U.S. commercial embargo on Cuba is that the prohibition on trade and investment reduces the access of Cubans to technology that would enhance their ability to contact loved ones, improve their skills, and broaden their knowledge. This “communications ban” has been restated by successive pieces of legislation, notably the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which expanded it to include even the donation of computers and all kinds of electronic equipment.

This has far reaching implications. It has often been said that through the so-called “communications embargo” the U.S. government has become an unwitting accessory to the Cuban regime’s policy of stifling the free flow of ideas and the Cubans’ access to information about the world. What is less obvious is that the current legislation is reinforcing a critical barrier for the successful reintegration of a (hopefully) free Cuba into the world economy. There is no chance that Cuba can live up to its potential in the global economy if the current levels of dissemination of IT are not radically improved in the short term. Even if the Communist regime fell tomorrow, no Intel, Motorola or Microsoft plants would come Cuba’s way any time soon. Maquiladoras would, perhaps.

Hence, as advocated by the recent report of the Partnership for the Americas Commission, convened by The Brookings Institution, it is high time to “liberalize regulations on the sale of all communications equipment (to Cuba), including computers, as admissible under the State Sponsors of Terrorism List under the Export Administration Act and the Foreign Assistance Act.” The future economic viability of a free Cuba is at stake.