Eli Lake

Biden Can Bring the Internet, and Maybe Democracy, to Cuba

Faced with the largest protests Cuba has seen since 1994, the regime in Havana predictably blamed the unrest on the US.

The Cuban president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, said the US embargo of the island was responsible. The foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, said US-backed mercenaries sparked the uprising.

It’s a familiar tactic for modern tyrants. At moments of popular unrest, blame the intervention on a foreign adversary. It frightens the citizens and placates the regime’s true believers.

Yanelis Jimenez Tellez, an activist and schoolteacher in Havana, knows better. In an interview, she told me that the demonstrations that began throughout the island on July 11 were the work of activists connected on social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter, not American skullduggery.

She said the Cuban government blames the unrest on the US in part to confuse its citizens. “The people know this is not true, it is they, themselves, that went out, no organization made them go out on the streets,” she said. “It’s a lie the dictatorship wants to tell the world.”

Tellez is the chairwoman of the Independent and Democratic Cuba Party, an outlaw opposition group that since 1980 has called for competitive elections and a liberal constitution for the island. But she insisted in the interview that no organized group (including her own) had sparked the protests. Like the uprisings in recent years in Iran, the new movement demanding change is leaderless and depends on easy access to the internet to survive.

There are also signs of hope that the protests have exposed fissures within the regime. Tellez confirmed other news reports that party officials in neighborhoods ignored governmental orders to come out in the streets for counter-demonstrations. It was left to the state security services and federal police to oppose the protests last week, she said. Many Cubans would not “confront protestors, some of whom are members of their own families,” she said. “They have suffered as well, so they do not want to do this.”

All of this goes to show that while it’s false to claim that US agents provoked the unrest in Cuba, it’s true that US technology has enabled it. This is why Tellez is watching President Joe Biden closely to see if he will follow through on last week’s promise to pursue ways to unilaterally open access to her island’s internet, which has been intermittently shut down and slowed since the start of the unrest.

For the time being, Tellez said, Cuban activists will use virtual private networks that cloak the identity and searches of users during sporadic access to the web. She used a VPN network during our interview to access the encrypted WhatsApp messaging service.

The Biden administration has been talking with private companies to pursue the feasibility of providing Cuba with an alternative to the state’s internet service provider. One option is to use communications satellites to link up with satellite phones. Another is to create the equivalent of mobile phone towers in hot-air balloons that would float over the island. Len Khodorkovsky, who advised the State Department’s program to reach out to Iran’s social media during President Donald Trump’s administration, told me that the technology existed to turn the internet back on in Cuba, and that similar programs had been tried with some success in Iran in 2018 and 2019.

The US government has for years helped develop tools to circumvent authoritarian efforts to control and monitor the internet. In 2010, the US Agency for International Development funded a startup to create a Cuban version of Twitter, called ZunZuneo, that it hoped would give activists a way to organize demonstrations. That initiative failed after an expose by the Associated Press. But other tools to hide and encrypt messages from government monitors have succeeded.

When she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton made it a priority to advance internet freedom. Speaking at George Washington University in 2011, after the first hopeful signs of the Arab Spring, Clinton said, “We believe that governments who have erected barriers to internet freedom — whether they’re technical filters or censorship regimes or attacks on those who exercise their rights to expression and assembly online — will eventually find themselves boxed in.”

A decade later, Cuba’s regime has found itself in such a box. Biden has an opportunity to try to keep it there. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.