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The Cuba Internet Task Force - a Win for Trump and Castro

President Obama began working on Cuban rapprochement during his 2009 presidential campaign. After over five years of thought and negotiation, the Whitehouse announced a major shift in Cuba policy, which included allowing telecommunications providers “to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba.”

When President Obama’s trip to Cuba was announced, I speculated on possible Internet-related advances but was disappointed by the results. While in Cuba, the President held optimistic public meetings, and several Internet-related projects were announced, but, as far as I know, none of them materialized. Can we expect more from Trump?

Last summer, Trump said he would be changing our Cuba policy and I speculated on how it might affect the Internet, but could not think of anything reasonable. When he published his Cuba policy memorandum, one of its purposes was to restore Cuban’s “right to speak freely, including through access to the Internet” and one of its goals was to “amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services.”

Trump said he was “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” but his Internet policy sounded a lot like Obama’s. The only concrete difference I saw was that Trump had ordered the State Department to convene a task force “to examine the technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba.”

Last week, the State Department issued a public invitation to attend the first meeting of that Cuba Internet Task Force on February 7th.

I called the State Department to ask whether the meeting would be streamed or archived and was told that it would not. I asked if they had any information on the meeting agenda, the charge of the task force and who the members were. They referred my questions to the Press office, but they did not answer.

We will hopefully learn more after the meeting, but what might Trump do? Will we see the laissez-faire Trump who promised Saudi Arabia that “America will not seek to impose our way of life on others” or some sort of digital Bay of Pigs like the failed smuggling of satellite equipment into Cuba, Zunzuneo or the Alan Gross affair?

My guess is that not much will happen—that this task force and the rest of Trump’s Cuba policy is for domestic political consumption by anti-Castro politicians and voters. The Cuban government is also using the task force for domestic political consumption. Their reaction to its formation was predictable—saying that Cuba is being attacked by a powerful, hostile nation. Within a few days of the formation of the task force, many articles like this one were published by the Cuban government and allied publications like China’s Xinhua and Russia’s RT. (Perhaps rekindling the Cold War is part of making America great again).

Ironically, this task force is a political win for both Castro and Trump—autocracy thrives on fear and mistrust.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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