Uncharted Territory: Cuba’s information sovereignty & US digital capital

Cubans repeatedly rebelled against the mono-culture of sugar that an empire of capital forced on both land and people[1]; only the Cuban Revolution of 1959 finally succeeded in overcoming this bondage.[2] However, even before attending to a new agrarian law, needed to put an end to the plantation system and to redistribute foreign landholdings, Cuba gave an immediate demonstration of its newly won sovereignty. Just two months after Fidel Castro marched into Havana, in March 1959, telephone workers tore down a telephone advertising billboard, placed it in a coffin, and marched it down a boulevard before tossing it into the sea.[3] The ad was an icon of foreign domination. The Cuban Telephone Company, owned by the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, controlled and profited from the country’s thoroughly inadequate telecommunications. Cuba’s revolutionary government now took over management of this company; to the cheers of the Cuban people, formal expropriation followed.[4] In the ensuing years, what had been an unbalanced, Havana-centric telecommunications system was extended substantially into Cuba’s countryside. Meanwhile, other companies, based not only in the US but also in Western European countries, were also nationalized.[5] Every government apart from that of the United States duly accepted the legality of nationalization under existing international law, and negotiated financial settlements with the Cuban state.

The U.S. Government neither forgave nor forgot. It imposed a punishing economic embargo, which has lasted for more than half a century. Successive U.S. Administrations made repeated attempts, overt and covert, to overthrow the Cuban Government; since the 1980s, the US government has doled out more than $1 billion (under the pretense of “democracy” and the “free flow of information”[6]) to stir unrest against Cuba’s government. The 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act turned the embargo into an even more devastating blockade, by adding further extraterritorial sanctions. Helms-Burton enabled the original owners of nationalized Cuban assets who afterward became U.S. citizens to use US courts to prosecute foreign companies that took over these properties.[7] Such provisions violated international law; but they were still deployed against a Mexican telecommunications corporation for making use of IT&T’s onetime Cuban telephone property.[8] Year after year, for twenty years, the United Nations General Assembly has resolved by overwhelming majorities that the U.S. embargo should be ended. The blockage continues; but real changes are afoot.

If Cuba’s entanglement in the circuits of capitalism had long revolved around sugar, information and communication have now become pivots of the country’s reintegration into a newly digital capitalism. In the run-up to President Obama’s 2014 announcement that the US was negotiating with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was funding a Cuban version of Twitter – “ZuneZuneo” – through the Cuban-American youth group called Roots of Hope,[9] and was infiltrating the underground Hip Hop scene by sending a Serbian music producer to recruit Cuban rappers to provoke fans to spark a youth movement against the Cuban state.[10] As the U.S. shifted its foreign policy strategy – the two countries re-established formal diplomatic relations in July 2015 – it also moved networks systems and applications into the foreground.

The previous June, Google Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt had visited Cuba, with a team of Google executives including former State Department advisor Jared Cohen, and accompanied by the usual noise about a “free and open internet.”[11] Expressly criticizing the embargo, Schmidt geared his visit to scoping out future business opportunities. Soon after, Google released its Chrome browser and free versions of Google Play and Analytics in Cuba.[12] This was possible because, while the US trade embargo still remains intact to this day and can only be lifted by an act of the US Congress, Google tactfully offered free services – which fell between the cracks of the embargo – to test the waters in Cuba. As Google anticipated, the Obama Administration eased regulations in a few strategic fields including telecommunications.[13] To “initiate new efforts to increase Cubans’ access to communications and their ability to communicate freely,” the U.S. relaxed its controls to allow U.S. companies to sell telecommunications equipment and services, software, and Internet services in Cuba.[14]

U.S. Internet and communications vendors quickly began to move into the largely-untapped Cuban market. New Jersey-based IDT Corp struck a deal with Cuba’s national telecom firm Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA) to provide international long distance direct calling. Netflix and AirBnB established offices and are trying to scale up operations, despite the fact that Internet access is still sparse in Cuba. Airbnb is tapping existing access points through partnerships with internet cafes, and is recruiting middlemen to teach them to add information on its website.[15] Verizon, and subsequently Sprint, have signed roaming agreements with Cuba.[16] Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has dropped hints about his company’s plan for expansion to Cuba.[17]

If the 2016 U.S. election confirms that the U.S. will alter its longstanding strategy of blockade, then economic penetration is likely to be foregrounded as a means both to undermine the Cuban Revolution and to reintegrate the island within a U.S.-led digital capitalism. While already wooing elites and Cuban citizens alike with their usual taglines of “democracy” and “economic opportunity,” however, the U.S. Government and U.S. corporations will find that the road to Cuba looks different than it did during the prerevolutionary years depicted in “Godfather Part Two.”

Not only has the Castro brothers’ Cuba long played a geopolitical role in Latin America – where it now possesses significant economic allies. In addition, the U.S. is no longer the undisputed global power-center; seemingly remote China has become a relevant actor. For these reasons, it will be more difficult for the U.S. to sway Cuba to rejoin the orbit preferred for it by U.S. interests.

Cuba’s government is of course aware of this. In fact, it drew the line when Google offered also to install wifi for “free” throughout the country – a favorite strategy of Google, given that access to the Internet is a prerequisite of its commercial profit model. The Second Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, responded:

Everyone knows why there isn’t more Internet access in Cuba, because it is costly. There are some who want to give it to us for free, but they don’t do it so that the Cuban people can communicate. Instead their objective is to penetrate us and do ideological work to achieve a new conquest. We must have Internet, but in our way, knowing that the imperialists intend to use it as a way to destroy the Revolution.[18]

Recognizing that independent control over information and communications is vital to its economic and political independence, the Cuban state is resisting U.S. firms’ entreaties. After years of difficulty in building out its own information infrastructure, as a result of the U.S. embargo, in 2011 the Cuban government teamed up with its ally Venezuela to build its first undersea cable between Venezuela, Havana, and Jamaica.[19] The project was financed by Venezuela, which at the time still enjoyed strong earnings from its oil.[20] Additionally, China also lent Venezuela $70 million for the joint venture cable construction project between Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell and Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe (TGC). [21]

China has increased investment and trading in many Latin America countries. Alongside Ecuador, Brazil, and Venezuela, Cuba has extended its economic ties with China, after the collapse of its previous ally, the Soviet Union, and the Soviet socialist bloc to which Cuba long supplied its sugar at favorable prices. China has now become Cuba’s second largest trading partner, after Venezuela.[22] And some of the very same markets for which U.S. corporate capital hopes to become Cuba’s supplier are also targeted by China. In telecommunications, China already has a clear footprint in Cuba. More than 10 years ago, Chinese telecom giant Huawei began to work with ETECSA to build Cuba’s domestic fiber-optic network.[23] ETECSA has recently sealed a partnership deal to enable Huawei to sell its smartphone in Cuba. According to a leaked document, Cuba now is planning to expand its broadband network coverage so as to make it available to at least 50% of Cuban households by 2020, to relax Cuba’s telecommunications company ETECSA’s monopoly and to open this industry to non-state entities.[24]

As the US-Cuba relationship continues to evolve, Cuba’s information and communications infrastructure will be reorganized within the force-field of growing competition between digital capitalism’s polarizing power-centers. For Cuba, the question today could hardly be more profound. Can a policy of allying with different countries and competing companies in order to modernize Cuba’s information infrastructure be developed in such a way that it supports the needs of Cuba’s working people?

Cuba’s economy, worth about $77 billion in 2014, is smaller than the combined economies of two U.S. states – New Hampshire and Vermont. Will it be possible for Cuba’s government to defy U.S. digital capital and resist U.S.-led digital capitalism so as to carve out continued space for autonomous national development to serve the interests of the domestic population?

[1] Resistance to plantation slavery commenced as the plantation system became the basis for integrating the Caribbean into an emerging global capitalism. A community of runaway slaves appeared in Cuba in the 1530s, more than 250 years before Cuba replaced Haiti as the world’s largest sugar exporter. Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982; 156.

[2] As Eduardo Galeano was to observe, it took time for the Cuban Revolution to recognize that sugar was only the “knife,” imperialism the “assassin.” Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. New York, Monthly Review Press, 1973; 73-5. Nearly one-quarter of Cuba’s people worked in the sugar industry in 1959.

[3] Craig Offman, “As Cuba-U.S. Relations Thaw, the Thorny Matter of Property Disputes Heats Up,” Globe and Mail, 13 February 2015.

[4] John Spicer Nichols and Alicia M. Torres, “Telecommunications in Cuba.”

[5] “Between 1959 and 1961, the Cuban government nationalized almost all U.S.-owned assets on the island. Such properties included 90% of all electricity generated in Cuba, the entire telephone system, most of the mining industry, oil refineries, bottling plants, warehouses, and over two million acres of land, including up to 80% of the rich traditional sugar lands. Expropriated assetsalso comprised hotels, commercial properties, private residences, artworks, insurance policies, bank accounts, and ships.” Timothy Ashby, “U.S. Certified Claims Against Cuba: Legal Reality and Likely Settlement Mechanisms,” University of Miami Inter-American Law Review 40:3, April 2009: 413-14.

[6] Tracy Eaton, “Cuban activists feel abandoned amid US rapprochement,” aljazeera, July 20.

[7] Salim Lamrani, The Economic War Against Cuba. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013:34; Joy Gordon, “The U.S. Embargo against Cuba and the Diplomatic Challenges to Extraterritoriality,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 36 (1) Winter 2012: 63-79.

[8] Larry Rother, “Mexican Conglomerate Abandons Cuban Phone Venture,” New York Times, June 30, 1999.

[9]U.S. built secret ‘Cuban Twitter’ to stir unrest,”  Reuters, April 3, 2014.

[10] Matthew Weaver & Associated Press, “US agency infiltrated Cuban hip-hop scene to spark youth unrest,” Guardian, December 11, 2014

[11] Stephanie Burnett, “Google Boss Eric Schmidt Leads a Visit to Cuba,” Times,  June 30, 2014.

[12] John Callaham, “Cuba can now access free apps on Google Play along with Google Analytics,” November 26, 2014.

[13] Fact Sheet – Reaching out to the Cuban people. The White House. Office of the Press Secretary, April 13, 2009.

[14] Watch Secretary Kerry on the US embassy in Havana.

[15] Sarah Kesser, “Airbnb’s secret to scaling in Cuba,” Fast Company, July 8, 2015.

[16] Daniel Trotta, “Cuba signs deal with Sprint, says it is open for more business,” Reuters, November 2, 2015; Chucky Hamby, “Verizon is First U.S. Wireless Company to Offer Roaming in Cuba,” Verizon News Center.

[17] Tim Roger, Facebook’s Zuckerberg says Cuba ‘definitely fits within our mission,’ Fusion, April 9 2015.

[18] Fernando Ravsberg, “Cuban Communist Party Tells Google,Havana Times, July 13, 2015.

[19]Cuba trials Internet Traffic via its first Undersea Cable,” Submarine Cable Network, January 20, 2013.

[20] Marc Frank, “Cuba’s mystery fiber-optic Internet cable stirs to life,” Reuters, January 22, 2013.

[21] Larry Press, “China Wins First Round of Cuban Internet Investment,” A New Domain, October 7, 2015.

[22] Enrique Dussel Peters, “China’s Evolving Role in Latin America,” Atlantic Council, September 15, 2015.

[23] Jonathan Kats, “Havana’s Hotspot,” Verge, October 15, 2015, s

[24]Plans to Broaden Internet Access in Cuba Leaked,” Havana Times, June 9, 2015

 

 

 

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