International Affairs

Trump’s US-Cuba policy needs to demand communication with the outside world

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Last week the President unveiled his much-awaited policy for U.S.-Cuba relations. Expectations are the new policy will balance the exile community’s push to strengthen the embargo, as well as the interests of American businesses looking at new market opportunities in Cuba. To balance this equation, the President would do well to consider the role that both Google and God play in Cuba.

Google became the first foreign internet company to operate in Cuba, forecasting the kind of connectedness to the world Cubans have only been able to imagine. One might hope this move by Google would provide the access to Wifi President Obama all but promised when he normalized the relationship between Cuba and the United States. 

{mosads}However, as Freedom House reported last year, Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for communication. Until now, Internet access has mostly been made available connecting through a submarine cable from Venezuela at the cost of $1.50 an hour, driving fees to roughly 30 percent of the reported average Cuban monthly wages. Google has made it clear its presence will only improve Internet access for five percent of the population who already have access.


Without access to the outside world, Cubans live in the land of the disconnected. Currently, the only information most Cubans receive is propagandist messaging through state-controlled media. The Cuban government must create the infrastructure the Cuban population needs to be open to the rest of the world. 

But access to the Internet alone will not be sufficient to create a culture that opens Cuba to investment. Currently, Cuba does not allow for the existence of any entity independent from the government. Therefore, the government can, at a whim, both file and rule on charges against private investors. Just ask Canadian Cy Tokmakjian, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on trumped up charges and was released only after he lost all his investments. Or ask British developer Stephen Purvis who was arrested and tortured when he fell out of favor with the regime.

It would be foolish to think that the Cuban government will be open to suggestions regarding the creation of civil society. However, it is precisely the creation of this space the Administration must encourage. And there is a way to do this. 

There is a rising wave of independent thinkers, journalists and pastors. The Administration must advocate for these individuals, particularly for a new cadre of young pastors who are preaching liberal democratic values such as the nature of rights, human dignity, principled engagement, truth-telling, and obedience to something beyond the state. The future of these pastors is the future of democracy. 

Earlier this year, some of my colleagues at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and I met with a small group of Cuban pastors in Washington, D.C. All they want is to provide basic services such as food for the hungry and to create educational institutions that are independent from the state. Because they refuse to register their churches or to become an “official” government entity, their buildings have been bulldozed and their families ostracized. They each expressed their fear of the regime. However, they all want to stay in Cuba to rebuild it. This is not a group of Cubans seeking a safe distance from the regime through political asylum or exile.

One of the young activists we met, Felix Yuniel Llerena Lopez, was detained upon arrival at a Cuban airport, stripped of most of his belongings and given a court date to appear before the Ministry of Interior. Llerena was also expelled from the university he attended. Today, he remains in Cuba, in fear of his life, using Twitter when he can to let the world know about his situation and that of many other Cubans who are being harassed, beaten, persecuted or who languish in jail. The world largely remains deaf to their plight.

Reducing the future of Cuba to mere economic expansion in hopes of enriching both American investors and the Cuban people is nothing but a fantasy. Unless the United States demands the creation of an infrastructure for communication with the outside world, as well as the space for the Cuban people to create their own civil society, any engagement will only serve to enrich Raul Castro’s thugs. 

Kristina Arriaga is the Vice Chair on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The views expressed are her own. She is also the 2017 recipient of the Newseum’s Free Expression award for her work on religious freedom. Follow her on Twitter at: @ArriagaKristina.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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