INTERNUTS – U.S. Sanctions Block Cuban Students from On-Line Courses

According to the Associated Press, technology experts are gathering in Miami today to “brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information” for the people of Cuba.

Unless their solutions include ending the U.S. embargo, their brainstorms will amount to little more than a light drizzle.

Their meeting occurs at the same moment students in Cuba (as well as Iran, Sudan, and Syria) have lost access to on-line classes offered by Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company which, as Al-Jazeera notes, offers MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, to millions of students in over 180 countries.

When they try to go to class, students get this message instead:

“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions.  In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”

This cut-off is, of course, big news and, as one Internet expert suggested, very hard to explain:  “My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material — maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?”

To be sure, Cuba is uncomfortable with the Internet and access to the web is meager compared to its neighbors in the region.  But Cuba is not the cause of this problem.

Cuban students got shut out of their classes because, as the company wrote on its blog, “Under [U.S.] law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries.”

We have often used this page to illustrate the costs and futility of our Cuba policy: the Cuban-American war hero barred from visiting his sons on the island, American diabetics unable to obtain a medication that could save them from amputations, the global condemnation of the U.S. embargo delivered annually by the UN.

But, after our country staked so much of our foreign policy on the Internet as an instrument of free expression, this story takes the cake.

Back in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made our position clear: “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” With this declaration as its guiding light, the State Department forged ahead.

The State Department built partnerships between the U.S. government and Internet companies to engage students globally through education. When the Department joined forces with (believe it or not) Coursera, this is what Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs said:

“The State Department and USAID promote a more peaceful, prosperous world, and we all know one of the best ways to get there is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality education.”

 How do we “ensure” such a thing?  We get tough.  In November 2012, the United States imposed sanctions on several people in Iran for Internet censorship.  Explaining the action, then-State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington was determined to stop the “Iranian government from creating an ‘electronic curtain’ to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world.”

Or, we get crafty.  In Cuba, our government engages in risky schemes using taxpayers’ money to “boost Internet activism,” as the State Department advertised last year:

“Digital Tools for Safe and Effective Civil Society Initiatives (subject to the availability of funding, approximately $850,000):  The project should provide Cuban activists with ongoing capacity building and assistance to increase their level of technological proficiency and their ability to utilize new and existing technologies in a secure manner.”

This last clause is a reminder to applicants that the Helms-Burton program that funds these initiatives is illegal under Cuban law; just ask Alan Gross.

In other words, U.S. policy has made an implicit choice:  While our sanctions broadly restrict access by Cuban students to educational content on the Internet, the government funds covert activities to give that access selectively to Cubans reached by our regime change programs.

As CDA’s Lisa Ndecky Llanos told Inter Press Service:

 “The stated U.S. policy is that they want to enable Cubans to access information and be a part of a global community, but in this instance the policy is doing the exact opposite of that.”

When Meghann Curtis was interviewed about State’s partnership with Coursera, she told Fast Company magazine: “One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues.”

Rich indeed!  One class that Cuban students can’t access is called “21st Century American Foreign Policy,” taught by Professor Bruce Jentleson, whose course description reads:  “What is American foreign policy? Who makes it? Why is it the way it is?”

Why is Cuba policy the way it is?  It tries to fix a Cold War problem with sanctions that do not apply to the Internet Century.  While Coursera meets with well-intentioned Treasury and State Department officials to make the service it offers “not a service,” we think the root of this problem is more akin to a “Flashing 12.”

Know the expression?  That’s when you walk into someone’s house and their VCR is stuck “Flashing 12:00,” because they cannot figure out how to program it.  You just can’t reprogram the embargo to make it work, you have to end it.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Obama’s State of the Union speech omits Latin America

During his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama presented an overview of his foreign policy objectives but failed to mention Latin America. Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor, elaborated on the President’s foreign policy priorities, and spoke about possible changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba this year, according to statements released by the U.S. Department of State. He remarked,

“Our bottom line remains that we believe that there should be respect for human rights in Cuba, political and economic reforms that advance those opportunities for the Cuban people. The embargo, frankly, is not simply an act of the President, too; it’s an act of Congress. And there’s great congressional interest in making sure that we’re standing up for our democratic values in terms of our relationship with Cuba.

“So those are constants in our policy. But we’re open to exploring pragmatic steps that can be taken, if they serve our interests, if they serve the interests of the hemisphere, if they serve the interests of the Cuban people.”

Mr. Rhodes also mentioned the CELAC Summit taking place in Havana at the time of the presidential address, and said that the U.S. respects the “general process” and the freedom that nations have in joining regional organizations and attending conferences.

U.S. and Cuba sign oil spill cooperation agreement

The U.S. and Cuba have signed the Multi-Lateral Technical Operating Procedure which establishes a protocol for responses to an oil spill, reports the Tampa Tribune. Mexico, the Bahamas, and Jamaica are the other 3 signatories. John Slaughter, a U.S. Coast Guard captain, told the Tampa Tribune that the agreement will become public next week. The agreement is the product of workshops and negotiations among the nations’ diplomats, Coast Guards, and environmental officials.

Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund told the Tribune that “Just something as simple as knowing who to call in what nation and not needing to ask permission to do so can save valuable time.”

Last November, officials from each country met to discuss the agreement and hold routine mock operations in St. Petersburg, Florida. At that time, Captain Slaughter labeled the protocol as a “nonbinding technical agreement,” which, once approved by the working group, will not need high-level approval and can go immediately into effect.

Cuba, which has long sought to exploit deposits of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, plans to resume offshore oil drilling in 2015.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas encouraged cooperation with Cuba on environmental problems in its 2011 report, “As Cuba plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. policy poses needless risks to our national interest.”

Ambassador Cabañas speaks in Tampa

José Ramón Cabañas, Chief of Mission of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., traveled to Tampa, FL this week and spoke at an event hosted by the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Tampa International Airport, reports Cuba Standard. The trip marked the first official visit to Tampa by an Interest Section Chief in more than a decade. Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) also attended the event.

During his remarks, Ambassador Cabañas called for better ties between Cuba and Tampa Bay, as well as with the U.S. in general, noting that “Any kind of commercial or economic relations with Cuba is a two-way relationship,” the Tampa Bay Times reports. Regarding the case of jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, he stated: “We have a willingness to face that problem, to talk about it, to find a solution. But something has to happen from the other end. There has to be the political will to sit down and talk about it.”

Rep. Castor pushed for the U.S. to engage with Cuba, saying that “There are changes happening on the island and in the economy. They can own private property and own cars. They have small businesses, they’re in auto repair or they have their own restaurants. Now is the time for the U.S. to promote those changes, to encourage those changes.”

Senator Tom Harkin visits Cuba

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa traveled Cuba for three days this week to study the island’s public health system, reports National Journal. Senator Harkin, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was impressed by what he saw, adding that Cuba is a “poor country, but they have a lower child mortality rate than ours. Their life expectancy is now greater than ours. It’s interesting – their public health system is quite remarkable.”

Senator Harkin, who will retire from the Senate in 2015, also visited the island in 2003, when he called on Cuba to release 75 dissidents who had been imprisoned.

Fernando González of “Cuban Five” to be released from prison Feb. 27 and deported

Fernando González is scheduled to be released from federal prison in Arizona on February 27, moved to an immigration facility, and eventually deported to Cuba, reports Reuters. Richard Klugh, González’ lawyer, stated González “has agreed to deportation and it is our understanding that this will take place swiftly after his release.”

González was convicted with four other Cubans, together known as the “Cuban Five,” in 2001 in Miami for espionage. González will be released after serving 15 years of his original 19-year sentence, which was reduced on appeal in 2008 on the basis of good conduct.

Rene González, another of the “Five” was released on probation in 2011. He was permitted to travel to Cuba in April of 2013, where he renounced his U.S. citizenship in order to remain on the island. Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain in prison in the U.S.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

European Union agrees to deepen relationship with Cuba

The European Union will deepen relations with Cuba when it launches talks to develop a special cooperation accord with the country next month, reports Reuters. The talks are set to begin on February 10th and could portend the most significant change in EU policy toward Cuba since it lifted diplomatic sanctions in 2008. According to people close to the talks, the accord could be agreed upon by the end of next year and will look to increase investment, trade and dialogue on human rights issues. Traditionally, the U.S. has pressured the EU to isolate Cuba but, according to Reuters, the U.S. has not attempted to block this decision.

Cuba hosts second CELAC Summit in Havana

The second summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) took place this week in Cuba, reports BBC News. During the Summit, the member states of CELAC, which exclude the United States and Canada, took stands against the sources of poverty in the region, and adopted a Declaration whose provisions included a denunciation of the U.S. embargo.

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro opened the Summit with a tribute and moment of silence for the late Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, who was one of CELAC’s key proponents.  Then, President Castro outlined his vision of the region’s challenges, and said that CELAC’s creation has encouraged solidarity and progress for Latin America. He noted, however, that progress in achieving the summit’s central theme – “The fight against poverty, hunger and inequality” – has been fragmented, slow, and unstable.

On the second day of the summit, the heads of state in attendance signed the Havana Declaration, which contains more than 80 points covering goals in fighting poverty, hunger, and inequality. The Declaration rejected the U.S. embargo against Cuba and its presence on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list.

Leaders also signed a proclamation that stipulates that all member states are to respect fully “the inalienable right of every State to choose its political, economic, social, and cultural system.”

At the summit Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, vowed that Cuba would not rejoin the Organization of American States (OAS) claiming that it “has played a historically negative role serving as a tool for the United States.”

President Castro concluded the Summit by passing the Pro Tempore Presidency of CELAC to President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica.

To read transcripts and summaries of speeches by the participating heads of state, see here. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) also provide timely pieces on the significance of the Summit.

UN Secretary General addresses CELAC Summit

The UN News Center reports that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addressed the CELAC Summit, acknowledging the progress that the Latin America and Caribbean region has made while pledging UN support for “all aspects of our shared agenda.” He remarked,

“I look to you for even greater engagement and support across the full range of the work of the United Nations around the world. In our increasingly interconnected world, this is ever more important. When CELAC is stronger, the United Nations is stronger.”

During the Secretary General’s meeting with President Raúl Castro, he recognized the strong progress Cuba has made in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals and praised its efforts in assisting Haiti and in hosting the peace talks between Colombia and the FARC. The two also discussed the latest United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) latest action plan for Cuba, which will direct $151.7 million to programs on the island over the next five years.

The Secretary General also raised several human rights concerns during the meeting, and discussed the importance of freedom of expression and assembly, reports the Miami Herald.

Heads of state visit former President Fidel Castro

Former President Fidel Castro held meetings with several heads of state and other leaders during the CELAC summit this week in Havana, reports CBS. Government website CubaDebate provides photos of his meetings with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Argentina’s President FernándezBrazil’s President RousseffJamaica’s PM Simpson-MillerEcuador’s President CorreaBolivia’s President Morales, Nicaragua’s President OrtegaMexico’s President Peña NietoUruguay’s President Mujica, and St. Lucian Prime Minister Anthony.

Former President Castro has maintained a low profile after formally stepping down from the presidency in 2008; writing opinion pieces, attending some local events and celebrations, and receiving visiting political leaders in his home.

Dissidents criticize detentions leading up to and during CELAC summit

Cuban dissidents denounced a “wave of political repression” in advance of the Summit, reports AFP. José Daniel Ferrer was arrested after meeting with European diplomats last Friday, according to the report, and Guillermo Fariñas says he was put under house arrest. The Ladies in White, a dissident group, also said that several members were detained prior to and following their weekly march. Amnesty International issued a statement calling on Cuba to halt the detentions and allow peaceful activities, available here.

In addition to Ferrer, several other dissidents did meet with visiting leaders: Chile’s outgoing President Sebastian Piñera met with  Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and Costa Rican officials reportedly met with a group of “democracy activists.”

IN CUBA

Dilma Rousseff and Raúl Castro inaugurate Mariel Port project

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro inaugurated Cuba’s new port at Mariel, a $957 million deepwater container port and 180-square-mile special economic development zone project built largely with Brazil’s support, reports Reuters. Rousseff arrived in Havana on Sunday for an official state visit and to take part CELAC summit. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, President Castro said:

“This container terminal and the powerful infrastructure accompanying it are a concrete example of the optimism and confidence with which we Cubans see a socialist and prosperous future.”

Rousseff told the crowd that “Brazil believes in, and is betting on, the human and economic potential of Cuba.”

The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) invested $682 million in the project. The port was built by Brazilian company Odebrecht SA. A source from Brazil’s government reportedly told Reuters: “The embargo will not last forever, and when it falls, Cuba will be strategic for Brazilian companies because of its geographic position.”

A subsidiary of Odebrecht and a Brazilian tobacco company put their plans to establish new ventures at the Mariel Economic Development Zone into writing, signing letters of intent this week, reports Cuba Standard. The projects include the manufacturing of bio-pharmaceuticals, plastics, and cigarillos.

The New York Times points to the significance of the port’s shift from site of the “Mariel Boatlift,” where around 125,000 Cubans fled the country in 1980, to a “state-of-the-art” port ready to become a regional hub symbolic of Cuba’s growing economy and global integration.

Cuba passes banking reforms aimed at international crime and terrorism

Cuba’s Ministry of Justice published new legislation last week relating to the prevention and detection of banking transactions related to terrorism, arms proliferation, money laundering, and drug trafficking, reports the Associated Press. Decree-Law 317 was published in the Official Gazette on January 23rd. It authorizes Cuban authorities to freeze without prior notice funds linked with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as designated by the UN Security Council. The legislation also allows for authorities in Cuba to collaborate with “homologous entities” in other countries, to strengthen its efforts against illegal bank transactions. The measures, which apply to both national and international banks in Cuba, aim to comply with international standards and conventions.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of CDA, published an opinion piece in the Huffington Post, “Action by Cuba Against Terror Financing Compels U.S. Response,” in which she notes:

“The great irony here – more than an irony, an injustice – is that Cuba’s action comes at a time when Cuban diplomats operating in Washington and New York are struggling to find banks willing to process financial transactions for their consular services because Cuba is (falsely) listed as a state sponsor of terror by the United States government.”

This article can be found in Spanish here.

Cell phone services to expand; Ministry of Communications approves access to 60m band for ham radios

ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications company, announced its plan to improve and expand cell phone services in Cuba, reports AIN. Starting in the second half of the year, according to the announcement, the mobile network will offer email service and Internet browsing – though most web connections on the island are limited to the national intranet. There will also be a new option for balance transfers between prepaid users, and the company will eliminate the minimum credit recharge of 5 CUC. The announcement also references other rate adjustments, as well as an expansion of the ability to pay for services directly from mobile devices. These planned updates follow recent changes to phone service payments, announced at the end of 2013.

The Ministry of Communications also recently approved access to a universal 60m band for ham radios, allowing steady communication on the island, reports Southgate. “Ham” or “amateur” radios are largely used today as a hobby, but are also used for communication among truck drivers and can play crucial roles during emergencies.According to the Cuban Radio Aficionados Federation, there are around 4,000 ham radio operators on the island. Because Cuba lies in the path of many Caribbean hurricanes, the new band is expected to be particularly useful for communication across the island during extreme weather. Only during cases of emergency will the band be restricted exclusively to emergency traffic.

Around the Region

Salvadorans vote in presidential election on Sunday; ex- president attempts to flee

On Sunday, February 2nd, Salvadorans will go to the polls to elect a president for the 2014- 2019 term. The ballot contains five contenders, three of whom are known faces in Salvadoran politics. Salvador Sánchez Cerén is El Salvador’s Vice-President and presidential candidate for the leftist party, FMLN. San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano is running for ARENA, the right wing party that held power for the previous 20 years before the 2009 FMLN victory. Finally, former president Antonio Saca is representing UNIDAD, a coalition ticket of three minority parties.

While recent polls show the FMLN slightly ahead, there is a strong possibility that a second round will take place if none of the contenders obtain 50% plus one of the votes. For a more in-depth look into the 2014 presidential elections, visit CDA’s El Salvador Presidential Election Preview.

The corruption scandal of former president Francisco Flores topped the news in the lead-up to elections. Flores, who served as El Salvador’s president from 1999-2004, has been accused of mishandling millions of dollars from the government of Taiwan, donated during his administration This week, the former ARENA president was accused of attempting to flee the country for Guatemala, reports the BBC. Subsequently, El Salvador’s Attorney General ordered his assets frozen as an investigation continues, reports the AP. Flores has acknowledged receipt of up to $15 million during this time, admitting that no system was used to track the donations. Flores maintains, however, that he never personally benefited from the money.

Honduran President inaugurated in widely attended ceremony

Juan Orlando Hernández, Honduras’s new President, was inaugurated in the National Stadium in Tegucigalpa on Monday, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The ceremony was attended by heads of state from Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Kosovo, Panama, and Taiwan and by Spain’s Crown Prince Felipe. President Hernández succeeds his fellow National Party member, Porfirio Lobo, as President.

During his inaugural speech, Hernández called for additional U.S. assistance in fighting drug trafficking, reports the AP and Reuters. He stated:

“Honduras is going through one of the most difficult periods when it comes to security, 80 percent of the drugs heading to the United States go through the country leaving behind death, pain and mourning.”

Hernández also criticized the U.S. role in the severe drug-related violence Honduras faces:

“It strikes us as a double standard that while our people die and bleed, and we’re forced to fight the gangs with our own scarce resources, in North America drugs are just a public health issue, for Honduras and the rest of our Central American brothers it’s a case of life and death….We ask the government of Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to recognize this shared responsibility…. and that we truly work together to solve this problem, which is also their problem.”

Recommended Reading

Cuba – U.S.: Is it time for dialogue?, Progreso Weekly

As 30 heads of state met in Havana for the CELAC Summit and the EU reevaluates its policies toward Cuba, six political analysts on Progresso Weekly’s panel unanimously agree that dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba is necessary.

The United States’ ‘outdated’ terror list, Molly McCluskey, Al Jazeera

Experts agree that the U.S. Department of State’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is outdated. Michael Oppenheimer, an NYU professor, argues that “Countries that wind up on that list are countries we don’t like,” while David Gewirtz, executive director of the U.S. Strategic Perspective Initiative says that “Geopolitics changes on a weekly, if not daily basis – not on a multi-decade basis,” as the State Department’s list would seem to imply.

Competition in Cuba, Julia Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations

Julia Sweig sums up U.S. policy toward Cuba: “the ever-self-protecting bureaucracy tends to follow the political zeitgeist: just say ‘no’ to anything that might help the Castros, even if the American national interest suggests otherwise. But even that equation is now changing.”

Relaxing the EU’s Common Position on Cuba would allow Europe to play a more active role in shaping the country’s development, William LeoGrande, The London School of Economics and Political Science

William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University, presents similarities between the EU Common Position on Cuba and the U.S. Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 to demonstrate that when it comes to Cuba, “policies of engagement have proven more successful than policies of hostility and confrontation.”

Between Hope and Fear in Cuba, Jeffrey Boutwell, Latin America Working Group

Boutwell reflects on a recent people-to-people trip to Cuba, and the concerns of Cubans as the country’s economic reforms continue to take hold.

8 ways Cuba has mastered the art of diplomacy to get what it wants, Nick Miroff, Global Post

Nick Miroff lauds Cuba’s diplomatic accomplishments as exemplified by the European Union’s pending revision of its official policy toward Cuba, Russia and Mexico’s recent debt write-offs, and the Obama-Castro handshake at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, among other significant developments.

Cuban émigrés toy with coming home, a year after migration reform, AFP

One year has passed since President Raúl Castro’s migration reforms, which eliminated the need for exit visas and facilitated visits or the permanent return to Cuba of members of the Cuban diaspora, went into effect. Antonio Aja, director of the Center for Demographic Studies at the University of Havana and a leading Cuban expert on migration, states, “We have to start getting used to the fact that Cuba is a country of migration and that means some people are going to leave and some are going to stay; they are going to take advantage of the reform.”

Mr. Abrams, let me explain drug trafficking in Central America, Héctor Silva Ávalos, El Faro

CDA Advisory Board member Héctor Silva Ávalos responds to a Washington Post column written by Elliott Abrams. He makes the case that drug trafficking and corruption – which Abrams alleges will overtake El Salvador in the event of an FMLN electoral victory – have their roots in many of the activities surrounding the Iran-Contra scandal, which Abrams actively participated in. The original Spanish piece is available in El Faro, here.

Recommended Listening

Cuba opens a gleaming new port and bets that the US will lift its trade embargo, Joyce Hackel, Public Radio International

PRI provides the details on Cuba’s $957 million port project and Special Economic Development Zone at Mariel, which President Raul Castro inaugurated this week alongside Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, a major funder of the project. The BBC’s Havana correspondent Sarah Rainsford tells PRI, “I think many people are seeing this as a big signal that Cuba is open for business now.”

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