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

January 31, 2014

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.

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What Obama can do to stop driving the world and Brazil nuts

September 27, 2013

This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, earned global attention with a strongly-worded condemnation of the NSA surveillance program that violated the privacy of her own email, telephone calls, and text messages, and that of communications throughout Brazil.

“We face,” she told the General Assembly and an audience of world leaders, “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.

We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated. The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States.”

Not since Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, likened then-president George W. Bush to the devil, and accused him of acting “as if he owned the world,” has a UN General Assembly address by a Latin American leader generated this much news.

What makes this development different – and, for U.S. foreign policy more disconcerting – is that President Rouseff cannot be dismissed as easily as President Chávez often was for representing what Cold Warriors called “the pink tide.”  She is the leader of the largest economy in South America, the sixth largest in the world. Her county is among those most likely to be next made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  Brazil is a huge export market for the U.S. – just ask Boeing – and they are the global destination for FIFA’s next World Cup and the IOC’s next summer Olympic Games.

Moreover, she is not alone, and what is dividing the United States from its natural partners in the region and other nations around the world is not just U.S. snooping but their growing willingness to diverge from the U.S. on issues where we have historically expected them simply to fall into line.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera urged greater reforms in the Security Council than the U.S. supports.  Others displayed divisions over reforming drug policy.  El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, among our closest allies in Latin America, broke with the U.S. over Cuba policy, and called what he termed the blockade “a relic of the past.”

Sometimes, what is said at the UN can really matter.  So, it is heartening that when President Obama spoke to the General Assembly, he ruled out American support for regime change in Iran, as he pursued a diplomatic end to its nuclear weapons programs, and that he later declared, “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”  Those of us who think about U.S.-Cuba policy could hardly help nodding our heads.

But, we can only gauge what words are worth by measuring the actions taken in their wake.  If the president can reach an accommodation with Iran’s government that acknowledges its legitimacy; if he can say to the world, in the context of Russian diplomacy on Syria, that the Cold War is over, how much longer must we wait for him to apply these conclusions to his management of U.S.-Cuba relations?

We know he knows better.  YouTube has the evidence on tape (take that, NSA!).  We know the world is impatient for the U.S. to come around; we face global condemnation in the next few weeks at the U.N. for maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and a regional boycott at the next Summit of the Americas if the U.S. tries again to exclude Cuba.

Now is the time for the president to act. It is time to take the good and important things he does below the radar – the negotiations, the travel reforms, the tamped down rhetoric – and make a public commitment to end the Cold War in the last theater where it is still being waged.  It will modernize a policy that has been flawed and failed for decades. It will help the Cuban people.  It is in our national interest for him to do this.

Even more, if in the course of normalizing relations, the president shows the world that we need not listen to their phone calls to actually hear what they are saying, the importance of this action will resonate loudly beyond the boundaries of Cuba.  That can – and should – be his legacy.

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