Pres. Barack Obama made good Wednesday on a years-old promise to begin to normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba. An authorization for U.S. companies to increase telecommunications connections between the two countries is a key component of the new U.S. policy.
The administration foreshadowed these changes in April 2009 when Obama directed the secretaries of State, Treasury and Commerce to “take the steps required” to let U.S. network providers cut deals to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite links between the U.S. and Cuba. Assuming the Castro regime loosens its grip on Cubans’ access to digital information—a big assumption—the changes could give Cubans greater access to U.S.-delivered Internet, smartphones and social networks.
To better understand the significance of these changes, Scientific American spoke with Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C., lawyer with decades of experience in U.S. laws and regulations related to Cuba. Having returned from Cuba Wednesday night, Muse talked about the chances of the Castro government embracing U.S. tech, the current state of Internet access there and the broader export of one of Cuba’s greatest products—baseball—via the airwaves.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
The president has for years talked about reaching out to Cuba and improving relations. Why was Wednesday’s news perceived as such a surprise?
During his campaign Obama talked about dealing directly with countries like Iran and Cuba. In 2011 he expanded America-to-Cuba travel and he made some comments about nine months ago about U.S. policy toward Cuba not working. Soon after John Kerry came to the State Department they did an extensive policy review and came up with modest recommendations related to Cuba, regarding the loosening of travel restrictions and the sale of telecommunications equipment, but the administration didn’t act on it. This left everyone in a state of suspense and feeling probably nothing would come of it. The real surprise is how the president went from the sense that he was going to do two or three small things to proposing something much bigger.
What are the chances that the Cuban government will loosen restrictions on technology and information access enough for Cubans to take advantage of new telecom networks and technology?
Traditionally they’ve not been interested in it. They view control of media and information as necessary to state security. It seems unlikely that Cuba is going to welcome U.S. telecom infrastructure providers or direct, unmediated broadcasts between the U.S. and the island—at least for now.
With regard to allowing U.S. telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba, what’s in this for Castro’s regime?
The Cuban government to date has shown no interest in telecom—it’s not something they’ve asked for, endorsed or shown any interest in accommodating. These provisions were proposed unilaterally by the U.S. Cuba’s Internet connections come from Venezuela and any of the services that the U.S. could provide are already available to Cuba from other countries if they wanted them.
Because of the embargo U.S. firms have been left behind in the Cuban market. Still, it’s not an affluent market. Most Cubans have limited resources, so opening up to the U.S. wouldn’t be a bonanza for those firms. More important would be for U.S. tech companies to get into the market and build brand awareness among Cubans. And there’s no reason why the Cuban government wouldn’t let a company like Apple into the market, although Cubans could only have access to those devices through government purchasing.
To what extent do Cubans have access to the Internet and mobile networks today?
Anyone can get a cell phone in Cuba if they can afford the charges. Internet, however, is quite difficult and very slow, although it’s becoming increasingly available as the small private sector expands. I think you’ll see increasing liberalization with regard to Internet access—that was happening anyway. They have had Internet access via a cable from Venezuela, so there’s nothing that they specifically need from the U.S.
How likely is it that the rest of Obama’s Cuba telecommunications to-do list will get done? [Other items include the introduction of U.S. satellite radio and TV and allowing the donation of personal communications devices to Cuba.]
You have to look at this in terms of likelihood that the Cuban government would allow them. Actually, I would like to see a more reciprocal relationship with Cuba in terms of broadcasting. The U.S. is often dogged by a one-way valve approach to communication. We can broadcast to you or sell to you, but you can’t do the same to us. Before we start licensing ESPN to broadcast to Cuba, for example, why not let Cuba broadcast its baseball games to U.S. fans?