The Trump administration’s Cuba Internet Task Force holds its first public meeting

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Tourists and locals gather at a wifi hotspot in Havana’s Vedado district. Photo by Matias J. Ocner

Members of the Trump administration’s new Cuba Internet Task Force said Wednesday at their first public meeting that Cuba was using its restriction of internet access to stifle dissent. President Trump issued a memorandum last year ordering the creation of the task force to find ways to help expand online access and free expression on the island.

“Mr. Castro, tear down this firewall,” said Andre Mendes, acting director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, as quoted by The Associated Press.

The task force’s members, from inside and outside government, agreed to form two subcommittees, “one to explore the role of media and freedom of information in Cuba, and one to explore Internet access in Cuba,” the State Department said in a news release. Both subcommittees will have six months to prepare preliminary reports, and the full task force will reconvene in October to consider the committees’ work and prepare a final report with recommendations for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump.

In a public comment period, several Cuban dissidents slammed Cuba’s government and compared it to those in power in Iran and Syria, The AP reported. Most of the comments, however, came from people who criticized the decades-old economic embargo and Trump’s policy toward Cuba, which has reversed former President Barack Obama’s effort to restore relations with the island. Some argued the initiative could backfire by calling into question the credibility of independent media just when they were making gains.

In the weeks before the meeting in Washington, the establishment of the task force touched off another bitter exchange, between the Cuban and U.S. governments. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry last week delivered diplomatic notes of protest to the top U.S. diplomat in Havana and to the State Department in Washington, saying the Cuban government “rejected the goal of manipulating the internet to bring about illegal programs with subversive political ends.” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called the protest “preposterous,” and said it was “ridiculous” to call the initiative a “subversive act.”

Some analysts said the most significant, or at least the most likely, impact of this Trump administration initiative will be to provide something new for the former Cold War foes to fight about after a period of rapprochement Trump saw as weakness.

“My guess is that not much will happen — that this task force and the rest of Trump’s Cuba policy is for domestic political consumption by anti-Castro politicians and voters,” professor and consultant Larry Press posted recently in his blog The Internet in Cuba. “The Cuban government is also using the task force for domestic political consumption. Their reaction to its formation was predictable — saying that Cuba is being attacked by a powerful, hostile nation.”

Leading young Cuban independent journalists have said that they fear that the Trump administration’s push will only damage the credibility of independent media, undoing several years of dedicated work to establish new, independent online news outlets. Cuba’s constitution doesn’t permit private mass media, but Reuters reports that the government has been tolerating these outlets as long as it doesn’t see them as “counter-revolutionary.”

As those outlets have grown, another U.S. powerhouse, Google, has explored ways to boost web access and performance in Cuba. Google reached a deal with Havana to put its own servers on the island to host YouTube content and make videos stream faster, and it has kept working in the country despite Trump’s efforts to roll back Obama’s rapprochement. But journalists note that Google was working with Cuban authorities, while the Cuba Internet Task Force is working against them. “We in the press are in the middle of everything, and we didn’t ask for it,” Elaine Díaz, 32, founder of the online news outlet Periodismo de Barrio, told Cuba Trade. “We don’t want that kind of help.”

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