WASHINGTON (AP) — A new U.S. task force ordered by President Donald Trump warned Wednesday that Cuba's government uses internet restrictions to stifle dissent and vowed to find ways the United States could expand access and freedom for Cubans online.
The Cuba Internet Task Force held its first public meeting over the objections of Cuban President Raul Castro's government, which has dismissed it as an exercise in attempted subversion by Washington. The task force forms part of Trump's tougher approach to Cuba and partial rollback of former President Barack Obama's diplomatic opening with the island.
"Mr. Castro, tear down this firewall," declared Andre Mendes, acting director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors' Office of Cuba Broadcasting, in a high-tech twist on former President Ronald Reagan's famed admonition to former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Although the task force's narrow mandate is to develop recommendations for how the U.S. could expand internet access in Cuba, the meeting quickly took on clear political undertones, ever-present in America's long and emotional debate about its policy toward the communist-run island 90 miles (145 kilometers) south of Florida.
Under fluorescent lighting in a sparse, basement conference room at the State Department, several Cuban dissidents used a public comment period to lambast Cuba's government, drawing comparisons to World War II and to the governments of Syria and Iran. Yet most of the public comments centered on a critique of a decades-old economic embargo and Trump's policy toward Cuba. Some argued that any U.S. efforts would backfire, by undermining the perceived independence and credibility of burgeoning independent media in Cuba.
Created under a directive from Trump last June, the task force includes senior officials from the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It has no budget, but set a goal to deliver its report on recommendations to Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by February 2019.
John Creamer, the deputy assistant secretary of state, said estimates show internet penetration in Cuba is between 5 percent and 40 percent, with the higher figure including those who only can access government-run internet. He said the $1 per hour cost for wi-fi is onerous considering the average salary of roughly $30 per month. For internet access at home, Cubans must pay $17 to $80 per month, depending on speed, for only 30 hours of connectivity, Creamer said.
He said Cuba's government "filters and blocks websites" in a bid to impede the Cuban people's ability to criticize government institutions and policies.
"Such acts of aggression have a chilling effect on the exercise of the fundamental freedom of expression," Creamer said.
Internet access in Cuba, once rare and prohibitively expensive, has spread dramatically and dropped in price since Obama and Castro's 2014 deal to normalize relations. There are 508 public WiFi access points across the country and Cuba has begun providing home internet access in cities across the country. The government also says it will begin offering mobile internet access this year.
The Cuban internet is mostly uncensored. The state does block some sites, particularly those that receive U.S. funding such as the Office of Cuba Broadcasting's Marti television network, but those sites' channels can be freely accessed through third parties like Facebook and YouTube.
Some of the likely recommendations for expanding access are technical. Tom Sullivan, chief of the FCC's international bureau, said there are no direct, undersea cables between the U.S. and Cuba, though he said there appear to be some U.S. satellites providing service in the island.
There was no immediate reaction to the meeting from the Cuban Embassy. But ahead of the meeting, Cuba protested the task force's creation through diplomatic notes rejecting "the goal of manipulating the internet to bring about illegal programs with subversive political ends." Cuba's Foreign Ministry said it "reiterated the Cuban government's determination to not tolerate any type of subversive activity or interference in its internal affairs."
Associated Press writer Michael Weissenstein in Havana contributed to this report.
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