Cellphones, Freedom and the Cuban Embargo

by on May 22, 2008 · 18 comments

Fidel on phoneIt’s long been clear that America’s 40-year embargo on trade with Cuba has been an abject failure. It didn’t lead to an ouster of the Castro regime and has probably hurt the Cuban people much more than it has helped. As my old Cato colleague Dan Griswold put it:

Economic sanctions rarely work. Trade and investment sanctions against Burma, Iran, and North Korea have failed to change the behavior of any of those oppressive regimes; sanctions have only deepened the deprivation of the very people we are trying to help.

And there is no better example of how we are hurting the very people we are trying to help than when we place embargoes on communications technologies. I bring this up because you may have heard that President Bush just announced that the embargo will be modified “to allow Americans to send mobile phones to family members in Cuba.” The White House press release also noted that. “President Bush repeated his offer to license U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and faith-based groups to provide computers and internet to the Cuban people – if Cuban rulers will end their restrictions on Internet access.” And, Dan Fisk, NSC Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, also noted at a White House press briefing on the subject: “if Cubans can own cell-phones or mobile phones, then they should be allowed to freely and publicly express themselves. If Cubans can own computers, then it would seem that they should be allowed to have unfettered access to the Internet.”

My question is: What took our government so long to realize this? This was all just as true 10 years ago as it is today. In my opinion, if we really wanted to be encouraging regime change in Cuba, our government should have been boxing up cell phones, PCs and other digital gadgets long ago and dropping them on Cuba’s shores! These are technologies of freedom, after all. They can empower the masses and help them organize dissent and express their opposition to the statist thugs in the ruling regime.

And why is the White House only allowing family members to send over phones, or limiting the offer of PC shipments to just NGOs or faith-based groups? We ought to let anybody who wants to donate communications and computing devices ship whatever they have over. Hell, this might me our solution to the e-waste problem in America! Just send all those old gadgets to Cuba! I’m sure the Cuban people would love to have them, and I would love to see what they might do with them if they were digitally empowered in this fashion. How sad that our government only grants selective permission for it to happen.

Of course, God only knows how they will go about getting any service on those phones or PCs in such a repressed land. Perhaps we can set up cell towers and WiMax nodes on boats circling the island 24/7!

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I like that last thought. Perhaps we should construct Radio Free Europe for the 21st century, through WiMax towers and free radio modems. Give the downtrodden victims of communism access to the free market of ideas and they’ll rise up and overthrow their reactionary ruling class. This could become a movement!

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I like that last thought. Perhaps we should construct Radio Free Europe for the 21st century, through WiMax towers and free radio modems. Give the downtrodden victims of communism access to the free market of ideas and they’ll rise up and overthrow their reactionary ruling class. This could become a movement!

  • http://www.wbklaw.com Michael Sullivan

    Your article is the first one I’ve seen that points out the need to have adequate cellular infrastructure covering Cuba. Most stories on this simply report that the White House will encourage U.S. residents to set up and pay for accounts to be used with the phones, but never question what good it will do a Cuban to have an account with Verizon or AT&T and a U.S. number, when those operators aren’t in Cuba and don’t have a network partner or roaming deal in Cuba, so the phone and account would be useless.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Adam, What’s changed from 10 years ago that makes this policy change now possible is that it’s only been recently (since Raul took over) that Cubans have been allowed to own mobile phones and computers. See:

    http://www.jerrybrito.com/2008/04/23/cubas-slow-opening/

    I’m with you though that the embargo makes no sense and that the program shouldn’t be limited to family members and NGOs.

  • http://www.wbklaw.com Mike Sullivan

    Your article is the first one I’ve seen that points out the need to have adequate cellular infrastructure covering Cuba. Most stories on this simply report that the White House will encourage U.S. residents to set up and pay for accounts to be used with the phones, but never question what good it will do a Cuban to have an account with Verizon or AT&T and a U.S. number, when those operators aren’t in Cuba and don’t have a network partner or roaming deal in Cuba, so the phone and account would be useless.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Adam, What’s changed from 10 years ago that makes this policy change now possible is that it’s only been recently (since Raul took over) that Cubans have been allowed to own mobile phones and computers. See:

    http://www.jerrybrito.com/2008/04/23/cubas-slow

    I’m with you though that the embargo makes no sense and that the program shouldn’t be limited to family members and NGOs.

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