Despots have often sought to crush democratic uprisings by shutting down the internet. Cuba’s Communist government did so last week, but President
can leverage U.S. technology to tear down Cuba’s cyberwall.
As anti-government protests spread last week, Havana restricted access to social media and messaging platforms, limiting communications on the island and hiding its brutal crackdown from the world. Repressive regimes can be expected to resort to internet controls more often if they aren’t forced to pay a price.
Iran shut down the internet for a week in November 2019 amid its violent crackdown of protests over rising fuel costs. Former Egyptian president
regime’s ordered internet providers to disconnect all users in 2011 as unrest swept his country. Myanmar shut down the internet for more than 19 months in regions with ethnic conflict and persecuted Muslim minorities.
Mr. Biden told reporters his Administration is “considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access” in Cuba. The U.S. does have that ability, though it won’t be without logistical challenges. The question is whether the Administration has the political will to do it.
Some Cubans have been using a censorship-circumvention tool known as Psiphon to access websites, though connectivity is slow and not secure. Another technology the U.S. could deploy is high-altitude balloons that float in international airspace. Google pioneered the technology with its startup Loon, which aimed to connect remote and rural areas of the developing world. Tennis-court-size aerial balloons function as self-navigating wireless cell towers that can deliver mobile internet coverage over more than 4,000 square miles.
The U.S. government worked with Loon to restore connectivity in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Loon also successfully tested the technology in remote areas of Peru and Kenya, though the project was shut down in January because Alphabet, Google’s parent company, said it was too difficult to build a commercially viable business model.
But the South Dakota-based manufacturer
that built the balloons for Loon is still operating, and the Biden Administration could work with it and Loon’s former engineers to jump-start the project. While the service might be somewhat slow, it would require relatively minimal government investment.
There are other technologies available, though they would take more time to stand up. Federal Communications Commissioner
last week said that what’s most needed is the Biden Administration to support the effort by directing various agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration, to remove bureaucratic obstacles.
Mr. Biden may be wary of upsetting the left and its romance with the Cuban regime, but the 2020 election showed that’s a losing strategy in Florida. During the Cold War the U.S. used Voice of America to counter Soviet propaganda and broadcast behind the Iron Curtain. For decades the U.S. has used Radio Marti to beam radio signals into Cuba from Miami.
Havana could try to jam cellular signals as it has Radio Marti, but that could interfere with the government’s wireless connectivity and would be technically hard to pull off across the island. People would still be able to find some zones of connectivity to upload and share pictures and messages with the outside world.
The Cuban regime survives by terror and a monopoly on communications that leaves Cubans unaware of how widespread their desire for freedom is. A top U.S. priority should be giving the Cuban people the means to break through the Communist firewall.
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Appeared in the July 19, 2021, print edition.