Biden Administration Slow-Walks Plans To Give Cubans Internet Access

Cuban regime blocked social media access in response to pro-democracy protests

People shout slogans against the government during a protest in Havana
Cuban protesters / Reuters
July 22, 2021

The State Department is slow-walking plans to provide wireless internet access to Cuba as the country's communist government shuts down social media sites in response to pro-democracy protests.

Several American companies say they can quickly provide internet access to Cuba once they secure federal funding and approval. But multiple sources told the Washington Free Beacon that the State Department has yet to make those assurances, in part because some officials are worried about alienating the Cuban government. Lawmakers say this inaction is unnecessary and puts Cuban lives at stake.

"Cubans are being kidnapped and tortured by the regime, and they aren't able to broadcast this abuse to the world," Sen. Rick Scott (R., Fla.) told the Free Beacon. "The Biden administration must lead the international community in reconnecting the Cuban people to the world. The technology is there—this should already be done."

Protests erupted in Cuba this month in opposition to the country's communist dictatorship and its botched COVID response. The Cuban regime responded by arresting and imprisoning protesters in undisclosed locations and restricting citizens' already limited internet access. Though the internet blockade has made it hard for outside observers to monitor the situation, human rights groups have condemned the regime for abusing protesters.

One plan being shopped on Capitol Hill would use high-altitude balloons to beam internet access to Cuba. A similar program used balloons to provide internet access to Puerto Rico in the wake of a 2017 hurricane. Raven Aerostar, the South Dakota company that manufactured those balloons, told Senate staffers it could have balloons up and running in a matter of weeks. Policymakers have warmed to the proposal, which uses proven technology and would not require smuggling material into Cuba.

But the Biden administration has reportedly soured on that plan, proposing instead to support virtual private networks that would allow Cubans to circumvent government firewalls. One federally funded VPN gave 1.4 million Cubans internet access at the height of the protests last week.

"The Administration is working closely with the private sector and the U.S. Congress to identify viable options to make the internet more accessible to the Cuban people," a State Department spokesperson told the Free Beacon. "We will be actively collaborating with the private sector to identify creative ways to ensure that the Cuban people have access to the free flow of information on the internet."

FCC commissioner Brendan Carr told the Free Beacon on Thursday that VPNs should be only one part of a broader effort to provide internet access to Cuba. He mentioned other viable proposals, including plans to deliver satellite phones to Cubans and provide WiFi to central Havana from the American embassy.

"Whether it's balloon tech or something similar, the federal government should stand up this strategic capability so that we can help Cuba right now, and potentially the next Cuba," Carr said.

Expanding internet access is just one response the Biden administration is considering. A State Department official said Wednesday that the United States would sanction certain Cuban leaders. And the president has convened a working group to consider allowing Americans to send money to family in Cuba, though he has not asked the Cuban government to remove its 15 percent tax on such payments.