Lawmakers are accusing senior State Department officials of blocking efforts to bring wireless internet to Cuban dissidents, who had their access cut last month at the height of anti-regime protests.
Republican lawmakers and aides told the Washington Free Beacon that the State Department refuses to work with Congress on proposals to provide internet access to Cubans. The department has denied the allegation. Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) accused the officials of turning "a blind eye to the Cuban people’s demands for freedom while sympathizing with the Castro/Díaz-Canel regime," saying they were "complicit in enabling" the crimes of "a murderous tyrannical dictatorship."
Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R., Fla.) singled out Emily Mendrala, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, as the main roadblock to helping Cubans access the internet. According to Díaz-Balart, the department "is slow-walking its response … rather than taking concrete actions to support the Cuban people in their democratic aspirations." Mendrala's leadership, he said, "inspires little confidence."
Republican aides also named Mendrala, a former Obama administration official, as the person behind the move. Mendrala leads a contingent of State Department officials who hope to establish "normal" relations with the Cuban regime and are wary of supporting protesters too openly. The aides said senior State Department staffers are afraid that any United States action to circumvent the government's internet ban would be viewed as "too antagonistic to the Cuban government."
After protests swept the island in mid-July, the Cuban regime reasserted control, using repressive tactics to crush protests. There is only one telephone service provider in Cuba, ETECSA, and the state-owned company has largely blocked access to social media websites since the protests began.
A spokeswoman for the State Department said "there is no truth to the assertion" that Mendrala is holding up plans to bring wireless internet to Cuba. "The department and its leadership are working tirelessly on this matter. Unfortunately, with regard to internet connectivity, there are no silver bullets," she said, adding that the department will "explore every option possible."
The congressional aides said the State Department has used similar language in their conversations but has not engaged on substance. According to one aide, Mendrala is "the most problematic" official, one who has made enemies "on both sides of the aisle."
After Rubio criticized Mendrala's "weak" response to the crisis on July 15, the State Department issued a statement defending her "years of experience" in Washington "working to support human rights and advance the cause of democracy in Cuba."
Mendrala helped facilitate former president Barack Obama's landmark visit to Cuba in 2016. The visit, along with the lifting of sanctions, was part of the Obama administration's push to normalize relations with the Cuban regime. After leaving the Obama administration, Mendrala spent almost four years as executive director at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit that works closely with the Cuban regime. She described her work there as "promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty."
The Cuban protests, which began on July 11, centered on the government’s calamitous COVID response and opposition to civil liberties, and quickly spread across the island. Social media videos surfaced of police beatings. There were also reports of night raids by police on protesters, sham trials, and the shooting of at least one peaceful protester. At the height of the protests, up to one in five Cubans used a tool funded by the U.S. government to access the internet. Cuban Americans have led massive protests in the United States in solidarity. One protest outside the White House attracted thousands from across the country.
Other government agencies have been more active in organizing efforts to support protesters. The U.S. Agency for Global Media funded VPNs that allow Cubans to access the internet without being tracked by security forces. But experts worry that those users may be caught if security forces look through their phones.
Beyond VPNs, U.S. officials have floated a variety of options for providing internet access to Cuba, including beaming a signal to the island from high-flying balloons in international airspace. FCC commissioner Brendan Carr has lobbied for the balloon proposal, pointing out that Google has already successfully used the technology. A Politico report suggested the State Department rejected that idea.
"President Biden has every resource to provide Cuba with internet," Rep. María Salazar (R., Fla.) told the Free Beacon. "The only thing he is missing is the will to do it."