Trump administration wants to expand internet access in Cuba

In this Jan. 6, 2017, photo, people use a public Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba.
In this Jan. 6, 2017, photo, people use a public Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba. AP

Cuba has one of the lowest internet access rates in Latin America. Now the Donald Trump administration wants more Cubans to be connected and obtain access to information not controlled by the Castro government.

As part of President Trump’s Cuba policy, as outlined in its June’s presidential memorandum, the Department of State has created the Cuba internet Task Force. The group is “composed of U.S. government and non-government representatives to examine technological challenges and opportunities for expanding internet access in Cuba,” the agency said in a public notice on Tuesday.

The Department of State did not immediately provide the names of the members of the task force, which will hold its first public meeting on Feb. 7 in Washington.

According to the Presidential National Security Memorandum issued in June, the task force will also examine the possibilities of expanding federal support to programs and activities “that encourage freedom of expression through independent media and internet freedom so that the Cuban people can enjoy the free and unregulated flow of information.”

One of such federal programs is the Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB) that oversees TV and Radio Martí, and has a budget of about $28 million per year. The government of Raúl Castro considers transmissions by the Martí stations as part of a “subversive” plan to push for regime change.

The memorandum states that the OCB should be part of the task force but the agency did not immediately confirm its participation.

Over the years, the expansion of internet access in Cuba has been one of the priorities of U.S. foreign policy toward the island, where the media is controlled by the government. The embargo includes exceptions in the area of ​​telecommunications, which former President Barack Obama expanded. In 2015, Google submitted a plan to substantially expand access, but it was rejected by the Cuban government.

Although the state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA has been gradually increasing wireless access points in public areas, the internet is still expensive and many digital sites are censored. The government announced plans to provide internet service to some homes but at prohibitive prices for the majority of Cubans. It has also pledged to offer internet access packages for cellphones this year.

Daniel Sepúlveda, former U.S. point man on telecom policy toward Cuba, said the United States felt an urgency to make progress and sign deals while President Barack Obama was still in office but Cuba appeared to want to take its time.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres