Cuba: Sticking to the Plan

By Fulton Armstrong

Miguel Diaz Canel

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. / Irene Pérez / Cubadebate / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the six-month mark in office this month, his administration – not surprisingly – continued to produce no surprises.  His rhetoric and policies, similar to the package of constitutional reforms now undergoing consulta popular and scheduled to be approved by referendum next February, are an extension of Raúl Castro’s tightrope walk between continuity and gradual change.

  • Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Díaz-Canel condemned the “selfishness and exclusion” of capitalism as the cause of poverty, instability, climate change, and other ills. He also proclaimed, “The generational change in [Cuba’s] government should not deceive the enemies of the revolution; we are continuity, not rupture.”  He welcomed the almost-friendless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to join one of his biggest public appearances.  Showing his pragmatic side, however, Díaz-Canel also met in New York with U.S. technology companies and icons of U.S. capitalism – Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Twitter, and others – declared his hope to “computerize [Cuban] society,” and welcomed the announcement of the first U.S.-Cuban biotech joint venture.  Upon his return to Havana, he launched his own Twitter account.
  • On economic reform, Díaz-Canel has continued the same halting approach toward market socialism as did Raúl. New regulations announced in July, to be implemented in December, seemed designed to restrain the growth of the private sector rather than accelerate the reform program.  New mechanisms to ensure that cuentapropistas pay more taxes and operate within the law will dampen their growth in the short term and aggravate contradictions in current policies – for example, curbing black-market purchases of supplies without creating wholesale markets for them.

Ongoing national discussions on constitutional reforms, launched by the National Assembly in July, are compatible with Díaz-Canel’s approach to change.

  • The new document reaffirms two tenets of the Communist Party’s revolutionary platform – the party’s continued leading role as sole political representative of the Cuban nation, and a commitment to a socialist system in which state property predominates and universal social services remain free. But, importantly, the draft omits the goal in the 1976 constitution of “building a Communist society,” signaling the leadership’s recognition that private property and markets will be a permanent feature of the new Cuban model.  It reconfigures policymaking processes to increase efficiency (such as by formalizing the position of Prime Minister), increases the autonomy of local government, and separates more clearly executive and legislative functions.  An amendment allowing same-sex marriage has sparked heated public debate and given rise to an unprecedented political organizing drive by churches opposed to it.
  • The amended constitution does not significantly expand the space for private enterprise, but it provides a stronger legal foundation for the reforms that have already been implemented in various waves since 1992. The draft also strengthens protections of Cuban and foreign-owned private property and investment, providing guarantees against future expropriation.

When introducing changes over the years, the government has routinely, if not obsessively, emphasized continuity – and Díaz-Canel’s administration is proving to be no different.  The signs of change are often nuanced, whereas hardline positions, which tamp down progressives’ expectations and assuage conservatives’ anxieties, are unmistakable.  Díaz-Canel’s adherence to Raúl’s program gives him both essential political cover emphasizing continuity as well as a platform for continuing gradual change.  That formula doesn’t help him with some major challenges, such as the need to unify the country’s two currencies, that have loomed large for several years.  But Díaz-Canel’s gradualist approach – particularly if enshrined in a new constitution next year – is compatible with the view held by many Cubans that change should be evolutionary, not disruptive, even if they wish it went faster.  Washington’s curtailment of bilateral normalization is depriving the private sector of much-needed resources to drive change, but the country’s continued international outreach and expansion of internet access have given entrepreneurs a moral, if not economic, lifeline.  Cubans have often said they’ll do change “their own way,” and Díaz-Canel, with his abundance of caution, may be leading that process. 

October 31, 2018

Post-Snowden Challenges for U.S. Information and Communication Technology Firms

By Robert Albro

infocux Technologies / Flickr / CC BY

infocux Technologies / Flickr / CC BY

A year after Edward Snowden’s dramatic disclosures about NSA surveillance in Latin America, U.S. companies hoping to make inroads into the region’s fast-growing information and communication technology market are running into increasing obstacles.  If the political costs were immediately forthcoming, especially in Brazil, the fallout for Silicon Valley’s tech giants has taken longer to assess. The biggest problem is the lingering lack of trust resulting from the revelation that the U.S. companies enabled the NSA’s eavesdropping by giving it direct access to their servers.  A 2014 NTT Communications survey found that, in response to the Snowden affair, 88 percent of information and communication technology decision-makers around the world, including Latin America, have changed their buying behavior around large-scale data storage.  In Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile, “data sovereignty” has become a major issue, in the form of new data privacy and disclosure laws now shaping the direction of the region’s developing market.

According to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, U.S. software firms are expected to lose $35 billion in sales overseas through 2016. Forrester Research, an independent technology and market research company, puts potential losses as high as $180 billion.  Latin American investors have been questioning the wisdom of using US data storage companies, and established U.S. dominance in the cloud computing sector has already taken a hit. Cisco’s last quarterly earnings, for example, were down 7 percent – 27 percent in Brazil – even as the cloud computing market in Latin America is predicted to grow at a 26 percent clip through 2018.  The emergence of Miami as a major global tech hub and gateway to Latin America’s fast-growing information technology markets is threatened by a proposed EU-Brazil trans-Atlantic cable to circumvent the city as a key node for Latin American access to the global internet.  As investor e-news service 4-Traders has reported, Chinese tech giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are establishing and expanding beachheads in Latin America, while China’s government pursues cooperative partnerships with Latin American counterparts to accelerate the development of the region’s information infrastructure.  Meanwhile, US-based data mining and analytics firms like Choicepoint Inc., currently major players in the region’s business intelligence and online security markets, have become the subject of investigation by skeptical governments and privacy advocates in the region.

The U.S.-centric view of the internet as “free and open,” a basic feature of the business model of U.S. tech firms, is being challenged in Latin America, where the regulatory balance between free expression and privacy is increasingly tilting toward the latter.  Despite the fact that the region’s online population is the world’s fastest growing and that it boasts a dynamic tech start-up movement, U.S. internet technology firms should expect more such challenges.  Regional trends in internet governance are largely anti-American, focused on displacing U.S. commercial dominance of the internet, and promoting open-source software as alternatives to U.S. products and services.  As Latin America builds out its cloud computing market, it is doing so in ways poised to compete and not collaborate with U.S. companies.  Privacy controls and requirements to conform to local laws already create new and costly disincentives for U.S. companies, which might opt to pull up stakes.  Meanwhile, business models for Latin American start-ups are not copycatting U.S. models as frequently as in the past.  If Latin American entrepreneurs have maintained close ties with U.S. centers of innovation and investors, they are now more focused on developing their own intellectual property, instead of technology transfer, to meet specific demands of their local and regional markets.  What just yesterday seemed wildly improbable – that U.S. tech giants might lose their edge in Latin America – has become a credible scenario.

October 23, 2014

Brazilian Leadership and the Global Internet

By Sybil D. Rhodes and Leslie Elliott Armijo*

Photo credit: Blog do Planalto / Flickr / CC

Photo credit: Blog do Planalto / Flickr / CC

Brazil’s efforts as defender of internet privacy and rights may be effective even if it sparks criticism from all sides of the issue.  Along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Dilma Rousseff has been among the most vocal protestors against spying by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA).  She used her opening remarks at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September to criticize the spying.  Three months later, the UNGA passed a resolution initiated by Brazil and Germany in favor of the right to privacy in the digital age.  The Brazilian Chamber of Deputies and Senate have passed legislation, known as the Marco Civil da Internet, which web leaders and scholars consider a pioneering framework for internet governance.  Last week, Brazil hosted the international meeting NETMundial, focused on standards for name registration, domains, and IP addresses.  Rousseff and her Science, Technology, and Innovation minister, Cleio Campolina, emphasized that, as the first such event since U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden leaked information about abuses, privacy concerns should be paramount at the meeting.

Brazil has considered itself an emerging leader in internet governance for at least the last fifteen years, although until 2013 “digital sovereignty” and the allocation of commercial benefits appeared to be more important goals than protecting civil liberties.  Brazil also has counted itself as an important member of a coalition — including India, China, Russia, Arab countries, and the United Nations Working Group on Internet Governance – that has called for less U.S. dominance of internet governance.  The group has proposed that the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) assume responsibility for the Internet Cooperation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit organization in charge of distributing domain names since 1998.  An American creation, with headquarters in Los Angeles and a Board of Directors supervised by the US Department of Commerce, ICANN is seen by many as embodying U.S.-centric internet regulation.  Critics in Brazil and elsewhere claim that the private-sector and civil-society input into ICANN decisions is disproportionately pro-American.  The U.S. and its supporters, including Google, Microsoft, and civil associations like the Mozilla Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that the existing regime promotes a “free and decentralized internet” – and that any changes must preserve these principles.

Since Snowden, President Dilma has also renewed emphasis on “digital sovereignty” measures.  For example, provisions in legislation passed in the lower house (but removed from the Senate version) required that Google, Facebook and other companies doing business with Brazilians store their data about Brazilians on local servers.  The government has also promoted building fiber optic cables connections that do not go directly through the United States as a way of preventing NSA espionage.  The economic and technical feasibility of some of these projects is not clear, and some of them have encountered important political opposition within Brazil – because, according to an informal survey of experts, many Brazilians are suspicious of their own government’s regulation of the internet as well.  Language in the new bill simply obligates business to obey national legislation regarding privacy.

Snowden’s revelations have given a boost to efforts to reduce U.S. dominance of internet governance, which previously was viewed as a technical issue for which the existing regulatory regime worked well.  Announcing that the U.S. Department of Commerce will not renew its contract with ICANN when it expires in September 2014, the Obama administration appears to recognize that U.S. credibility as the guarantor of a free and open internet has been undermined.  The exact technical and legal procedures through which privacy and national sovereignty might be better protected on the internet remain open questions in national and global debates.  But Brazil appears poised to play a leading role in setting a moderate middle-range course, one that allows for multipolar or global governance of the internet while protecting the liberal principles the U.S. has long claimed are core values.  Dilma could come in for criticism from both sides – U.S. conservatives who believe that only the United States can guarantee a free internet as well as “anti-imperialist” advocates who will accuse her of selling out to corporate interests.  Moderate heroes are sometimes the most unsung but also the most necessary.

*Sybil D. Rhodes is Director of the MA in International Studies at the Universidad del Cema in Buenos Aires.  Leslie Elliott Armijo is a Visiting Scholar at Portland State University and a Research Fellow at CLALS.  They are currently writing a book about international cooperation in the Western Hemisphere.