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Sanctions and Internet Access Will Fail to Promote Regime Change

US policymakers have long assumed that sanctions on trade and promoting access to the Internet would lead oppressed people to change their governments. More often than not, they provoke harsh crackdowns and create little substantial benefit.
By
Peoples

Internet users crowd around one of the scarce Wi-Fi hotspots in Havana, Cuba. Author’s photo.

December 23, 2023 01:41 EDT
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How does one kill a zombie — especially if the zombie is a stubborn and pernicious idea?

Paul Krugman wrote last year how “Zombie Reaganomics” continues to infect the brains of Republican politicians in the United States. I’d like here to promote two additional policy notions to similar “zombie” status. First, the idea that widespread sanctions can drive regime change under autocratic governments. And second, that expanding Internet access can achieve the same.

Of course, these two levers of political control appear quite different on the surface. The Internet is a positive force in the world allowing for increased communication and information — something I do believe, despite my pessimistic views to follow. Meanwhile, sanctions, as even one conservative-libertarian think tank recently argued, are increasingly seen as both “ineffective and immoral” means of punishing governments deemed unsavory.

But some policymakers and pundits today, especially in the United States, seem to think both increasing Internet availability and sanctions can still do good for the citizens of their target countries. See for instance, US Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. They recently co-sponsored Senate bills and amendments urging the US to fund expanded Internet access on the island of Cuba. Scott and Rubio carefully positioned this advocacy as coming from a place of care for the wellbeing of the Cuban people. In December 2020, Rubio issued a statement demanding the US work harder “to protect the fundamental rights of Cubans.”

Yet only six months later, the same senator urged the Biden administration to increase sanctions against the Cuban government — in effect, against the very same people whose “fundamental rights” he says he wants to protect. 

How is it possible for one person to both wish to expand Cuban sanctions and Cuban Internet access? Presumably, Rubio hopes these things will magically lead to more freedom for Cubans, despite mounting evidence neither can do so. I believe there’s a Cranberries song for that.

These zombie ideas have proven false nearly everywhere in the world, but there’s a great deal of evidence this is especially true for Cuba. So let’s separately examine the impacts of the Internet and sanctions on autocratic governments, and then see how the two have played out together in Cuba over the past several years to disastrous effect.

Comparison shopping

An idea has persisted throughout the politics, media and tech space for decades that the Internet inevitably leads to democracy in places with autocratic regimes. As Thomas Friedman wrote in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree:

On the Internet people are … uploading and downloading ideologies. In a few years, every citizen of the world will be able to comparison shop between his country and his own government and the one next door.

Since Friedman wrote these words, the Internet has expanded and changed in too many ways to count. The hope that social media and the Internet might lead to enduring political change has changed with it, as can be seen most prevalently in the hopeful run-up to, and then subsequent disappointment, of the variously named Twitter, Facebook, Arab Spring and WikiLeaks “revolutions.” Entire books have been published examining how the Internet has helped fuel protest movements and then, more often than not, helped repressive regimes crush them — and then allowed these same regimes to strengthen grips on power, tightening government palms over civilian mouths.

In fact, as James Griffiths argues in his book The Great Firewall of China: How to Build and Control an Alternative Version of the Internet, US rhetoric about Internet freedoms has even helped strengthen autocratic governments by validating claims of US imperialism. Griffiths points to a situation in 2010 in which the government of China pointed at US efforts in Iran’s “Twitter Revolution” to justify its own Internet controls. He cites Yu Wanli, an expert on US–China relations, who explained to US diplomats that pro-Internet rhetoric, like that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, “empowered the censors, ‘who could now plausibly argue that the United States was explicitly using the Internet as a tool for regime change.’”

We can see another example of Internet evangelistic backfire in the deployment of ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like app secretly created and deployed in Cuba by the United States Agency for International Development. After the app made headlines, NPR asked, “Was ZunZuneo to Promote Free Speech or Destabilize Cuba?” To some extent, the answer doesn’t matter — either way, the incident created a credible intervention the Cuban government could point to in making claims of US imperialism. As Jon Lee Anderson wrote, “Episodes like ZunZuneo will only make the Cuban security state more paranoid and more fearful of opening up, and the losers will be the Cuban people.”

The flag flies in front of the Antonio Maceo monument in Havana, Cuba. Author’s photo.

As for sanctions, a mounting body of evidence shows they tend to succeed in anything but preserving the “fundamental rights” of citizens. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research documented extensively in a recent paper, 30 separate studies have found sanctions negatively affect “per capita income to poverty, inequality, mortality, and human rights.” 

A 2018 UN estimate found the US embargo of Cuba in particular had cost the Cuban economy a phenomenal $130 billion over the course of nearly sixty years, a figure which has surely risen since. William LeoGrande, professor and former dean of the American University’s School of Public Affairs, writes that the embargo is “the oldest and most comprehensive US economic sanctions regime against any country in the world,” and that it “has never been effective at achieving its principal purpose: forcing Cuba’s revolutionary regime out of power or bending it to Washington’s will.” My co-host and I discussed the ongoing failure of America’s Cuba sanctions on our podcast with policy expert Rob Morris, who also discussed the devastating cruelty and failure of sanctions around the world earlier in the year.

To be clear, I’m no apologist for the Cuban government. But it is evident that, as we approach the 65th year of the island’s US sanctions without any semblance of the regime change they first promised, we should finally find a way to retire them. 

A case study of Cuba

Now with the Internet, we can see the reality of the world… before it was just Cuba, but now we see on the Internet, England, France. We think ‘what the f—?!’ People are unhappy.

I heard this in Havana in May 2023 from Elizabeth, a waitress in her twenties. And I heard similar attitudes from others I met too — sentiments much different from my first visit to Cuba, seven years earlier. When I told a young man, José, that it was my second visit to the island, he replied with a resigned tone. “Oh, so you know. Things were much better then.”

What could have led to such a visible change in Cuban attitudes toward life on the island — a change large enough to allow Cubans to share their negative opinions of the country with me, a visiting stranger, despite their government’s intolerance of dissent?

A few salient events are worth noting:

— In 2017, Donald Trump entered the US White House and
promptly reversed much of the economic normalization pursued
by Obama. Joe Biden entered the US presidency in 2021 and
has maintained most (though not all) of Trump’s Cuba policies. 

— In 2019, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, ETECSA,
finally began allowing the purchase of 4G data. This marked a
crucial opening in Internet access for the average Cuban, which
until then had primarily been confined to high-cost, low-speed
wifi hotspots in public parks.

A man makes use of newly available 4G coverage in rural Cuba. Author’s photo.

— In 2020, the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc on Cuba’s tourism
industry and economy. This was soon followed by a sharp
currency devaluation, soaring food prices and one of the highest
inflation rates in Latin America.

— On July 11, 2021, Cubans staged the largest protest movement on
the island in decades — protests which locals say were fueled by
social media, an idea corroborated by Freedom House. In
response, the Cuban government arrested over 1,000 protesters,
killed at least one and “disappeared” and detained hundreds for
weeks. Internet access on the island was also completely shut for
days after the July 11 protests.

So, we can observe all the elements here of the zombie ideas that some say should lead to protest and regime change under a government traditionally averse to it — strict sanctions, a rapid deterioration of living conditions, and rapid expansion of the Internet and information access. 

All the underlying conditions are there. But where’s the change?

It’s not as though Cubans are naïve. I was told by a man working as a Havana tour guide, “Cuba is not like China, where they have the technology to control the Internet. If the Internet cuts out when you’re talking with a friend, the first thing you wonder is, ‘Where is the protest now?'” 

But they also see what the government is doing, arresting and otherwise “disappearing” dissenters. And so many I met, rather than endanger their lives and livelihoods by continuing to try to change the government, are opting instead to do what many other rational people would in their same situations: leave.

“I don’t want the same life as my parents,” Elizabeth told me. She said she’d like to go to Mexico first, and then “maybe somewhere else.”

José, who recognized how much worse things had become in the country since 2016, told me he has a grandfather in Spain and would like to get a “red [European] passport” within the year. Then he’d be gone too.

So we can see in Cuba a seemingly tight and tragic causal circle: 

1. Sanctions immiserate a civilian population.

2. Internet access helps the population recognize and share their sense
of immiseration, and perhaps even bind together to protest
conditions.

3. The civilian government shows an unwillingness to tolerate this
shared sense of immiseration and protest and works to quash
dissent.

4. Members of the population who are able, rather than risk life and
livelihood trying to change a government unwilling to change,
give up and decide to leave.

There’s a fifth, and especially tragic, link in this chain. At least in the situation of Cuba, record numbers of refugees have fled to the US in recent years — surely at least in part because of the sanctions that have helped make life untenable there and the Internet that has raised awareness of this general untenability. We can see the same Rubio who has pushed for sanctions and increased Internet in Cuba to “protect the fundamental rights of Cubans” also pushing for their exile and working to block access to Cuban refugee benefits, ultimately pushing the US government to forcibly expel large numbers of the Cuban refugee population back to Cuba — back to the government and country they were trying so hard to leave.

A failed tactic

Does Internet access ever lead to regime change? Sadly, the answer seems to be no. Or at least not yet, and not in the long term.

We can see this in Cuba, as I’ve outlined above. The Internet can perhaps even help protests bond together, but the idea that protest movements will change governments hinges on an assumption of democratic responsiveness. And the places where policymakers and pundits focus their hopes on Internet-driven revolution are almost always countries lacking just this — indeed, a dearth of democratic responsiveness is the very reason for much of the focus on Internet and sanctions in those places to begin with.

This is perhaps no better summed up than by Elizabeth, the waitress I met in Havana this spring. Because of the Internet, she says, “the government has less power over the people.” But when I asked if she thought the government would change as a result, she rolled her eyes, and stifled a laugh. “Change anything? No!”

I, in fact, largely agree with Friedman’s claim over 20 years ago that the Internet will allow “every citizen of the world …  to comparison shop between his country and his own government and the one next door.” But it’s evident from all that’s occurred since that this “comparison shopping” won’t usually lead to new and better governments for those citizens, it only means they’ll either grumble through it or leave that “store”, their country, for another, better one. And then hope that country doesn’t deport them.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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