Biden looks to force open internet, offers vaccines to 'failed' Cuba

Agence France-Presse
Biden looks to force open internet, offers vaccines to 'failed' Cuba
A man wearing a shirt depicting the US flag is pictured in Havana, on December 12, 2019. Cuba and the United States, former enemies of the Cold War, had a historic approach five years ago, but their relations deteriorated after the election of Donald Trump, who reinforced sanctions against the island.

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden said Thursday the United States was considering ways to force open internet access in Cuba, which he called a "failed state" as the communist leadership faces down the biggest protests in memory.

In a reversal from his stance as a candidate, Biden also made clear he was in no rush to let Cuban-Americans send home remittances, which could ease the economic pressure that contributed to the outpouring of anger on the streets Sunday.

Biden, who has made the promotion of democratic values a key priority, said the United States was looking at how to help Cubans circumvent internet restrictions imposed by the government.

"Cuba is, unfortunately, a failed state and repressing their citizens," Biden said. 

"They've cut off access to the internet. We're considering whether we have the technological ability to reinstate that access," he told a joint White House news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The United States has long criticized internet restrictions around the world, notably in China, but its cyber operations have dealt more with security threats than ensuring open access.

One idea floated by experts would be to send balloons with mobile WiFi similar to measures taken during natural disasters.

Cuba as of Wednesday had eased interruptions on internet access, according to AFP journalists in Havana, but access remained blocked to social media and messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter — the sole ways for most Cubans to read independent media.

Cuba has lashed out at the #SOSCuba social media campaign backed by staunchly anti-communist Cuban-Americans in Florida, with Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel describing it as "media terrorism."

"Social media is totally aggressive, calling for murders, calling for lynchings, for attacks on people and particularly those identified as revolutionaries," he said.

Most accounts have described the protests as peaceful and spontaneous around the country. Officials say one person was killed.

Vaccine offer

The rallies, which appear to have subsided since Sunday, are the largest since the Cuban revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power in the 1950s and come as the island suffers a sharp economic deterioration.

Proud of its medical infrastructure, Cuba is developing its own COVID vaccines even as infections spike and the country is hit by chronic shortages of electricity, food and medicine.

"They have a COVID problem in Cuba. I'd be prepared to give significant amounts of vaccine if, in fact, I was assured an international organization would administer those vaccines and do it in a way that average citizens would have access to those vaccines."

Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama, who led a historic opening to Cuba and paid a visit to Havana, concluding that a half-century US effort to topple the regime had failed.

Obama's successor Donald Trump reversed key measures such as allowing US remittances and tourism, with Biden in last year's election campaign saying he wanted again to reduce restrictions.

But Biden said Thursday he would not allow remittances for now, explaining: "It is highly likely that the regime would confiscate those remittances or big chunks of it."

Even if Biden wanted to shift course, he would face formidable political obstacles.

Biden's Democrats were stunned last year by the sharp gains Trump made among Hispanic voters in Florida, which some observers attributed to the Republican president's hawkish line on Cuba as well as leftist-led Venezuela.

Democrats control Congress by the narrowest margins and Senator Bob Menendez, who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a Cuban-American who breaks with much of his party by advocating tough action against Havana.

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