Sunday, February 6, 2011

Viva el Cubaleaks (III): The Dictator's Dilemma

Cuba fears Internet, secret video attests
JUAN O. TAMAYO
jtamayo@ElNuevoHerald.com

Cuban bloggers like Yoani Sánchez and young exiles who reach out to their counterparts on the island are part of a covert U.S. campaign to undermine the Castro government, according to a secret Cuban video leaked to an Internet site.

The video also alleges Washington launched a secret effort in 2008 to create 10 Wi-Fi ``hot spots'' around Havana, using illegal satellite telephones to connect up to 250 computers to the Internet independent of Cuban government controls.

President George W. Bush's administration did consider setting up the Wi-Fi spots, but never actually carried it out, according to a former administration official with direct knowledge of the United States' Cuba democracy programs.

The video underscores the Cuban government's concerns over the power of the Internet to challenge its monopoly on information -- and the ability of some Cubans to leak highly sensitive materials to Web sites abroad.

The video indicates it is a recording of a June 2010 lecture held behind closed doors on the dangers of the Internet. It is delivered by an unidentified expert on the Web to an audience in military uniforms, most likely Armed Forces and Interior Ministry officers.

Wearing civilian clothes, the lecturer declared that in 2008 the U.S. government had launched a covert campaign to use Internet technologies to boost ``subversion'' against Havana. The former administration official said the campaign was only designed to ``get Cubans hooked into the the 21st Century'' of Internet communications.

The campaign had four strategies, he said. But the lecturer said he would talk about only two because there were ongoing ``operational jobs'' related to the other two -- using Cuban intelligence terminology for secret operations.

SATELLITE PHONES
One of the strategies, he claimed, was the Wi-Fi idea involving 10 BGAN satellite phones smuggled into Cuba to allow independent Internet access for up to 25 computers each, connected through Wi-Fi equipment from up to one mile away.

Cuba's government controls all telecommunications, but the BGANs -- difficult to detect because they are as small as laptop computers and don't require rooftop antennas, the lecturer noted -- would give the 250 computers independent access to the Internet.

Trusted dissidents and bloggers were each to receive one BGAN, one notebook laptop, one video camera and five Internet-capable cellphones, whose monthly bills would be paid abroad, to establish each of the 10 Wi-Fi points, according to the lecturer.

Also to be recruited would be ``cacharreros,'' computer-savvy youths who could repair the equipment and resolve whatever technical problems arose, he added.

The lecturer also noted the BGAN program was run by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit that receives U.S. government funding to conduct pro-democracy programs around the world. An IRI spokesperson said there was no truth to the claim about the satellite phones.

The Bush administration official said it was surprising the video was leaked on the Internet. It was posted earlier this week on a video-sharing site by a person identified only as Black Coral, and Thursday on Penultimos Dias, a Spain-based blog on Cuban affairs.

But the lecturer ``strung together a lot of stuff in a way that maybe wasn't as coherent [in Washington] as the video presented,'' the official added, asking for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the administration's Cuba democracy programs.

BGAN is the same type of satellite phone that U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross was delivering to people in Cuba when he was arrested in late 2009. Cuba announced Friday that he will be brought to trial soon, on charges of acts against the state.

The lecturer mentioned Gross as a ``mercenary'' and U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who had the same goal as the IRI program -- an Internet ``platform outside the control of Cuban authorities.''

INDEPENDENT BLOGS
The second Washington strategy the lecturer said he could talk about was an effort to support independent bloggers and Internet social networks to indirectly undermine the Cuban government. ``The Internet is a field of battle,'' he declared.

While older dissidents such as Elizardo Sanchez and Martha Beatriz Roque are well-known in Cuba ``as enemies'' and could try to stage a protest in a Havana park, he added, for younger people ``the protest is on the Internet.''

He singled out Yoani Sanchez, alleging that U.S. government support ``changed her from nothing to the most important journalist in the world'' and won her international awards that carried cash prizes. The lecturer referred to this as ``money laundering.''

``We now have a department to work against the bloggers,'' the lecturer noted, referring to a special section created within the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of Cuba's domestic security.

Also dangerous are social networks such as Facebook, said the lecturer, mentioning as an example a foreign website that has a page for alumni in Cuba or in exile of Havana's Lenin high school, which is reserved for the children of Cuba's top leaders.

Iran's ``Green Revolution'' and the Ukraine's ``Orange Revolution,'' he argued, were both ``created'' when social networks summoned people to street protests, then spread news of the protests.

New exile organizations, unlike older groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation and Alpha 66, can present themselves as moderate yet also pose risks for the Cuban government, according to the lecturer.

One example he used is Raices de Esperanza, or Roots of Hope, a group of U.S. university-based youths who have been trying to establish ``youth to youth'' contacts with their counterparts in Cuba.

Yoani Sanchez, in a blog posted Friday, wrote that the lecturer ``apparently does not understand the affinities and ties that sites like Facebook and Twitter can create.

``He treats them as something fabricated and does not recognize that individuals get together and -- Horror! -- jump over the ideological barriers on their own. In this infinite [cyber] space that bothers them so much, we are jumping over all the walls and limitations that they put on us in the real Cuba.''

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