WASHINGTON — The Cuban regime as led by the Castro brothers would fall — and fall fast — if ordinary people on the island had access to the Internet, a U.S. senator said Wednesday.
The regime would quickly go the way of those in the Middle East that fell in the Arab Spring, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a panel looking at the role of internet access in Cuba.
"Cubans are extremely innovative people," Rubio said.
"Anyone who can figure out how to keep a 1957 Chevy running is going to figure out how to organize online," Rubio said. "I think you would be shocked at how quickly things would begin to unravel for the regime if the people of Cuba had unfiltered access to the Internet and social media."
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The event at which he spoke, which was co-hosted by the Heritage Foundation and Google Ideas, focused on what Internet access could do to empower the Cuban people. The discussion was one of many about the island in Washington recently, timed just days before a papal visit to Cuba by Pope Benedict XVI.
"I think Raul Castro clearly understands that his regime cannot survive a Cuban reality where individual Cubans can communicate with each other in an unfettered manner," Rubio said. "If Cubans are able to communicate with each other ... if these groups are able to link up with one another, and coordinate efforts and conversation, the Cuban government wouldn't last very long under the weight of that reality. I think these guys know that."
A report issued earlier this month by Reporters Without Borders named Cuba among the nations that combine "often drastic content filtering with access restrictions, tracking of cyber-dissidents and online propaganda."
Other nations cited in the report with restrictive Internet policies include Bahrain, Belarus, Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.
Rubio called the potential of wide Internet access "50 times more powerful" than the television and radio broadcasts beamed from the United States to Cuba for the past several decades. He said the next foreign policy goal for the United States should be to build Cuba's technological capacity.
"Provide them access to the Internet, and the Internet will take care of everything else," he said.
Rubio defended the U.S. embargo of Cuba and said it is a "powerful leverage point" to negotiate democracy with a successor government to the Castros.
It's also a "perverse incentive" to keep foreign companies — including American ones — from engaging with the Castro regime and advocating for the status quo in exchange for economic access. Corporations are interested in making money, not necessarily in regime change, Rubio said.
"I want political liberties in Cuba," Rubio said. "The Cuban people, in a free and open society, have a right to chose any economic model they want. But ultimately the Cuban people in a free and open Cuba will have the choice of whatever economic model they want. So my interests in Cuba are political liberties."
Rubio said he's also concerned about one of the few existing non-governmental institutions in Cuba, the Roman Catholic Church. He said he is troubled by the church's role in negotiating the exile of some dissidents to Spain after their release from prison.
"I'm deeply concerned that the Cuban church has negotiated political space for themselves in exchange for their moral imperative," he said. "And I hope the pope's visit doesn't reinforce that."
Rubio said that Cuba's recent move to develop its offshore oil resources is also worrisome, because it's a source of revenue for the current regime that "doesn't in any way diminish their grip on power."
Cuba's leadership remains uninterested in change because the privileged and elite few there see the island as a "13 million-person plantation called Cuba," Rubio said. "They own this plantation, this island, they have it pretty good."
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