Trump task force on expanding Cuba internet meets for first time

WASHINGTON/HAVANA (Reuters) - A U.S. task force ordered by President Donald Trump agreed on Wednesday to spend the next year examining ways to expand internet access and the free flow of information in Communist-run Cuba.

FILE PHOTO: People connect to the internet at a hotspot in a public park in Havana, Cuba, January 23, 2018. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

The group, part of Trump’s tougher stance on Cuba than the administration of President Barack Obama, met for the first time in Washington in spite of the Cuban government’s formal protest that it was an attempt at subversion and violated Cuban sovereignty.

The group agreed to form two subcommittees to explore the role of the media and freedom of information as well as internet access in Cuba, which has one of the world’s lowest web penetration rates. Cuba’s state-run media monopoly is dominant on the island.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that the subcommittees will provide the task force a preliminary report of recommendations within six months.

“It is vital that (the task force) works to counter the Castro regime’s control over the airwaves and its political propaganda,” Cuban-American U.S. congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, wrote on Twitter.

Critics of the task force say that while it appears to be relatively toothless, it is part of a more hostile U.S. policy towards Cuba that is counterproductive.

By reverting to Cold War rhetoric and partially rolling back the Obama administration’s detente with Cuba, Trump is fostering a siege mentality in Havana that prevents it from deepening its incipient social and economic opening, critics said.

By contrast, as the U.S.-Cuban rapprochement unfolded in 2015-2016, Cuba significantly expanded internet access, introducing Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces and connecting more homes to the web.

A handful of independent, web-based news outlets emerged too, chipping away at state media.

Several of those outlets have said they want nothing to do with Trump’s free press initiative, which they fear creates the impression they are mouthpieces of the United States.

“The solution proposed by the Trump administration is perhaps even worse than the disease,” said Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch College in New York, author of Freedom House’s annual report on Cuba.

“It will likely empower not the independent media or citizens but only the Cuban government to more easily justify the unjustifiable - more control and repression of independent media and unmediated access to information.”

The Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Agency for International Development are among those on the task force. It will reconvene in October to prepare a final report with recommendations for Trump, the State Department said.

Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Havana; editing by Grant McCool