Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Eric Schmidt's Potemkin Village Tour: North Korea, Burma and Cuba

"You can make money without doing evil." - ( #6 of Ten things we know to be true by Google)

Executive chairman of Google Eric Schmidt's world tour of Potemkin Villages in order to preach the virtues of "free and open" internet to totalitarian regimes has reached Cuba. The tour began with a visit to North Korea. In a November 4, 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Eric Schmidt,  who visited North Korea in January of 2013 said that around one million people have mobile phones in North Korea  (out of a population of 24 million ) but without roaming and extremely limited by normal standards in the free world.  In 2012, Cuba a country with a population of 11 million had 1.3 million cellphones. First the Bush Administration and later the Obama Administration pursued policies in Cuba to encourage cell phone ownership and increased telecommunications and internet access by loosening sanctions.

Schmidt's remarks upon his return from North Korea focused more on the technical, but his daughter, Sophie,  who accompanied him on the trip offered a more informal and informative take on the visit. In March of 2013 the Google executive visited Burma (Myanmar) and in the above mentioned November 4 interview had announced that his next stop would be Cuba. Despite the announcement the press have called his June 2014 visit to Cuba "a secret."

When I first heard of the visit through twitter and learned that the Google executive had visited with dissident blogger and journalist Yoani Sanchez in Havana, Cuba to discuss the internet was pleased that a foreign visitor had gone beyond the official program to speak with someone with a different point of view. This was a good thing.

Nor was I surprised by Schmidt's position on sanctions in general and on Cuba in particular and everyone is entitled to their opinion. Taking into consideration his past association with Sun Microsystems, the company that played an important role in erecting the Great Firewall in China that the Google executive now condemns and also Google's own past assistance of Chinese censorship both condemned by Amnesty International.

However, the claim that "Cuban-American youth all support normalization of relations" is factually incorrect. I am sure that the Young Leaders Group , a group of Cuban American youth who support sanctions would be happy to meet with the Google chairman and present their point of view.  Another inaccuracy was the listing of state terror sponsors. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but Cuba does remain ( and has helped its North Korean ally smuggling weapons in violation of  international sanctions). The Castro regime has a long history of sponsoring and engaging in terrorism which explains why Cuba remains on the list.

Additionally, reading his personal reflections came to the conclusion that  I had wished Schmidt had spoken more to Yoani Sanchez about the reality of life in Cuba. Because when I read the following excerpt from his reflections on his Cuba visit it became clear to me that the Cubans had been more effective at selling their Potemkin Village than their North Korean friends:
The two most successful parts of the Revolution, as they call it, is the universal health care free for all citizens with very good doctors, and the clear majority of women in the executive and managerial ranks in the country.  Almost all the leaders we met with were female, and one joked with us that the Revolution promised equality, the macho men didn’t like it but “they got used to it”, with a broad smile.
First the health care system in Cuba during the years of massive Soviet subsidies may have been something else, but the present one is a disaster. Even the public health infrastructure is a mess as the ongoing cholera outbreak is but one high profile example.

For a more complete overview that places the island's current reality into a historical context Schmidt would be well served to read Health, Politics, and Revolution in Cuba Since 1898 by Katherine Hirschfeld, an anthropologist who spent a lot of time in Cuba that describes how her idealistic preconceptions were dashed by 'discrepancies between rhetoric and reality,' she observed a repressive, bureaucratized and secretive system, long on 'militarization' and short on patients' rights.

However, that was not as shocking as Schmidt's second claim that another "successful" part of the Revolution is that: "Women are in the executive and managerial ranks."

Between 1959 and the present date the Castro brothers have ruled Cuba in the longest lasting dictatorship in Latin America. The Cuban parliament has no real power other than to rubber stamp the decisions of the Castro brothers. Meanwhile throughout Latin America women have been elected to the presidency of their respective countries: In Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner entered office on December 10, 2007; In Brazil, Dilma Rousseff was elected on October 31, 2010; In Chile, Michelle Bachelet was elected on March 11, 2006 and returned to office in 2014; In Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla Miranda was elected on May 8, 2010; In Nicaragua Violeta Chamorro entered office on April 25, 1990. How can one claim that women have a greater level of political participation in government if they have no political power and are, like their male counterparts, rubber stamping decisions by the Castro brothers and a small military clique, composed of elderly white males, that run the economy?

The statistics that place women in high percentages in the professions and technical workers fails to look at the context in Cuba where these professions do not pay a living wage. In the 2004 book, After Castro: Legacies, Challenges, and Impediments, Edward Gonzalez reports on page18 that “Education has become superfluous. Teachers, doctors and other professionals have abandoned their peso-dominated, low paying careers in the state sector to earn dollars as taxi-drivers, small entrepreneurs, hustlers and prostitutes.” In a July 11, 1992 speech, Fidel Castro sought to put the best spin possible on a terrible situation stating:

"There are no women forced to sell themselves to a man, to a foreigner, to a tourist. Those who do so do it on their own, voluntarily, and without any need for it. We can say that they are highly educated hookers and quite healthy, because we are the country with the lowest number of AIDS cases. There are nearby countries which have tens of thousands of AIDS cases. Therefore, there is truly no tourism healthier than Cuba's."
The jobs sought after in Cuba are the ones that place Cubans in contact with foreigners with hard currency. Professionals in the state sector depending on pesos literally go hungry. That a majority of them are women is tragic.

Finally women who are leaders and are well respected, but have an independent power base  are slandered by the Cuban dictatorship and their lives are in danger.  Laura Pollán, one of the founders of the Ladies in White in March of 2003 and its chief spokeswoman, earned admiration inside of Cuba and internationally. She fell suddenly ill and died within a week on October 14, 2011, in a manner that a Cuban medical doctor described as “painful, tragic, and unnecessary.” This was just days after the Ladies in White declared themselves a human rights organization dedicated to the freedom of all political prisoners. Regime agents had repeatedly assaulted Laura and injected her with unknown substances during protests in the months preceding her sudden death.  Incidentally, Yoani Sanchez reported on Sunday over her twitter account that six Ladies in White had been arrested while peacefully exercising their rights.

In conclusion to anyone considering the Potemkin Village tour be it to Burma, China, Cuba or North Korea please consider reading Paul Hollander's Political Pilgrims: Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society that studies and catalogs the strategies and tactics that these regimes use to control what one sees visiting their respective countries and what the unintended consequences are for its victims: i.e. the people who have to live there.

Principled engagement is looking at things as they are and trying to improve them otherwise when traveling to these places, and turning a blind eye, to engage in commerce can lead to unintended and horrible consequences. In the case of China  a Great Firewall built with the aide of American technology companies that cuts off millions of Chinese from the free flow of information.


  1. Hi Mr. Suarez,

    I was surprised by the timing of Google chairman Eric Schmidt's visit to Cuba, but I didn't find it hard to imagine Schmidt going to Cuba and demanding that Havana allow internet freedom because Freedom House ranks Cuba as one of the world's top ten worst online oppressors.

    Just as Ronald Reagan famously said in 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall," someday when Barack Obama visits the CANF headquarters in Miami, he should deliver a powerful message to the authorities in Havana like this: "Mr. Castro, tear down the Berlin Wall of censorship!" I'm making this recommendation because free internet access is important for economic growth and someday, a future Cuban leader will realize that the cost of maintaining the censorship apparatus will no longer be sustainable (the leaders of Eastern Europe failed to realize that the cost of maintaning their countries' repressive apparatuses, which was the short-term reason why communism was doomed to fall in Eastern Europe).

  2. Thanks for your comments Mr. Davidow and we are agreed on the importance of internet freedom for Cubans, but the devil is in the details. High tech companies going into business with the Cuban government as Mr. Schmidt is advocating - when he calls for the lifting of Economic sanctions is not unprecedented. We've seen this rodeo before in Mainland China. The end result was the building of a great and effective firewall of censorship with the help of U.S. companies.