On a recent trip to Cuba, your editors at the Cuba Journal witnessed first-hand what limitations exist when connecting to the Internet from Cuba.
Our hotel’s wifi internet access performed adequately, but the problems we encountered attempting to connect to many US-based websites appeared to stem from blockages not from the Cuban side but from the US. We attempted to access certain sites from a different hotel wifi connection but encountered the same result.
In one case, a Cuba Journal editor’s attempt to login to his Chase bank account triggered an account suspension due to a login attempt from a, “restricted access country,” that could only be remedied upon his return to the US. He was required to visit a Chase bank branch with notarized proof of citizenship.
Other sites that blocked our access included: Google (gmail, google analytics), Citibank and a news site, Business Insider. Oddly, we were able to access gmail via our smartphone but not from desktop.
Next, we came across this message from one of our partners confirming our suspicion that some large US companies are blocking access from Cuba:
— Merchise Startups (@merchise) August 26, 2016
It has been widely reported that the link shortener and link management platform Bitly has blocked Cuban traffic, breaking all the links that employed their technology. According to SoftLayer, Bitly’s hosting service, the company, “implements network-wide blocking of IP addresses that originate from countries that are subject to U.S. trade and economic sanctions. Currently, these countries are Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. (The U.S. trade and economic sanctions for Sudan are limited to the Republic of Sudan. The Republic of South Sudan is not subject to these sanctions.)”
More consternation was stirred up last week when Forbes reported that a consumer had his PayPal account blocked after using the service to repay a friend for a Cuban cigar purchased for him while on vacation in Mexico. Despite the explicit legality of persons of US jurisdiction purchasing Cuban goods outside the US, PayPal restricted his account because the word “Cuba” was written in the description for the payment. In fact, it’s now legal for persons of US jurisdiction to bring back up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars when returning from travel to Cuba.
PayPal CEO Dan Schulman, who visited Cuba this year along with President Obama, US Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, and many other CEOs, said that PayPal would start allowing money transfers to and from Cuba. And PayPal isn’t the first payments company to expand its business into Cuba. Payments upstart Stripe announced at the same time that it is starting to help Cuban entrepreneurs set up US businesses and US bank accounts. Stripe is working with Merchise Startup Circle, a Havana-based startup incubator, the group cited in the above Tweet for having its Amazon Web Services (AWS) account suspended.
Related: Here is the incredible history of Havana-based Merchise.
All of these restrictions and limitation appear to be at odds with statements made by President Obama regarding Cuba’s status with the US government as well as with his extensive policy actions designed to reengage with the island nation.
Last year, the US Treasury and US Commerce Departments announced amendments to the Cuba sanctions regulations. “These regulatory changes build on the revisions implemented earlier this year and will further ease sanctions related to travel, telecommunications and internet-based services, business operations in Cuba, and remittances.” The announcement states a desire to loosen sanctions specifically on telecom & Internet-based services in order to enhance, “the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba, and better providing efficient and adequate telecommunications services between the United States and Cuba.”
This year, US Treasury and US Commerce announced further amendments to the Cuba sanctions regulations.
Photo courtesy of Merchise.