By Juan O. Tamayo, The Miami Herald
A program financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development to develop the technology for a Wi-Fi network in Cuba has not been deployed on the island and is under review, a USAID spokesman said Monday.
USAID approved the grant to the Open Technology Institute (OTI) in Washington in 2012 as part of the agency’s efforts to promote Internet freedom, democracy and civil society in Cuba, said Matt Herrick, a spokesman for the agency.
The network, known as Commotion, “is not operational in Cuba” and no one has traveled to the country for the program, Herrick said. Cuban authorities have imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan P. Gross since 2009 for a somewhat similar program.
OTI’s grant “is now under review. We are looking into it, to see if it’s consistent with the (OTI) proposal and achieves expected outcomes,” said the spokesman, declining to provide further details. The grant is due to expire Sept. 30, 2015.
The USAID grant to OTI was made public in 2012, but came under a new spotlight after The New York Times reported Sunday on a similar Commotion system in Tunisia, financed by the State Department, and mentioned the Cuba program.
USAID drew a lot of fire from critics of its Cuba programs after The Associated Press reported earlier this month that it secretly financed a Twitter-like system for Cubans. The agency said the system was not secret but had to be “discreet” because of Cuba’s “non-permissive environment.”
In contrast to Cuba, which has branded the USAID programs as thinly veiled efforts toward “regime change,” the Tunisia program was launched in December with the approval of authorities in the town of Sayada.
Gross is serving a 15-year prison sentence for delivering satellite phones to Cuban Jews so they could have uncensored access to the Internet. While Wi-Fi signals are easy intercept and pinpoint, satellite phone signals are more difficult to locate.
OTI is required to develop the technology for a Cuba version of Commotion — basically a way to link several Wi-Fi routers into a “mesh” that can bypass government controls — but has not tried to deploy it on the island, according to knowledgeable sources.
The Wi-Fi program “is part of the U.S. government’s long-standing commitment to facilitate open communications among the Cuban people and with the outside world,” Herrick said.
The Times report said the Sayada network was started by Tunisian academics and computer geeks who took part in the 2011 uprising that overthrew President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It described his government as “deeply invested in digital surveillance.”
The State Department provided $2.8 million to U.S. “hackers, community activists and software geeks to develop the system as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely,” the newspaper reported.
Sayada’s mesh is not connected to the Internet but covers big areas of the town of 14,000 people and gives users access to a server containing 2,500 books, Wikipedia in French and Arabic and an application for secure chatting and file sharing, it added.
“It is clear that the United States sees Sayada as a test of the concept before it is deployed in more contested zones,” The Times said, noting the USAID grants for the OTI and Twitter-like Zunzuneo programs for Cuba.
One odd aspect of the USAID grant is that OTI is a part of the New America Foundation, a Washington nonprofit that has another part, the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, which strongly favors warming relations with Cuba’s communist government.
“I’m not involved in any USAID grants — and I frankly don’t want to be,” Initiative director Anya Landau French wrote in a blog post in 2012 in which she made it clear she opposed OTI’s decision to apply for and accept the USAID grant.
“I think I’m pretty clearly on record in my belief that USAID’s programs in Cuba have largely failed in their objectives and are in fact often counterproductive to anyone associated with them,” she added.
The New American Foundation describes itself as a nonpartisan organization investing “in new thinkers and new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States.”
OTI founder Sascha Meinrath did not reply to requests for an interview, but the group’s Web page said it is dedicated to promoting “affordable, universal and ubiquitous communications networks.”
Photo via Flickr; flippinyank