Kerry is not the first administration official to draw the allusion. In October 2014, less than two months ago, U.S. Ambassador Ronald D. Godard of the U.S. Mission to the UN used the same phrase, ironically enough, in justifying the continuation of the US's late policy towards Cuba as he explained the US vote against a Cuban-backed resolution. Twenty-three times the United Nations has sided with Cuba and voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US embargo of Cuba; as was the case last year when the same resolution was introduced, Israel alone sided with the United States in voting no.
Interestingly, however, Ambassador Godard called the "digital wall" a wall of "censorship", emphasizing the free speech violation imposed by the communist government of Cuba. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the Cuban government, which keeps the wall in place while "disingenuously blaming U.S. policy" for its own failures:
The Cuban government now claims to share our goal of helping the Cuban people access the Internet. Yet the Cuban government has failed to offer widespread access to the Internet through its high speed cable with Venezuela. Instead, it continues to impose barriers to information for the Cuban people while disingenuously blaming U.S. policy.
Moreover, the Cuban government continues to detain Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for facilitating Internet access for Cuba’s small Jewish community. The United States calls on Cuba to release Mr. Gross immediately, allow unrestricted access to the Internet, and tear down the digital wall of censorship it has erected around the Cuban people.Kerry, on the other hand, spoke of a "digital wall that isolates Cubans", placing the emphasis on "isolation":
[T]he president’s decision will support new efforts to tear down the digital wall that isolates Cubans. The country has an Internet penetration rate of 5 percent, among the lowest in the world. Prices are high, and services are limited. Under the new policy, we will permit the sale of technology that will begin to unleash the transformative effects of the Internet on the island.The Obama administration argues the policy of isolation has been a failure, and Kerry himself recently said it has isolated the United States instead of Cuba. Kerry addressed the low internet penetration rate, high prices and limited service, but did not mention the limitations on access to the internet that originally led to the imprisonment of Alan Gross who was freed the same day the new Cuba policy was announced. In Kerry's view, Cuban's have been "isolated" by the US's refusal to sell certain technology rather than made victims by a wall of censorship erected by an oppressive regime.
The two versions of the "digital wall" are not the only disparities in Ambassador Godard's remarks in October and the new Obama administration line. Godard placed the blame for the continued restrictions on US interaction with Cuba squarely at the door of the communist government of Cuba, which he said had even recently acknowledged its own culpability:
Mr. President, the Cuban government uses this annual resolution in an attempt to shift blame for the island’s economic problems away from its own policy failures. The Cuban government now publicly recognizes that its economic woes are caused by the economic policies it has pursued for the last, past half-century. We note and welcome recent changes that reflect this acknowledgement, such as those that allow greater self-employment and liberalization of the real estate market. But the Cuban economy will not thrive until the Cuban government permits a free and fair labor market, fully empowers Cuban independent entrepreneurs, respects intellectual property rights, allows unfettered access to information via the Internet, opens its state monopolies to private competition and adopts the sound macro-economic policies that have contributed to the success of Cuba’s neighbors in Latin America.Godard also pointed out the embargo was far from absolute, noting that "[b]y the Cuban government’s own account, the United States is one of Cuba’s principal trading partners":
The Cuban people continue to receive as much as $2 billion per year in remittances and other private contributions from the United States. This support has made possible - was made possible - by U.S. policy choices. By the Cuban government’s own account, the United States is one of Cuba’s principal trading partners. In 2013, the United States exported approximately $359 million in agricultural products, medical devices, medicine and humanitarian items to Cuba.Despite giving credit to Cuba for some changes, Godard closed his remarks by reiterating that the "real problems" facing the Cuban people were the responsibility of the "regime":
Mr. President, this resolution only serves to distract from the real problems facing the Cuban people, and therefore my delegation will oppose it. Though Cuba’s contributions to the fight against Ebola are laudable, they do not excuse or diminish the regime’s treatment of its own people.On the other hand, Secretary Kerry emphasized the negative effects of US Cuba policy and how those policies handed the Cuban government a justification to continue restrictive policies:
As Albert Einstein said long ago, it’s just not rational to continue doing the same thing in the expectation of obtaining a different result. Since U.S.-Cuban relations were frozen, the world has been transformed; the Cold War ended a quarter century ago. Over time the U.S. effort to isolate Cuba began to have the reverse effect of isolating the United States especially in the Western Hemisphere. Meanwhile, Cuban leaders used our stance as a source of propaganda, to justify policies that have no place in the 21st century. It has been an open secret that the relationship has been in a rut that benefits no one on either side. The time has come to cease looking backward and to begin to move forward in the interests of both freedom-loving Cubans and the United States.In spite of Kerry's appropriation of Reagan's cold war challenge, its application in Cuba is markedly different. With his "tear down this wall" speech, Reagan threw down the gauntlet, and in the face of resolute strength by America and her allies, the Soviet Union and its most visible icon, the Berlin wall, crumbled from within. With Cuba, less than two months after reaffirming the legitimacy of current policy before the UN and placing the blame for the status quo on Cuba for its "own policy failures," the Obama administration capitulated to a still defiant Cuban government, whose leader Raul Castro declared this week, "We won the war."
The "digital wall" of isolation Kerry spoke of may indeed be breached in the coming years as technology expands into Cuba. But the Berlin Wall was never intended primarily to keep out the West, but rather to keep East Berliners in. And unless the communist Cuban government takes uncharacteristic steps to extend unprecedented freedoms to the "freedom-loving Cubans" of whom Kerry spoke, the "digital wall" of censorship is likely to remain in place for years to come.
Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.