The great power of the Internet and smart phones is in their ability to connect people with shared values and interests – instantly, and across any borders that might divide people. These virtual communities have become a force in world affairs, either for good, such as during the Arab Spring, or for ill, such as Islamic State’s recruitment of fighters. Not surprisingly, almost every nation has yet to come to grips with this digital dynamo of collaboration.
President Obama’s faith in the Internet as a force for good was cemented during the 2008 election. His campaign team set a model in how to mobilize popular support over the Web. And even though he entered office as a critic of “democracy promotion” by the United States, he now insists that Cuba’s Castro regime provide open Internet access for its people as a condition for normalizing diplomatic relations. Formal talks to establish ties after five decades of estrangement began on Wednesday in Havana.
Cuba is the least-wired country in Latin America, and ranks with China and Iran in its restrictions on freedom of the Internet and other telecommunications. Its authoritarian leaders fear an uprising if Cubans can more easily organize. Pro-democracy revolts have long relied on communication tools such as pamphlets or telephones. But recent protests, such as those in Tunisia, Hong Kong, and Ukraine, were able to spring up quickly and in larger numbers because of the special abilities of the Internet and cellphones.
Cuba’s regime also worries that a greater flow of ideas over the Internet will undercut its propaganda about the quality of life in the island nation. The sunshine of truth might also better expose the many abuses of the regime, such as corruption and its treatment of political prisoners.
Mr. Obama’s pressure on Cuba is important not only for Cuba. For the fourth consecutive year, Internet freedom has declined around the world, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Freedom House, as more governments block or filter the Web, or arrest those who use the Internet for dissent.
Democracy promotion has gone out of favor to some degree since the Iraq War, and as more despots learn how to suppress groups agitating for freedom. But the Internet remains a compelling instrument for “soft power.” It rests on the hope that openness, transparency, and the flow of ideas create a moral arc of progress. Cuba is the next test ground for this hope. Obama should not waver in assisting Cubans in finally getting connected to the world.