During his historic address in Havana, Cuba today, President Obama called for the island nation to expand Internet access across the country, calling the Internet “one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.”
It was one of a litany of recommendations President Obama made to Cuban President Raul Castro and the audience of Cuban people gathered to listen to his speech, which highlighted both the similarities and “serious differences” between the United States and Cuba. Of course, one of those crucial differences between the two countries is the fact that while Floridians living just 90 miles away from Havana are watching the President’s trip play out online, only about 30 percent of Cuban people have Internet access at all, according to the World Bank, and even that access is often tightly censored.
In his remarks, President Obama said that expanding Internet access—and therefore, access to information among the Cuban people—is as central to the country’s future prosperity as necessities like education and healthcare. “If you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential and over time the youth will lose hope,” he said.
It was not the first time President Obama has framed the need for Internet access this way as he’s worked to normalize relations with Cuba. Just yesterday, during an event focused on entrepreneurship in the country, the President talked about the role American companies will play in helping get Cubans online, explaining that Cisco plans to train Cuban students in IT skills and that Stripe is working with Cuban startups to help them do business online.
Shortly after touching down in Cuba Sunday, President Obama also told ABC News that Google plans to help expand Wi-Fi access in the country. Yesterday, Google clarified that it’s bringing Internet-connected Chromebooks and Cardboard headsets to a museum in Havana, but that plans to expand Internet access more broadly are still “at early stages.”
But President Obama isn’t the only politician who’s publicly acknowledged the need for broadband access in Cuba. During a speech about US-Cuba relations in Miami last July, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Internet access a “basic human right,” adding that the US should “do more to extend that freedom to more and more Cubans.”
Of course, it’s not really up to the US. After all, one reason that President Obama’s visit has been so controversial is because of how much oppression of free speech still exists in Cuba. Suppressing Internet access is just one more way to keep free speech in check. During his remarks, President Obama didn’t address this type of persecution head on, a decision Cuban dissidents have criticized him for.
But he didn’t skirt the issue completely, either. Instead, speaking directly to President Castro toward the end of his speech, President Obama said, “You need not fear the different voices of the Cuban people and their capacity to speak and assemble and vote for their leaders.”