U.S. Treasury and Microsoft: Tightening the Technological Noose on Cuba

– Microsoft terminates Cuban access to its instant messaging service, which, at first glance, suggests an act of compliance at the behest of the U.S. government
– The software behemoth chides Latin American leaders for undemocratic principles in an online smear campaign which might be better aimed at itself

Cutting Off an Isolated Island
During the last week of May 2009, Microsoft abruptly and inexplicably banned access to its Windows Live Messenger instant messaging service in Cuba. In response to several inquiries, the company defended its action by asserting that “Microsoft has discontinued providing Instant Messenger services in certain countries subject to United States sanctions. Details of these sanctions are available from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).” In other words, the company claimed to be complying with the provisions of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR), the federal statute first issued on July 6, 1963 which had the responsibility for regulating the now-anachronistic trade embargo with the Caribbean island. Specifically, Microsoft was referring to the section of the CACR delineating that “no foreign subsidiary or branch of a U.S. organization may export products, technology, or services to Cuba or to any Cuban national, wherever they may be located, or broker the sale of goods or commodities to or from Cuba or any Cuban national.” The status of Windows Live as a downloadable software program categorizes it as transferable technology, thereby making it subject to the regulation.

Carrying Out Orders?
The lack of transparency shrouding this incident makes it difficult to ascertain the true motives behind Microsoft’s actions. At first glance, however, the abruptness of the termination by Microsoft raises suspicions of whether the company was pressured into doing so by OFAC, an agency within the U.S. Treasury Department that traditionally has overseen the enforcement of the embargo. Such an assertion is bolstered by the fact that both Google, AOL, and Yahoo quite quickly followed suit by ceasing their own instant messaging services in Cuba later in the week. Furthermore, the fact that Windows Live had been utilized as a means of communication on the island for the past decade – in spite of the existence of the embargo – strongly suggests that some form of government intervention caused the surprising ban to all of a sudden kick in.

Despite the lack of truly incontrovertible evidence, the Cuban government believes that the service’s termination was at the behest of the U.S. government. Quite predictably, on May 29, Havana condemned the ban as “a truly harsh violation of Cuba’s rights,” with the state youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde going so far as to admonish the action as “just the latest turn of the screw in the United States’ technological blockade against the island.”

Within the United States, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), an organization specializing in U.S. – Latin American policy, has asked for an inquiry to be made by the U.S. Treasury Department into the actions of Microsoft and the other instant messaging providers. Sarah Stephens, the executive director for CDA, has state that “we need to find out whether Microsoft and possibly other providers are cutting off access to IM because they think US sanctions require them to do so, or because the Treasury Department has told them to do so.”

If even a small degree of complicity on the part of Washington for the ban exists, the timing of the incident also raises questions about the handling of the Cuba policy by both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Curiously enough, the termination came at the heels of the administration’s April 13 decision to relax telecommunications restrictions on the island against the average citizen, which was intended to increase communication and interaction between the Cuban people and the outside world as well as amongst themselves. The inherent contradiction of the ban may, in fact, underscore the true nature of the administration’s policy toward the island, characterizing it as confusing at the very least, and as perpetuating the status quo at the worst.

A Puzzling Circumstance
Despite the likelihood of government intervention, a puzzling circumstance complicated the issue, with it, perhaps tenuously, suggesting that Microsoft’s termination of instant messaging services was both entirely voluntary and premeditated, with OFAC regulations providing a convenient pretext for their actions.
Featured on the homepage of MSN Spain (a Microsoft portal) on July 14 was a slide show of nine world leaders, with each photograph accompanied by a small paragraph lambasting them for what Microsoft perceived were their undemocratic and illiberal principles. The opening slide of this compilation featured a montage of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez embracing former Cuban President Fidel Castro – both adorned with crowns atop their heads – and to their left was the following title (translated from Spanish): “When power corrupts…Striving to be kings.”

The description accompanying the picture of the Castro brothers was:

“Fidel Castro remained in power in Cuba since 1959, first as Prime Minister (1959-1976) and later as President (1976-2008). When his health started to waver, he, in a purely monarchical style, temporarily delegated power to his brother [Raúl], only to definitely divest it to him in 2008.”

Chávez’s caption reads:

“Oh to what lengths Hugo Chávez goes. He has altered the laws according to his whim and for his own interest. He did the same with the Constitution he himself formulated in 1999, but he had committed an error: term limitations. With his elections in 1999, 2001, and 2007, the law would not allow him to run for the Presidency again. And instead of accepting this, he changed the law. This change occurred at the beginning of this year and it also strips term limitations from governors, mayors, and city councilmen.”

The other admonished leaders included: Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, Nestor and Christina Kirchner of Argentina, Hu Jintao of China, Evo Morales of Bolivia, King Juan Carlos I of Spain, Kim Jong-Il of North Korea, and former French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The inclusion of Kim and Bonaparte – undisputed tyrants on their own right – was, justifiably or not, intended to taint the other leaders – a sort of guilt by association.

This voluntary negative online propaganda staged by Microsoft obviously demonstrates the company’s disdain for the targeted leaders, and it could be construed – though quite weakly – that this preexisting contempt fueled Microsoft to act voluntarily in the termination of Windows Live in Cuba. Nevertheless, the plausibility of U.S. government involvement is overwhelming, as why would Microsoft’s competitors in instant messaging services – Google, AOL, and Yahoo – follow the lead of its competitor in the face of an increased share of the Cuban market.