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DeSantis wants Florida companies to provide internet access in Cuba amid protests

When asked about protests in Miami that blocked part of an expressway, DeSantis instead talked about the protests in Cuba and how they are “fundamentally different” from the protests last year.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, second left, listens to a speaker at a press conference following a round table on Cuba, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, second left, listens to a speaker at a press conference following a round table on Cuba, Tuesday, July 13, 2021, at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) [ REBECCA BLACKWELL | AP ]
Published Jul. 13

Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday he wants Florida companies to provide internet connection to residents in Cuba, as the island entered its third day of protests amid widespread internet shutdowns that have hindered the flow of information.

“What does the regime do when you start to see these images? They shut down the internet. They don’t want the truth to be out, they don’t want people to be able to communicate,” said DeSantis during a roundtable with Republican lawmakers and members of the Cuban exile community in Miami.

“And so one of the things I think we should be able to do with our private companies or with the United States is to provide some of that internet via satellite. We have companies on the Space Coast that launch these things,” he added.

Without providing details on how to turn on remote hotspots to give Cubans WiFi connection, DeSantis added he would make some calls to “see what are the options” to make it happen.

During the roundtable at the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora, DeSantis was joined by Lt. Gov. Jeannette Nuñez, and Republican U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez. Other Republican state legislators and senators were also in attendance.

“Everyone here is in agreement in all of these fundamental truths and one of those truths is the people who are out in the streets revolting are not complaining about a lack of vaccine or for some tangential issue,” said DeSantis. “They’re revolting against a corrupt, communist dictatorship that has ruled that island with an iron fist for over 60 years.”

Rosa Maria Payá, a Cuban activist and executive director of the Foundation for Panamerican Democracy, said that aside from the U.S. providing internet service to Cuba, she would like the Biden administration to say it will not negotiate with the Cuban government during a transition from communism.

What Cubans need is “freedom from the dictatorship,” not negotiations, Paya said, adding that giving people on the island a way to communicate with the outside world is vital. “The United States has the capacity to provide internet access to the Cuban people. The internet access right now could save lives in the middle of the repression.”

Salazar agreed with DeSantis and others who participated in the roundtable with the plan to provide internet service to Cuba as a way to keep up momentum and show the world the how protests are ongoing.

“If the world doesn’t know what is happening with those Cubans on the street, then who’s going to help?” said Salazar, adding that she believed U.S. military intervention on the island is “not what we need to do right now.

“I assure you that that will not be needed because the Cubans will take care of it,” she added.

MIAMI PROTESTERS BLOCK OFF THE PALMETTO

As DeSantis hosted the roundtable in front of a black backdrop that said “SOS CUBA,” hundreds of protesters in Miami who have been taking to the streets in solidarity with Cubans on the island blocked off part of the Palmetto Expressway for over an hour.

The Miami protests mark just over three months since DeSantis signed the so-called “anti-mob” legislation into law as a response to the summer demonstrations in 2020 against racism and for police reform, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The new Florida law makes blocking a highway a felony offense, among other things.

Related: DeSantis signs 'anti-riot' legislation in Polk County

When asked about the Miami protests, DeSantis instead talked about the protests in Cuba and how they are “fundamentally different” from the protests last year.

“I think that people understand the difference between going out and peacefully assembling, which is obviously people’s constitutional right, and attacking other people or burning down buildings or dragging people out of a car and doing that,” DeSantis said. “What I think was happening in Cuba is these are people who are rebelling against a communist dictatorship. They’re not necessarily ... designed to be peaceful. They are trying to end the regime.”

CAN U.S. TRANSMIT INTERNET SIGNAL TO CUBA?

Dr. Alex Crowther, a professor at Florida International University, said there are two conceivable ways internet access could be provided to the island. But both of them have big catches.

“One is to use balloons, the way they did when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and Peru was hit by the earthquake,” he said. “A company called Loon, which was owned by Alphabet [the conglomerate that owns Google] used to make them. But the company just shut down at the start of this year.”

Crowther said balloons could still be used as transmitters to connect Cubans to the internet, but that would require flying them over Cuban airspace, where they could be shot down. If the balloons were kept 12 miles offshore, outside of Cuban airspace, the signal would only reach coastal areas, and you would still need to have someone on the ground to receive and retransmit the signal.

The other method would be to use a transmit-and-receive integrated assembly dish (TRIA) that processes signals to and from a ground-based unit and an orbiting satellite. That is the system Elon Musk’s company Starlink uses to provide internet access to remote rural areas around the U.S.

But the problem with those dishes is a practical one: How to get them to the Cuban people in one piece. Installation is no different than installing a satellite TV dish, and Crowther said the instructions could be broadcast via radio airwaves.

“But unlike food and rescue supplies, you can’t just airdrop them from a plane,” Crowther said. “Those drops would land hard. You would have to be able to hand them to people.”

And even in the unlikely scenario someone in Cuba could get their satellite link connected, they would run the risk of detection by the authorities if they tried to turn their connection into a public hot spot.

“The Soviets and their clients are very good at radio warfare,” Crowther said. “So as soon as you start transmitting in Cuba, they would be on you.”