Havana’s Man in Washington Takes to Twitter for Q&A

Screen shot 2016-05-27 at 9.44.55 AMDiplomats are increasingly turning to Twitter to engage with people around the world and Thursday was no different. Except that the diplomat the social media platform featured  in a live question-and-answer session hails from a country with extremely low Internet access and scant press freedom.

José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s ambassador to the U.S. in Washington, spent about an hour answering questions via his verified account, from which he frequently tweets.

He weighed in, in English and Spanish, on the significance of President Barack Obama’s March visit to the island, diplomatic contacts and priorities between the two countries, whether Cuba’s president Raúl Castro would make a trip of his own to Washington and his taste in music, among other topics.

The questioners weren’t only based in the U.S. and included journalists, lawyers and organizations in favor of lifting the economic embargo on Cuba. Mr. Cabañas selected the questions, as is typical when other government officials and celebrities do question-and-answer sessions on the site.

Mr. Cabañas took a few questions from people who were in Cuba, according to their Twitter bios. He responded to some questions about what it would take to normalize ties, and said that further financial reforms that would make it easier to do business between the two countries are likely to be on hold until the embargo is lifted.

Mr. Cabañas and other Cuban diplomats are regular Twitter users. Mr. Cabañas has tweeted more than 2,000 times. Josefina Vidal, the Cuban diplomat who led the talks with the U.S. to reopen embassies, has tweeted about 600 times.

Twitter is accessible in Cuba but the lack of Internet access limits how many people can use it. People there can’t use it via SMS message, which is what people use in other countries with low Internet-access rates. Colin Crowell, Twitter’’s head of global public policy, said the company doesn’t release user numbers by country but that they’d like to have more in Cuba.

The social-media company is in talks with Cuba on a short-code deal that would facilitate sending and receiving tweets by text message, Mr. Crowell said. Thursday’s Twitter conversation was the result of ongoing contacts between Twitter and Cuba since Mr. Obama’s December 2014 announcement that Washington and Havana would move to normalize relations.

“While it was novel that the Cuban ambassador would do a live Q&A, it’s not unique in the sense that we’ve also had the British foreign secretary,” Mr. Crowell said in an interview.

Still, unlike Cuba, Britain has a free press and widespread Internet use.

In moving to normalize ties, Mr. Obama announced a host of unilateral actions aimed at loosening the embargo and increasing contacts between the two countries, including loosening restrictions on Internet and telecommunications companies interested in doing business in Cuba. But progress there has been slow. Some U.S. wireless networks have set up roaming agreements, but Cuba has been cool to offers from companies like Google Inc. to set up wireless Internet. Google set up a technology center at an art studio in Havana during Mr. Obama’s visit . The center has dozens of laptops that can connect to the Internet much more quickly than is typical in Cuba.

According to the State Department’s most recent human-rights report, a very small percentage of Cubans have open Internet access. The government also monitors Internet use and many users access a limited domestic intranet that offers only email or restricted web access. Since Mr. Obama’s announcement in 2014, Cuba has been installing wireless hotspots in Havana and other cities that have broadened access.

Felicia Schwartz, The Wall Street Journal

May 26, 2016

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