Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and other officials lobbied the White House on Thursday to support efforts to preserve internet service to anti-government protesters in Cuba, even advocating the use of giant balloons as Wi-Fi hotspots. Floating fis to allow images of dissent to broadcast relentlessly from the authoritarian nation.
Cuban authorities have blocked social media sites in an apparent effort to stop the flow of information to, from and within the country after thousands of Cubans began taking to the streets over the weekend latest to protest against limited access to COVID-19 vaccines and basic commodities. The country is going through its worst economic crisis in decades.
“We obviously have to stand with the Cuban people against the Communist dictatorship,” DeSantis said at a press conference in Miami, adding that restoring internet access is vital to supporting the Cuban people.
President Joe Biden responded later Thursday by denouncing communism and saying his administration is evaluating whether it has the technology to maintain Internet access for Cubans.
Internet access was restored in Cuba earlier this week, but cell phone data was still not fully restored on Thursday.
The protests in the island nation have sparked a surge of support in Florida, which is home to the country’s largest Cuban exile community. Crowds of people in Miami, Orlando and the Tampa area gathered in support, sometimes closing major thoroughfares.
DeSantis said every option should be explored, including the use of offshore and satellite technology to provide internet service. One option being considered is to use bubbles to provide connectivity. The Republican governor also suggested using the United States Embassy in Havana as a kind of hotspot.
“The one thing communist regimes fear the most is the truth. And if we are able to help Cubans communicate with each other – also communicate with the outside world – this truth will matter, ”DeSantis said. “And so, Mr. President, now is the time to rise up and be counted.”
It is not known how the US government or any other entity, public or private, could maintain uninterrupted Internet service.
“We need the political will of the Biden administration,” said Republican US representative Maria Elvira Salazar, whose parents were Cuban exiles. “And if the federal government finds it cannot pay for the resources, the Cuban-American community will.”
On Thursday night, Biden denounced Cuba as a “failed state” that “represses its citizens” and called communism a “universally failed system” at a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Biden said the United States is considering ways to help Cubans – as long as that aid is not compromised by the Communist government.
Biden said the administration would not relax the ban on remittances to Cubans because they believed “there is a high likelihood that the regime will confiscate them,” and that although the United States is prepared to to send “significant quantities” of a COVID-19 vaccine to the country, they should be administered by an international organization so that average citizens can obtain them.
“They cut off access to the Internet – we’re looking at whether we have the technological capacity to restore that access,” Biden said.
Meanwhile, the protests in Florida continued for another day. Hundreds of people gathered in Hialeah, near Miami, to show their solidarity with the Cubans.
Earlier this week, two Florida men were arrested during a demonstration in Tampa in support of the protests and have been held on charges related to the state’s new so-called riot law.
Julian Rodriguez-Rodriguez, 30, Maikel Vazquez-Pico, 39, were among those arrested Tuesday night as a group of protesters attempted to seize an exit ramp on Interstate 275 and the freeway Dale Mabry, which is a major thoroughfare in Tampa.
The two were arrested on charges including assaulting a law enforcement officer, resisting law enforcement and participating in an illegal gathering that blocked streets or sidewalks, records show .
Rodriguez-Rodriguez put an officer in a bear hug as the officer attempted to stop another protester, according to an arrest report. He then punched an officer in the face, shattering his glasses as the officer tried to stop him, according to the report. He continued to resist his arrest until he was handcuffed.
The men were being held without bail in Hillsborough County Jail early Thursday. It was not immediately clear whether either had an attorney who could comment.
Earlier this year, DeSantis enacted a Florida bill that tightens penalties against protesters who turn violent and creates new criminal penalties for those who stage protests that get out of hand. The provisions of the law also criminalize blocking certain roads and granting immunity to people crossing protesters blocking a road.
The bill was introduced after last summer’s racial justice protests in which some Black Lives Matter protesters were greeted by police with tear gas and arrests as they took to the streets for days.
At its press conference on Thursday, DeSantis again sought to differentiate the recent protests against Cuba from those of last year.
“The Americans of Cuban origin who are demonstrating,” he said, “are not violent riots. They are there in peace and they are making their voices heard, and we are supporting them. “
But he said protesters should not close roads that could hamper traffic and commerce.
Calvan reported from St. Petersburg, Florida. Frisaro reported from Fort Lauderdale. Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.
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