Google and Obama Administration Connect Over Cuba
Company’s interests aligned with White House’s on bringing Internet to
By BRODY MULLINS and CAROL E. LEE
Updated March 23, 2016 7:46 p.m. ET
When President Barack Obama was working secretly to restore diplomatic
and business relations with Cuba two years ago, he got some help from an
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and other company executives,
with encouragement from the White House, traveled to Havana in June 2014
to talk with the Cuban government about the benefits of Internet access.
When he returned, Mr. Schmidt called for an end to the trade embargo.
The White House didn’t tell Google, now a unit of Alphabet Inc., about
the secret negotiations with Cuba. But by the time Mr. Obama announced
that December the U.S. would restore diplomatic ties, Google had
established a toehold in the island nation by rolling out versions of
its popular search engine and other Internet offerings.
On Monday, during the first full day of Mr. Obama’s historic trip to
Havana, the president announced that Google had reached a deal to open a
temporary demonstration project in Havana to showcase some of its
“We hope to have the chance to offer more services to the Cuban people
in the future,” said Brett Perlmutter, a Google executive who traveled
to Cuba this week, in a blog post after the announcement.
During the Obama presidency, Google’s foreign interests have frequently
aligned with those of the administration. Google’s visit to Havana
helped the White House familiarize the Cuban government with U.S.
companies and the benefits of the Internet. Mr. Obama’s effort to lift
the embargo has begun opening for Google a potential new market of more
than 10 million customers.
Many U.S. businesses, including some of Google’s competitors, are
working hard to take advantage of new opportunities in Cuba. It isn’t
unusual for U.S. corporations to work with the State Department to
secure big business deals abroad, or to lobby the Commerce Department to
negotiate trade pacts that open new markets. Google says it never
lobbied the administration to end the embargo.
What makes Google’s efforts around the globe unusual is the involvement
of the company and its executives in places where the State Department
faces tough challenges, including North Korea, Iraq and Cuba. That stems
from Google’s professed interest in promoting Internet access as a way
to give people around the globe, especially in repressive regimes,
access to new ideas and information.
A State Department spokesman said the department “engages with many U.S.
companies, as appropriate, to ensure we are advancing U.S. economic
interests around the world,” and that its relationship with Google was
Roughly one-third of the world’s population has access to the Internet.
The remainder is a potential market for Google’s Internet and
The U.S. government believes that providing people with Internet access
will help promote democracy around the world by enhancing communication
and exposing people to American-style enterprise and commerce.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t always welcomed Google’s efforts. The State
Department, for example, said a 2013 visit by Google executives to North
Korea was “not a great idea.”
Some unusual theories have emerged overseas about Google’s intentions
and government ties. In Cuba, after Mr. Schmidt’s June 2014 visit to
Havana, a professor at a university visited by the Google executives was
quoted by a state-run publication saying that “it wasn’t Google’s
technical wing that came; it was the political wing, which is an
extension of the U.S. State Department.”
A Communist Party newspaper in China has called Google the new opium,
writing that “in the Internet age, Google uses its monopoly of Internet
information searches to sell American values and assist America in
building its hegemony.”
The State Department spokesman said that the “suggestion that any
private company is an extension of the U.S. State Department reveals a
fundamental lack of understanding of how a free-market democracy functions.”
Google has a substantial presence in Washington, and its ties to the
Obama administration are extensive. Google employees have been big
contributors to Mr. Obama’s campaigns and is one of the top corporate
spenders on lobbying, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive
Politics. An analysis of White House visitor logs shows that Google
lobbyists visit more frequently than many of its rivals. Many former
Google employees currently work in the administration.
Google’s efforts in Cuba began through a unit, called Jigsaw, that
builds technology “to protect vulnerable populations and defend against
the world’s most challenging security threats,” according to the
company’s website. It is run by a former State Department official,
34-year old Jared Cohen, whose career has straddled Google and Washington.
When Mr. Cohen was working at State under Hillary Clinton, he joined a
delegation to Iraq that included Mr. Schmidt, then Google’s chief
executive, and other executives from tech companies. Google later
announced a partnership with the Iraqi government to start the country’s
first YouTube channel. The company also helped digitize the collection
at Iraq’s National Museum.
Mr. Cohen helped draft the State Department’s “21st-Century Statecraft”
Initiative, which called for using social media and digital technology
to achieve diplomatic goals. In January 2010, Mr. Cohen arranged for
Mrs. Clinton to host a dinner at the State Department for Mr. Schmidt
and other tech executives to discuss technology and diplomacy.
The next month, Mr. Cohen and a colleague, Alec Ross, flew to Google’s
headquarters for a public discussion with Mr. Schmidt. “I like to think
of Alec and Jared as our representatives to the government,” Mr. Schmidt
said during the session. “We consider them some of the best friends of
Google.” Messrs. Cohen and Ross declined to comment.
That September, Mr. Schmidt hired Mr. Cohen to run Jigsaw, then called
Mr. Cohen saw similarities with some of his work at State, but he
believed that at Google he could take on some tasks that the government
couldn’t, in part because of Google’s resources and technical
capabilities. “There are things the private sector can do that the U.S.
government can’t do,” he told Foreign Policy magazine in 2010.
In 2011, after Mr. Schmidt stepped down as Google’s CEO and became
executive chairman, he and Mr. Cohen traveled to more than 30 countries
to research, for a planned book, technology’s impact on the future of
government and business.
To that end, Messrs. Schmidt and Cohen met with Julian Assange, founder
of WikiLeaks, in 2011. In his own book, “When Google Met WikiLeaks,” Mr.
Assange called Mr. Cohen Google’s “director of regime change.” He wrote
that Mr. Cohen’s “directorate appeared to cross over from public
relations and ‘corporate responsibility’ work into active corporate
intervention in foreign affairs at a level that is normally reserved for
For their project, Messrs. Cohen and Schmidt flew to North Korea in
January 2013 with former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson for meetings
with the government about technology and the Internet. Weeks earlier,
North Korea had raised tensions with the U.S. when it fired a long-range
The State Department and others criticized the trip. Former U.S.
Ambassador John Bolton called the Google executives “gullible Americans”
being used by North Korea, and Arizona Senator John McCain called them
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper at the time, Mr. Schmidt
said: “If there’s anyone who needs the Internet,” it is people who don’t
“understand the choice that they, as citizens, face.”
After the trip, North Korea’s mobile-phone operator announced it would
allow visitors to the country for the first time to connect to the
Internet on their mobile phones.
Mr. Obama had long expressed interest in easing U.S. relations with
Cuba. He began the process with small steps including making it easier
for Cuban Americans to travel there and send money. In 2013, a small
group of administration officials began secret negotiations to normalize
Few people inside the government even knew about the talks, which were
led by Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, and Ricardo
Zuniga, a career foreign-service officer who handled the day-to-day work
with Cuba representatives.
Google was in touch with officials at the White House and State
Department about its interest in Cuba. In mid-2014, it told
administration officials that Mr. Schmidt and other executives wanted to
travel to Cuba. The White House endorsed the plan. Later, Google
officials said they were thinking of offering free versions of its
products in Cuba. Again, the White House approved.
The officials didn’t tell Google about the secret talks to normalize
relations, said a senior administration official, but like “many other
people, companies and observers, they knew we wanted to.” The official
said the White House was “trying to manage a very complex negotiation
behind the scenes, and at the same time we were encouraging the actors
who were going to be able to take advantage of that opening to be there.”
White House officials were interested in pushing companies to expand
telecommunications and Internet access in Cuba. The State Department and
the U.S. interest section in Havana took the lead on discussions with
companies like Google.
“What we were absolutely doing was encouraging U.S. telecoms and U.S.
Internet companies to make their own contacts there,” said the senior
In June 2014, a delegation of Google officials, including Messrs.
Schmidt and Cohen, landed in Havana. Over several days, they met with
government and university officials.
When Mr. Schmidt returned, he wrote in a blog post that the embargo
“makes absolutely no sense,” and he called for the U.S. to end it. The
best way to modernize Cuba, he wrote, is to “empower the citizens with
smartphones” and “put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”
A senior administration official said about Google’s efforts in Cuba:
“What Google was trying to do was very consistent with what we were
trying to do,”
Weeks later, after getting the blessing of the U.S. government, Google
announced it would offer its Web browser, Google Chrome, to Cubans for
the first time.
“U.S. export controls and sanctions can sometimes limit the products
available in certain countries,” Google said in a news release. “As
these trade restrictions evolve, we’ve been working to figure out how to
make more tools available in sanctioned countries.”
That November, Google said it had gotten clearance from the U.S.
government to offer free versions of Google Play and Google Analytics in
On Dec. 17, 2014, after 18 months of secret talks, Mr. Obama announced
the moves to normalize relations with Cuba.
A day after the announcement, Jeffrey Zients, a top economic adviser to
the president and head of the National Economic Council, said that
normalizing relations with Cuba would provide some “targeted economic
opportunities for U.S. companies,” including Internet and tech firms.
Last September, the Treasury Department unveiled a series of new rules
designed to help guide U.S. companies in doing business with Cuba.
They allowed Google and other Internet companies, for the first time, to
hire Cubans to help develop software applications. They also enabled
Internet companies to export various telecommunications equipment,
including Wi-Fi routers, to Cuba.
In talks with Cuban government officials, Google has offered to do what
it has done in other countries, such as archive the national library on
the Web, create detailed online maps of the country and build a
broadband Internet network. So far, no agreements have been reached.
The Cuban government regards the nation’s telecommunications network as
a critical part of national security.
In Monday’s announcement, Google said it reached a deal to open a
temporary demonstration project at an art studio in Havana to allow up
to 40 Cubans at a time to use computers with high-speed connections to
access the Internet.
“We’re also exploring additional possibilities around increasing and
improving Internet access, but they’re at early stages,” said Mr.
Perlmutter, the Google executive who traveled to Cuba, in his blog post.
“We’ve always been very open about the fact that we want to make
available as many of our products as possible throughout the world,” he
wrote, “because we believe access to information and technology can
—Felicia Schwartz contributed to this article.
Source: Google and Obama Administration Connect Over Cuba – WSJ –