Secretary of State John Kerry, who wrote an op-ed for the Miami Herald along with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, evoked Ronald Reagan's timeless challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev at the Berlin Wall in 1987, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." In reference to President Obama's recently announced policy changes toward communist Cuba, Kerry wrote, "[T]he president’s decision will support new efforts to tear down the digital wall that isolates Cubans."
Kerry is not the first administration official to draw the allusion. In October 2014, less than two months ago, U.S. Ambassador Ronald D. Godard of the U.S. mission to the U.N. used the same phrase, ironically enough, in justifying the continuation of the U.S.'s late policy toward Cuba as he explained the U.S. vote against a Cuban-backed resolution. Twenty-three times the United Nations has sided with Cuba and voted overwhelmingly to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba; as was the case last year when the same resolution was introduced, Israel alone sided with the United States in voting no.
Interestingly, however, Ambassador Godard called the "digital wall" a wall of "censorship," emphasizing the free speech violation imposed by the communist government of Cuba. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the Cuban government, which keeps the wall in place while "disingenuously blaming U.S. policy" for its own failures:
The Cuban government now claims to share our goal of helping the Cuban people access the Internet. Yet the Cuban government has failed to offer widespread access to the Internet through its high speed cable with Venezuela. Instead, it continues to impose barriers to information for the Cuban people while disingenuously blaming U.S. policy.
Moreover, the Cuban government continues to detain Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for facilitating Internet access for Cuba’s small Jewish community. The United States calls on Cuba to release Mr. Gross immediately, allow unrestricted access to the Internet, and tear down the digital wall of censorship it has erected around the Cuban people.
Kerry, on the other hand, spoke of a "digital wall that isolates Cubans," placing the emphasis on "isolation":
[T]he president’s decision will support new efforts to tear down the digital wall that isolates Cubans. The country has an Internet penetration rate of 5 percent, among the lowest in the world. Prices are high, and services are limited. Under the new policy, we will permit the sale of technology that will begin to unleash the transformative effects of the Internet on the island.
The Obama administration argues the policy of isolation has been a failure, and Kerry himself recently said it has isolated the United States instead of Cuba. Kerry addressed the low Internet penetration rate, high prices and limited service, but did not mention the limitations on access to the Internet that originally led to the imprisonment of Alan Gross who was freed the same day the new Cuba policy was announced. In Kerry's view, Cubans have been "isolated" by the U.S.'s refusal to sell certain technology rather than made victims by a wall of censorship erected by an oppressive regime.
The two versions of the "digital wall" are not the only disparities in Ambassador Godard's remarks in October and the new Obama administration line. Godard placed the blame for the continued restrictions on US interaction with Cuba squarely at the door of the communist government of Cuba, which he said had even recently acknowledged its own culpability: