For almost a year and a half, Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, director of the Cuban online magazine Periodismo de Barrio, has sent out a monthly newsletter to her 839 subscribers. To reach her readers, Díaz uses Mailchimp, a U.S.-based newsletter platform. But when she tried to send her latest newsletter two weeks ago, she was unable to access her account. Instead, an error message said the account didn’t exist.
Díaz wasn’t alone. Rest of World reporting suggests that at least two other well-known Cuban outlets experienced something similar in recent weeks: 14ymedio and Magazine AM:PM.
Shortly after Rest of World reached out to Mailchimp, the platform reinstated the banned accounts.
Although Mailchimp didn’t respond to Rest of World’s questions about why the accounts were shut down and then restored, the brief blackout likely had something to do with the company’s terms of service, which state that users must “not be based in Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria, or any other territory that is subject to a U.S. government embargo.”
Although Way Back Machine archives indicate that this language has been part of the company’s legal terms and conditions since at least May 23, 2018, numerous Cuban users have been able to use Mailchimp during that time.
“As an experienced Mailchimp user, my feeling is that it has been a process of progressive restriction,” said Rafa G. Escalona, director of the Cuban music publication Magazine AM:PM. “When I started using it in 2015, there were no restrictions in place. Then, a couple of years ago, I had to start using a VPN to be able to manage multimedia content when editing the newsletters. Then the cancellation happened.”
The timing of the Mailchimp ban may have something to do with the newsletter company’s activities stateside. The shutdowns took place the day before Mailchimp announced that the company had been purchased by Intuit, the global technology platform that makes TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, and Credit Karma — the sort of transaction subject to rigorous due diligence. Ellery Roberts Biddle, projects director at Ranking Digital Rights, told Rest of World that, given the timing, it “is a really good guess that this had to do with legal risk assessment by Intuit.”
“In my experience, the lawyers who work for these companies are often overly conservative,” Ted Henken, associate professor of the CUNY Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Baruch College told Rest of World. “They might enforce rules that don’t exist, just to protect the companies from getting sued, by just being safe and just not having any business with anything Cuba. Often they do that ignorantly, without knowing anything about those media outlets or companies.”
The U.S. embargo of Cuba was initially crafted to serve two purposes, according to the U.S. Congress’ Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996: to punish the Cuban government for “systematic human rights violations,” by limiting commercial exchanges, and to give “Assistance to a Free and Independent Cuba.”
These restrictions have proven to be difficult to navigate for digital startups. Venmo recently halted payments referring to Palestine. PayPal went as far as to restrict a transaction that made reference to a “Cuban sandwich.”
Observers say that Mailchimp’s temporary shutdown of Cuban media outlets goes in the face of the purpose of the U.S. embargo. “The three [banned] media outlets are independent and, if anything, the U.S. government should be happy … not trying to shut them down,” said Henken.
The Mailchimp account shutdown underscored the double bind in which journalism finds itself in Cuba. The U.S. embargo suppresses the tools many reporters use to stay in touch with their audiences and each other. “For instance, El Toque [another Cuban news outlet] was on Slack when, suddenly, from one day to the next, [the company] brought down all its services,” said Díaz. At the same time, Cuban media operates within a restrictive legal framework that practically outlaws independent journalism on the island.
Díaz says she appreciates Mailchimp’s decision to restore her account. “It indicates that they are going to start adopting specific policies towards independent organizations, which is good because if you block an entire country, you are also affecting civil society, and it is better to establish individual instead of collective responsibilities.”
Henken is less optimistic. “The embargo is extremely clumsy, and it makes its biggest mistakes because some lawyer will try to protect the company trying to use a hammer when a different tool is probably better,” he said. “It takes someone with knowledge to petition these companies to give them the nuance that they need to make a better decision.”