Google proposes Internet expansion to Cuban authorities, sources say
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
El Nuevo Herald (Miami)
Google executives have proposed to the Cuban government a way to expand
Internet access on the island quickly and massively, but Cuban
authorities are skeptical of the plan, several sources familiar with the
proposal have told El Nuevo Herald.
The sources said the proposal would make the Internet available through
Wi-Fi connections and cellular phones, much like Google Ideas executive
Brett Perlmutter suggested during a recent visit to Havana. The sources
asked for anonymity and declined to provide further details.
“Cuba has a big opportunity to jump its infrastructure directly into
mobile phones, without going through all of the fixed cables that are
being installed in African countries,” Perlmutter told the digital
magazine On Cuba during the visit.
Companies such as Google and Facebook are competing to close the world’s
so-called “digital gap” and expand connectivity in less developed
countries – which in the long run would expand the markets for their own
products and applications – through new systems like those that use
drones or balloons.
One official Cuban source said the Google executives met with
“commercial authorities, and they have been talking. This is seen as a
process.” Another source in Cuba said Google offered to pay for almost
the entire cost of the proposal.
A Google spokesperson told El Nuevo Herald that the company “is working
to help the Cuban government think through their publicly stated goal of
improving Internet access. We have not given money to Cuba to develop
A big-scale project of this type could significantly benefit Cubans, who
have one of the lowest Internet access rates in the world. Only 3.4
percent of homes have Web access, according to the International
Alana Tummino, head of the Cuba working group at the Americas
Society/Council of the Americas and head of the group whose trip to
Havana included Perlmutter, said that big companies are “interested in
exploring options and submitting investment proposals in sectors such as
telecommunications, but patience and trust-building are key.”
“There is still skepticism from Cuban officials on the motives of U.S.
companies entering their market,” Tummino added. “There is enormous
opportunity, but it will take time to turn this opportunity into real
projects being implemented on the ground.”
Ted Henken, a Baruch College professor who has studied Cuba’s Internet
issues, said the Cubans’ skepticism may be dropping. “It is less likely
that Web connection and services coming from the United States, such as
Google’s, will be seen as a Trojan horse now that the Obama
administration has explicitly rejected a regime change policy and moved
toward engagement,” he said.
According to Henken, the Cuban government’s concerns reflect “a long
tradition of a siege mentality and phobia to autonomy, the wish to
control all independent organizations or label them as traitors or
The official Cuban source noted, however, that the island’s government
did not like much the U.S. House approval of $30 million for the
promotion of democracy in Cuba. The funding, part of the State
Department budget, has not received final congressional approval.
Several of the sources said the Cuban government’s reluctance also stems
from the relationship between Google and Roots of Hope, a nonprofit
founded by Cuban-American youths to help youths in Cuba with technology
issues. The group sends donated cellphones, computers, thumb drives and
other digital equipment to Cuba, and has organized events to develop
applications that can be used in Cuba. Google supported one of those
events, a “Hackathon” held in April at the California headquarters of
Roots of Hope was mentioned in an Associated Press report last year on
the so-called Zunzuneo project, a controversial U.S. government effort
to provide Cubans with a platform similar to Twitter, which is not
available on the island. The AP report said the group was not involved
in the project, although two of its members worked on it as consultants.
Official Cuban media nevertheless attacked the group and mentioned its
support for Yoani Sanchez, a blogger and journalist in Cuba accused by
the island’s government of being a “mercenary” paid by the United States.
Henken argued the Cuban government should understand that the members of
Roots of Hope “are young (not fathers or grandfathers who favored the
overthrow of the government) Cubans (not controlled by the U.S.
government) and open (their website openly declares their goal of
creating bridges and empowering Cuban youths).”
Raul Moas, executive director of Roots of Hope, told El Nuevo Herald
that the organization “has always been dedicated to building bridges
between Silicon Valley and Havana. Our priority is not political, but to
help improve the quality of life of Cubans on the island.”
Moas said he had recently met with the head of the Cuban diplomatic
mission in Washington, Jose Ramon Cabanas, who declared that he was
willing to “sit down and talk with Cuban American youths and any other
person who wants to help to build a better and more inclusive Cuba.”
Some of the people involved in the negotiations between Google and
Havana said they believed that an agreement on the proposal could be
reached if the Cuban government decides to negotiate directly with the
U.S. company and openly discuss its doubts with Google’s executives.
The Google spokesperson told El Nuevo Herald that Roots of Hope is one
of the many organizations that have approached Google on the issue of
Cuba. “We do not have a partnership nor do we have plans for a future
Even if an agreement with Google is not reached, Cuban authorities are
facing growing pressures to speed up the pace of reforms and the mass
expansion of Internet access.
Henken noted that although the government is facing growing demands to
expand access and lower prices, especially after President Barack
Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement about warming relations with Cuba, “I have
always suspected that the Cuban government will change its policies if
it can maintain relative control of the ‘wild colt’ of the Web. Nauta
(Cuba’s intranet) allows them to do that.”
Several Cuban officials, among them Vice President Miguel Díaz Canel,
have argued that the Internet will benefit the country’s development.
ETECSA, the state telecommunications monopoly, recently cut its access
price in half – to about $2.30 per hour, still expensive for the
majority of Cubans – and announced the opening of 35 Wi-Fi access points
in public areas around the island. It’s small progress, but young people
are increasingly impatient.
“I believe there is a political will to expand Internet service in Cuba.
It is moving too slowly, but it is something that cannot wait any more,”
said Carlos Alberto Pérez, author of the blog La Chiringa de Cuba, which
has recently published leaked documents on government plans for the
A few days after Perlmutter’s trip to Havana, Pérez published ETECSA’s
“five-year plan” to deliver broadband access around the country. Last
week, the blogger published another leaked document indicating that the
state company plans to offer home access to the Internet – now limited
to a tiny group of Cubans – using first-generation ADSL technology. The
service would use telephone landlines, which only reach one quarter of
the population, and would have speeds ranging from 1 to 8 megabits per
The plan was immediately criticized on Cuba’s social networks for its
high price and restriction to those who have telephone lines. Hugo
Cancio, who heads On Cuba and met with Perlmutter in Havana, said that
this option also would be extremely expensive.
An ETECSA statement issued last week lamented “the unscrupulous manner
in which internal information of the enterprise is manipulated to
misinform the population.” While it did not deny that the latest leaked
document had been written at ETECSA, it said it had been obtained “from
an unauthorized source” and described it as a document “used in training
courses for enterprise experts … with possible scenarios.”
Expecting such a reaction from ETECSA, in a country where the government
tries to strictly control information, Pérez wrote in his blog that the
document was provided to him by an anonymous source “who does not work
in the same place where I work, so this time don’t waste your time
seizing my computer.”
The blogger, who manages the social networks for the government’s Young
Computing Clubs, assured El Nuevo Herald that “the document is 100
percent legitimate, so much so that ETECSA’s own statement says that it
is a document used in the training of its technical and specialized
personnel. But they contradict themselves when they say they lament that
manipulation of information to misinform the people. Misinform? How
could that be, when four paragraphs earlier they admit the document is
legitimate? That’s crazy.”
Pérez is not convinced that Cuba will reach an agreement with Google.
The blogger said that although the Cuban government should “ally itself
with a big, wealthy company,” that’s unlikely to be Google. “Every time
that Google officials set foot in Cuba, although they meet with
authorities, there is a parallel campaign by the authorities
discrediting them. And that’s no coincidence.”
Source: Google proposes Internet expansion to Cuban authorities, sources
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