Posted on Monday, 05.21.12
In Cuba, mystery shrouds fate of Internet cable
By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ
HAVANA -- It was all sunshine, smiles and celebratory speeches as
officials marked the arrival of an undersea fiber-optic cable they
promised would end Cuba's Internet isolation and boost web capacity
3,000-fold. Even a retired Fidel Castro had hailed the dawn of a new
cyber-age on the island.
More than a year after the February 2011 ceremony on Siboney Beach in
eastern Cuba, and 10 months after the system was supposed to have gone
online, the government never mentions the cable anymore, and Internet
here remains the slowest in the hemisphere. People talk quietly about
embezzlement torpedoing the project and the arrest of more than a
half-dozen senior telecom officials.
Perhaps most maddening, nobody has explained what happened to the
much-ballyhooed $70 million project.
"They did some photo-op ... and then that scandal came out, and then it
just disappeared from human consciousness," said Larry Press, a
professor of information systems at California State University,
Dominguez Hills, who studies Cuba, referring to foreign media reports
and whispers by diplomats that several executives at state phone company
Etecsa and the two senior officials in the Telecommunications Ministry
were arrested last year.
The cable was strung from Venezuela with the help of key ally Hugo
Chavez. Government officials said from the start that the bandwidth boon
would be prioritized for hospitals, universities and other usage deemed
in service of the common good; the legions of Cubans with little or no
access to the Internet from their homes would have to wait.
But a dozen employees of public institutions interviewed by The
Associated Press said they have seen no noticeable improvement in their
work connections. If anything, they say, download speeds have even
gotten a little slower.
Going online in Cuba will try the patience of anyone who's ever had a
taste of high-speed DSL connections.
The problem is that connection speeds here are still Web 1.0, while the
world has moved on to fancier, bandwidth-hogging platforms like Flash.
YouTube is irrelevant on Cuban dial-up, and barely useable on the rare
broadband connections. Want to watch the latest episode of "Mad Men?" At
3-5 kilobytes-per-second dial-up transfer speeds, a 500-megabyte video
file would theoretically take somewhere between 28 and 46 hours to
download from iTunes.
Artists and photographers say it's nearly impossible to view others'
work online. People swap digital pictures in person on memory sticks
rather than simply sending them as email attachments. Students have
difficulty accessing research databases.
One doctor in Havana said she only has access to Cuba's domestic
intranet, a bare-bones internal network of island-hosted sites that also
lets users get email. Moreover, her institution recently began cracking
down on the few who do have full Internet access, ordering them not to
use sites like Facebook under threat of punishment.
"I had high hopes, great expectations for the cable. ... For me, doing a
postgraduate degree, (the intranet) is no good. It's too basic and poor
for our needs," she said. "They haven't given us any explanation."
She and the others spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of getting
into trouble with their state employers.
Multiple attempts to get Cuban and Venezuelan government officials to
comment were unsuccessful.
The Venezuela branch of Paris-based Alcatel-Lucent, which was contracted
to lay the cable, referred questions to the Cuban-Venezuelan joint
venture Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, where an official said he would
need approval from Venezuela's science and technology ministry to talk
about the project. The ministry did not respond to requests to interview
Diplomats in Havana privately tell consistent stories of reported
corner-cutting on the project that let corrupt officials skim millions
of dollars from its budget.
A senior French official told AP that Alcatel had upheld its part of the
contract and whatever problems exist must be on land with the network it
was meant to be attached to.
"The cable must be connected to something or it won't work," said the
official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not
authorized to discuss the politically sensitive project.
The lack of transparency is not unusual for Cuba, where all media is
state-run and tightly controlled. But it flies in the face of Fidel
Castro's own enthusiastic words about the cable and the transformational
power of the Internet.
"Secrets are over. ... We are facing the most powerful weapon that has
ever existed, which is communication," Castro told Mexican daily La
Jornada in an August 2010 interview in which he hailed the coming cable.
While some hold out hope that faster Internet has merely been delayed,
others interpret the government's long silence as a sign Cuba's
broadband dreams will be the latest grand pronouncement to end in
"I have no expectations for the cable," said Marlene Blanco, a
25-year-old independent worker. "Nothing is going to change for ordinary
Cubans. So why talk about it?"
According to government statistics, 16 percent of islanders were online
in some capacity in 2011, mostly through work or school, and often just
to the intranet. The National Statistics Office said last year that just
2.9 percent reported having direct Internet access, though outside
experts estimate the real figure is likely 5 to 10 percent accounting
for black market sales of dial-up minutes. For a variety of reasons
including the 50-year-old U.S. economic embargo, Cuba is the last
country in the Western Hemisphere to get a fiber-optic connection to the
outside world, and has relied instead on costly and slow satellite linkups.
Some speculate that the Internet-fueled Arab Spring revolts, which began
months before the cable's arrival in Cuba, could have altered the
government's plan or at least made officials rethink the wisdom of
making it widely available.
"They're afraid of it. They don't want a 'Cuban Spring,' so to speak,"
President Raul Castro's administration has warned of a supposed plot by
enemies in the United States to wage a "cyberwar" to destabilize the
Communist-run government. In 2011, a Cuban court sentenced U.S.
subcontractor Alan Gross to 15 years after convicting him of crimes
against the state for importing restricted communications equipment that
he insists was only meant to help the island's Jewish community gain
better Internet access.
The official silence over the fiber-optic cable has given rise to other
rumors: that the cable is operational but being used selectively. A
pro-government blogger known as Yohandry Fontana wrote at the end of
2011 that people who attended a closed forum on social networks reported
it was working fine.
"Here's a brief summary: 1. The cable has no problem, it is working. 2.
Public Internet spaces will open on the island. 3. Costs for public
connection will go down. Note: I am seeking more information," Fontana said.
Cuban-born economist Arturo Lopez-Levy said Havana has badly bungled the
whole affair, and if it's true that corruption killed the cable,
officials should "make heads roll over the scandal" and give an open
accounting of what went wrong.
"The Cuban government failure to achieve this goal is one of the
worst-managed situations," said Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University
of Denver, "aggravated by an even worse public relations fiasco to
Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Paul Haven and Anne-Marie Garcia in
Havana contributed to this report.
Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP