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In Cuba, mystery shrouds fate of woeful Internet

Published May 27, 2012 1:01 am

Tech • West's worst Web still waits on $70M project to link island with cable.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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 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 has 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.

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.

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.

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 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 disappointment.

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," Press said.