Exiles bring the majority of satellite phones to Cuba
Posted on Sunday, 03.13.11
Exiles bring the majority of satellite phones to Cuba
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
Four antennas for satellite telephones were smuggled into Cuba disguised
as surfboards. Many others were simply home-made on the island out of
metal sheeting or cement.
Cuba alleges the satellite phones are part of a secret U.S. "cyberwar''
to subvert the communist system by giving dissidents and others access
to Internet and telephone services that its intelligence services cannot
monitor or block.
Yet the vast majority of the illegal satellite phones in Cuba were
slipped in not by U.S. government agents but by exiles who want their
relatives and friends to access the services, several knowledgeable
sources told El Nuevo Herald.
One Miami man quietly offers "satphones'' for $3,500 up front and $50 a
month. Other systems offered by U.S., Canadian, European and Central
American companies cost as little as $410 for the equipment and $39.99 a
The exact number of satphones in Cuba is unknown because of their
illegal status, but one industry expert who knows Cuba estimated it "in
the dozens." A second industry expert put it at 50 to 70.
CUBA ON CYBERWAR
Raúl Castro's government has been telling its version of the cyberwar in
a string of recent TV programs, titled "Cuba's Reasons," that explain
its dark views of U.S. efforts to increase Cubans' access to the Internet.
"They try to present it as a way to facilitate the free flow of
information to and from Cuba," an intelligence official identified only
as Captain Mariana said on one program. But they are really aimed at
"espionage, subversion and media manipulation."
Alan Gross, a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International
Development (USAID), was arrested in Havana in 2009 after he allegedly
delivered satellite Internet communications equipment to Cuban Jews. He
was tried last week on national security charges and was sentenced on
Saturday to 15 years in prison.
The Communist Party's Granma newspaper alleged last week that the U.S.
effort to expand Cubans' access to the Internet was part of a plan to
"spark a popular uprising'' like those that toppled the Egyptian and
Defenders of the U.S. programs argue that there's a moral right to
violate Cuban laws in order to give uncensored access to the Internet to
a people living under a dictatorial system.
"The issue is how much legitimacy we are willing to give to the
legislation of an authoritarian and repressive society," said a post
this week in the Spain-based blog Penultimos Dias — The Last Few Days.
The latest "Cuba's Reasons'' program featured Dalexi González, a
telecommunications engineer who told how a former neighbor living in
Spain offered in 2007 to introduce him to a "friend'' who would help him
set up an illegal Internet connection.
Gonzalez, who collaborated with Cuban intelligence, claimed that he
received four satellite telephone antennas, with foam covers that made
them look like surfboards, from a blond American during a surfing
contest east of Havana in 2008.
He also received software programs for communications security from the
"friend,'' Gonzalez added. But Gonzalez did not clarify whether he ever
received the rest of the components for the satellite phones.
Cuban TV identified the "friend'' as Robert Guerra, head of Internet
programs at Freedom House, a pro-democracy group based in Washington.
Its web page says Guerra works to "expand the use of anti-censorship
technologies (and) build support networks for citizens fighting against
"We try to help Cuban citizens to connect with counterparts in other
countries, and in most other parts of the world this is totally
acceptable," Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House's deputy director of
programs, told El Nuevo Herald.
Freedom House never sent any satellite phones to Cuba, according to
persons knowledgeable about its work, but it did send Guerra to the
island to help broaden and improve Cubans' access to the Internet.
Cuba's government tightly controls access to the Web, and the island has
the lowest Internet penetration rate of Latin America. It blocks local
access to many "enemy'' Web sites and locally registered smartphones
cannot download Web pages.
Access is largely limited to state officials and institutions, and
others must pay exorbitant prices — $6 an hour at tourist hotels and
$40-$50 a month to use an official's password at night. Cuba's average
monthly salary stands at $20 a month.
The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana has 23 computer stations that
offer uncensored and free Internet access to Cuban visitors by
appointment, and the Dutch embassy has another three.
But satellite phones allow users to surf the Web or make phone calls
from their own homes. They connect users directly to satellites —
bypassing Cuba's telephone system — and then to ground stations abroad
that link to Internet or telephone networks.
The George W. Bush administration first approved sending satellite
phones to Cuba around 2006, but kept the numbers to a handful because of
Havana's likely protests, said two former administration officials.
Cuba's Decree 269, issued in 2000, requires satellite transmitters and
receivers be registered with the government.
Satellite phones sent in by Cuban exiles clearly far outstrip those paid
for by the U.S. government, industry experts told El Nuevo Herald. They
asked that they not be further identified because of the illegal nature
of most of the Cuba connections.
The top-of-the-line phones are the BGANs, which costs $3,000 to buy.
Voice chats cost 99 U.S. cents a minute and Web connections run $6-$7
for the equivalent of transferring two large photographs. The average
BGAN bill runs $150-$200 a month.
BGANs are expensive compared to other systems but are easier to hide
because they do not require large satellite antennas. The lid of the
laptop-sized satellite phone works as its antenna.
Cheaper but easier to detect and slower are the satellite Internet/phone
systems sold by several companies around the world for use in remote
locations, boats and other places without access to high-speed Internet.
One man contacted by El Nuevo at a Miami phone number last week said he
could provide satellite Internet access in Cuba for a $3,500 one-time
fee and $50 a month. His offer is on the Web, boasting that his system
is "not detectable."
A Cuban exile in Panama said he paid $1,000 up front and $60 a month to
have a Panamanian company install the satellite connection for his
father in Havana four years ago, and has since referred a dozen of other
exiles to the installer.
Although the U.S. embargo bars U.S. satphone companies from selling
their services for use on the island, exiles in South Florida can easily
contract foreign companies to hook up friends and relatives on the
island, industry experts said.
They also can contract U.S. companies to provide the systems in remote
U.S. locations — the Florida Keys, for example — then smuggle the
equipment into Cuba while continuing to pay the bills in the United States.
HughesNet, a U.S. company, charges $410 for the purchase of the
equipment and monthly fees from $39.99 to $89.99. The more expensive
plans offer faster connection speeds — though still slow by TV cable
standards — and longer surfing times.
Such systems require a receiver-transmitter that looks like a fat
20-inch hot dog, a modem about the size of a book and a three-foot wide
antenna. A photo on the Web shows an antenna made from concrete that can
be flipped down to look like a square platform.
Industry experts warn of not-infrequent fraud in the business. Because
all the systems are illegal for use in Cuba, they note, exiles who buy
them and lose their money have little or no legal recourse.
An Orlando man who asked to be identified only as Omar but has put his
complaint and telephone number on the Internet told El Nuevo Herald that
he paid $3,000 to connect a relative in Cuba one year ago.
He is still waiting.