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    In Cuba, mystery shrouds fate of Internet cable

    Posted on Monday, 05.21.12

    In Cuba, mystery shrouds fate of Internet cable
    Associated Press

    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,"
    Press said.

    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
    address it."


    Associated Press writers Peter Orsi, Paul Haven and Anne-Marie Garcia in
    Havana contributed to this report.

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