The Truth About Castro's Fiber-Optic Cable

Tuesday, March 1, 2011
From the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies:

The Venezuelan-Cuban Fiber Optic Cable: A Connection to the World?

The much anticipated fiber optic cable from Venezuela to Cuba finally reached Cuba's shores February 8, 2011. The 4-year project had been announced in February of 2007 and was supposed to be completed in early 2009. The cable cost approximately $70 million dollars and was financed by Venezuela, as part of a joint venture between Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe (TGC - itself a joint venture between Cuba and Venezuela) and Alcatel-Lucent Shanghai Bell (a Chinese subsidiary of a French company). The ALBA-1 Cable is a component of Venezuela's outreach to the island, showcasing Venezuela's "good will" to Cuba and furthering regional integration.

The cable is expected to increase the speed of data, images, and voice transmission by 3,000 times and will be capable of carrying 10 million simultaneous international calls. TGC will also extend the cable to Jamaica.

Although the cable has now reached Cuba's shore, its complete installation throughout the country is not expected to be complete until July of 2011. Noting that the initial project took double the projected time-frame, it is possible that the July date will be postponed.

The Cuban government has made clear that once the cable is fully connected, the Cuban people should not expect a digital revolution. The cable is meant to improve efficiency and cost-effectiveness for previously connected individuals and organizations – the less than 3% of the population that has internet access. "Priority will go to improve government, business and social service networks in health and education, according to a computer engineer who is part of a special government group pulled together by the government to build infrastructure and manage the country's new digital wealth."

Although many Cubans hope that this new cable may improve their chances of accessing the internet, it will do little to expand the population's access to the World Wide Web. As Waldo Reboredo, the Vice President of Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe (TGC), stated, what the cable will do, in addition to increasing speed, is provide Cuba with a cheaper alternative to its current system. Reboredo estimates the new cable will reduce costs by twenty-five percent. Whether the Cuban government will reduce the prices paid for internet access by users – primarily foreign businesses, tourists, government officials, and students (who have restricted access) – or if it will maintain prices and pocket the difference, remains to be seen.

The Cuban government is already starting to dampen the population's hopes and making sure the Cuban people have sufficiently low expectations, with the Deputy Minister of Informatics and Telecommunications, Jorge Luis Perdomos, declaring that "'the arrival of the fiber-optic cable is not a magic wand' [as] the country still needs to develop domestic infrastructure…which [cannot] be done overnight."

There is little question that General Raul Castro's regime would like to maintain its iron grip on information technology. After all, there is a reason why Cuba has the lowest rate of fixed broadband connectivity in the Western Hemisphere; it has nothing to do with the U.S. economic embargo, despite the government's attempts to deflect blame. A survey done by Cuba's National Statistics Office puts the figure of those who have direct access to the internet around 2.9%. And most of that 2.9% consists of government officials or others who have restricted access to the World Wide Web from monitored places of employment or education, and not from the privacy of their own homes (even though home internet usage is monitored as well).

The Castro government sees the internet as a dangerous tool to spread foreign propaganda and disseminate information to a population accustomed to hearing little other than the official Communist Party line. A recently leaked video of Eduardo Fontes Suarez, an official in MININT's counter-intelligence apparatus, lecturing uniformed members of Cuba's Armed Forces about the dangers of information technology perfectly depicts the government's fear. Fontes Suarez speaks to the threat posed by the social networks Facebook and Twitter and the dangers of WiFi as well as the peaceful student group Raices de Esperanza which seeks to promote person-to-person contact between Cuban youth abroad and their counterparts on the island. Cuban blogger Claudia Cadelo explains why: "They don't want the social networks to spread because they are aware of the danger that poses to a totalitarian government which hides the truth from its people."

Renowned blogger Yoani Sanchez agrees, recognizing the government's intention behind the cable, saying "this underwater connection seems destined more to control us than to link us to the world." However, Sanchez further writes that she believes that Cubans will be able to circumvent barriers the government will place on internet connections throughout the country, saying "it is quite likely that many of the digital pulses will reach the hands of those who can pay for them. With authorization or without, connection hours will be sold — to the highest bidder — in a country where diversion of resources is a daily practice, a strategy for survival."

While the government is able to use the new cable connection as part of an international public relations campaign to soften its image, the war that it wages on all forms of technological communication is perfectly clear from Mr. Fontes Suarez's leaked security briefing. The fiber optic cable is designed to do little more than increase the speed of already existing connections and reduce costs for the Cuban government. This cable connects Cuba to Venezuela; it will be up to the Cuban populace to innovate ways to connect itself to the world.