Mystery shrouds fateof Internet cable in Cuba

By Andrea Rodriguez

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 26 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

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 disappointment.

"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."

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