HAVANA, Cuba – In signing a deal with the Cuban authorities last December, Google took on the challenge of improving internet access in what many consider to be one of the worst places in the world to go online.
But Havana residents are taking the development with a grain of salt. Recently Fox News spoke with some islanders who expressed doubts Google will make a success of it, at least anytime soon.
“We call the internet a ‘Trojan Horse.’ The success of this government has been possible thanks to the people’s lack of information,” said a 57-year-old retired professor who requested anonymity for fear of retribution by the communist regime.
“I would have a patrol car at my door tomorrow to monitor my life,” he said.
On the other hand, he and others contend, this Trojan Horse is also providing the communist regime with technology that will empower the secret police with detailed reports of the users’ searches and profiles, right down to their location.
“This means that Cubans generally, and Cuban dissidents in particular, will not only have their entire online lives to the last detail available, but also where they travel, who they meet with in the real world and many other details made available to Castro's intelligence services,” said John Suarez, an activist.
Google would not provide any comment on this and suggested visiting its blog for further details. The blog broadly states that the deal allows the state-owned telecommunications company ETECSA to use Google’s technology “to reduce latency by caching … popular high-bandwidth content like YouTube videos at a local level.”
Google has additionally partnered with Havana’s Museo Orgánico Romerillo, a museum in Miramar, an upscale neighborhood dotted with embassies and mansions. The agreement is that the museum provides Google a space to showcase some of its products through the ETECSA network, but commits to grant internet access to all visitors.
“We know, from the experience of many countries around the world, that new technologies and improved internet access can help people in their daily lives, provide new information and experiences, and help harness a country’s creativity and ingenuity,” Google says in its blog.
However, connectivity in the communist nation continues to be extremely limited to the lucky few. In my visit to the island in early January I was mentally prepared to disconnect from the world -- which actually felt quite nice for a couple days.
This is how it went down for me: My quest for internet started at the José Martí International Airport, where I started looking for the prepaid ETECSA card I had been told was the only way to get connection. The card costs around $5 and gives you approximately an hour of internet per dollar.
ETECSA is an acronym for Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba Sociedad Anonima, and is the sole provider of internet access in the island.
The day I landed, the airport had run out of the coveted cards so I had to manage to buy one the next day at one of the city's hotels. They are not easy to find. There are just a bunch of “official stores” that sell them, and luxury hotels also offer them but for five times the price.
So, to my puzzlement, for the same $5 and the same exact card, I got access to only one hour online.
Around Havana, there are a few places where you can get Wi-Fi for your device. Your best bet are the “upscale” hotels, but even there be prepared for a signal too weak to make a call through WhatsApp, watch videos or even upload and download pictures.
You can tell you have found an oasis by the dozens of people – both locals and tourists – glued to their phones for hours in front of these hotels. The government also approved some hotspots in public parks where you’ll also find internet junkies, but with very weak connection.
“The access is very limited and we can’t enter opposition websites or read, for example, The New York Times,” said the retired college professor. “At home, all we can get to work is an email account. The government doesn’t want us to have internet.”
The government, however, blames the U.S. saying the embargo has prevented the country from developing its telecoms infrastructure.
In any event, so far Google’s deal doesn’t seem to have changed things much, as all the company has done is provide faster access to their services, like Gmail or YouTube -- and that’s only available to the privileged few who belong to the government elite anyway.
To critics such as activist John Suarez, Google’s deal with the Cuban government is a “disturbing development” that will only modernize Castro's totalitarian regime.
“Any technological improvements are illusions to us,” the retired professor added.
Marta Dhanis is a field producer for the Fox News Channel. She can be reached @MartaDhanis.