Cuba and Venezuela connect through socialism, fiber optic cable

Telecommunications workers began sounding tests along Cuba’s southeastern coastline last week, marking the first phase of plans to lay a submarine fiber optic cable connecting Venezuela, Cuba, and Jamaica.

If successful, Cuban news site Cubadebate reports that the cable’s 640 gigabytes would increase Cuba’s connectivity capacity 3000-fold. Last week, the Chinese ship Ridley Thomas, belonging to the Chinese contractor Cantel Shangai Bell arrived at Siboney beach in the eastern city of Santiago to begin testing. Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, the Cuban-Venezuelan telecommunications firm supported chiefly by ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los pueblos de Nuestra América) will lay the 1,630 km cable when tests are complete, and officials say that Cubans should expect to see marked changed in Internet accessibility and speed by spring of 2011.

While Cuban bloggers on and off the island have expressed much enthusiasm about the cable, it may not serve as a cure-all for the peculiar combination of economic, political, and technological limitations that make Internet access and connectivity so poor on the island. Cuba is widely recognized by international human rights and press freedom organizations as an “Internet enemy,” a state where Internet access is severely limited for political reasons, yet the government filters only a handful of Cuba and Miami-based dissident websites. Economic limitations prevent the majority of Cubans from accessing the Internet at all, and those who do typically rely on dial-up connections with extremely narrow bandwidth and poor connectivity.

Cubans may soon have greater opportunities to access the Internet, but they may also face more aggressive measures of state-directed Internet control.

After signing initial agreements in 2006, the government appeared to be stalling on the project. This was officially due to budgetary restrictions, but may have also have been a reflection of internal debates over the Cuba’s capacity to prevent widespread Internet use from facilitating social upheaval. Yet since 2009, new software developments and increased measures of control over public access points suggest that the state has regained confidence in its ability to control and limit the political impact of increased Internet connectivity. Avila Link, a software product that collects private information and can function as a form of digital surveillance, similar to China’s Green Dam software, has been installed on many public, university, and cybercafé computers, though it is not clear whether this or similar programs have been pre-installed on computers sold for private use. This and technological other measures, along with the continued persecution of certain bloggers by the national police, suggest that the cable may not be the silver bullet that Cuban Internet users had originally hoped for.