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Google's Eric Schmidt Makes a Surprise Visit to Cuba to Promote Internet Freedom

Eric Schmidt at the Google Big Tent meeting in Rome in October 2013. Photo by Simona Granati. Copyright Demotix.

Eric Schmidt at the Google Big Tent meeting in Rome in October 2013. Photo by Simona Granati. Copyright Demotix.

Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt and three other Google employees took a trip to Havana this weekend to throw their weight behind a “free and open Internet” in Cuba. 

There, they met with students from the University of Information Science, blogger Yoani Sánchez and authors from her online magazine 14ymedio [es]. 

Schmidt, who detailed the trip on his Twitter and Google Plus accounts, described his arrival:

Landing at Havana airport, the first airplane you see is a jet from Angola Airlines. The Cuban people, modern and very well educated define the experience with a warmth that only Latin cultures express: tremendous music, food and entertainment [...]

He added that “if Cuba finds itself trapped in the 1950s, Cuba's Internet is trapped in the 1990s”:

About 20-25% of Cubans have phone lines but mostly subsidized land lines, and the cell phone infrastructure is very thin. Approximately 3-4% of Cubans have access to the Internet in internet cafes and in certain universities. The Internet is heavily censored and the infrastructure, which we toured, is made out of Chinese components. The “blockade” makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly. The result of the “blockade” is that Asian infrastructure will become much harder to displace. 

The two greatest achievements of the revolution are “free universal healthcare and the clear majority of women in executive and managerial positions in the country,” Schmidt wrote. 

Almost all the leaders we met with were female, and one joked with us that the Revolution promised equality, the macho men didn’t like it but “they got used to it”, with a broad smile. The least successful part of the Revolution has been economic development (not surprisingly) and it appeared to us a drop off in tourism and recent farm issues have made things somewhat worse in Cuba. The broad topic of conversation in the country is the constant speculation of what the government will do next and what the course and path of liberalization will be.

With respect to the travel arrangements, Schmidt added:

Travel to the country is controlled by an US office called [Office of Foreign Assets Control] and under our license we were not permitted to do anything except business meetings where our hotel room had to be less than $100 per night and total expenses per diem of $188.00. Not surprisingly there are many $99 hotel rooms in Havana. These policies defy reason: there are dozens of countries we call our allies and we are free to travel to that present much worse threats and concerns to the US than Cuba does in this decade.

In November of last year, Schmidt had stated in an interview with The Wall Street Journal [es] that Cuba was listed as a high priority on his agenda for international travel. 

Schmidt arrived to Havana at a time when public debate about Internet access on the island has increased markedly. Just a few weeks ago [es], Cuban blogger Norges Rodríguez published a petition on Change.org [es] calling for “affordable Internet access for the Cuban population.” The petition has received over 400 signatures from Cuban residents both inside and outside the country. Earlier, Cuban authorities had dismantled at least four informal WiFi networks located in different neighborhoods throughout Havana and Cienfuegos. 

One of the most controversial points in the relationship between Google and Cuba lies in the services that the company blocks from Cuban users. Tour Builder, a new service from Google that is still in its beta phase, is not currently available to Cubans [es] as part of the United States’ economic blockade against this country. Previously, Google had blocked access to Google Earth, Google Desktop Search, Google Toolbar, Google Analytics, and Google Code Search.

Schmidt summed up why the blockade isn't a good idea:

The information restrictions make even less sense when you find out that Cuba imports a great deal of food from the US as compassionate trade. The food imports to Cuba are important but so is importation of tools to Cuba for the development of a knowledge economy.

  • disqus_vU1klyrdjb

    I can’t help but think he is not being totally honest here. It’s no secret the NSA is working with Google to datamine the public around the planet. This is why VPN providers like https://ironsocket.com are gaining in popularity – because people can encrypt their connections and stop hackers and other snoops from spying on your activity.

  • Illieb Flower

    economic blockade against this country, what the heck is that all about? God, how long will this thing go on?

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