On Monday, December 12th Google signed a deal with ETESCA (the internet monopoly of Cuba) that can be described in this simple sentence from Reuters:
“Google signed an agreement with the Cuban government granting internet users on the Communist-run island quicker access to its branded content.”
Now, what that means exactly can be super confusing.
Some people thought that meant Google would be helping with hardwiring fiber into the island. Nope. That's wrong.
The Cuban Government monopoly, ETESCA, controls the hardware and censorship of the internet on the island. Cuba has had one of the worst numbers of internet penetration (in households) which has hovered at about 5% of the population. Furthermore, despite the construction of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the island, the internet that most Cubans can access is prohibitively expensive, slow, and heavily censored. There are restrictions on news sites and social media that Cubans have to get around as best as possible.
For example, if you work at a foreign company, university, or hotel then you might be able to get access to Facebook and Twitter, but you're probably being surveilled.
For more check out this 2015 Freedomhouse report on Cuban internet.
This deal simply means the Cuban government (through its internet monopoly, ETESCA) will allow Cubans access to the Google suite of products (Gmail, YouTube, etc). Google really didn't have to “do” anything and was just there at the meeting as a formality.
Giving the Cuban people access to these services is great… But I'm skeptical. Why am I skeptical? Because I know the Cuban government.
I know how they pretend to be transparent and do things in the name of the people only to spy on them and jail political dissidents. I know how they repeatedly promise things to the Cuban people and either delay delivering on that promise for years or just fail to do so altogether.
The government could easily monitor everything said via Gmail or everything watched on YouTube. By doing that it would be WAY easier to identify journalists and dissidents. If you said something or watched something “anti-revolutionary” you’re screwed.
Alternatively the government could keep promising that access to Google products is coming but only give it to those within or sympathetic to the communist party (similar to how they determine who's allowed internet) if they gave it to anyone at all.
I realize I sound like a pessimist, but again, it’s because I know the Cuban government.
That said, I’m absolutely hopeful that the Cuban condition will get better with time. This move by the Cuban government, in the long run, has a chance to help the Cuban people considerably.
It's just that with the Castro regime I've learned one key lesson: hope for the best and expect the worst.