Google is close to reaching an agreement with the Cuban government to expand internet access on the island, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake told el Nuevo Herald.
“Yes, I think they are closer,” Flake said after he returned to Washington this week from a trip to Havana with Google's former Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, as well as Brett Perlmutter and Susanna Kohly, Google's executives in charge of relations with Cuba.
The group met Monday with Miguel Díaz-Canel, the island's recently appointed new leader, who showed interest in working with Google to increase internet access and connecting Cuba to a new submarine cable, a source knowledgeable about the conversations told el Nuevo Herald.
Google has invested in several submarine cables to expand connectivity and its services around the world. Flake said the Cuban government has “planned” for an increase in access.
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Díaz-Canel, recently named president of the Council of State, has spoken publicly about the need to expand internet services on the island, and mentioned it in the meeting with the U.S. visitors.
Díaz-Canel “spoke about education on the island, the internet and what they are doing, but he also acknowledges the need for increased connectivity. That was clear,” said Flake, an Arizona Republican.
“Something that was significant was that [Díaz-Canel and Schmidt] speak different languages but they both … speak engineering,” said the senator.
Photographs of the meeting show a relaxed and smiling Díaz-Canel in his first encounter with U.S. politicians and business leaders since he succeeded Raúl Castro in April. The U.S. visitors also met with officials from the Ministries of Communications and Foreign Relations.
Google offered to expand the island's connectivity through wireless technology in 2015, but the plan was rejected by the Castro government because of concerns over using U.S. technology. Cuba largely connects to the internet through a submarine cable from Venezuela, but speeds and quality are poor even though the government's ETECSA telecommunications monopoly charges high fees for the access.
Google continued to push despite the initial rejection, but reduced the scale of its projects. It established a cybercafe, and in 2017 Perlmutter negotiated an agreement to store Google content on servers on the island, allowing for faster service on popular websites such as YouTube.
Increased access to the internet is one of the main demands of Cuban youths. But an agreement with a U.S. company to improve connectivity would be a test for the Díaz-Canel administration and his power to make decisions is likely to upset hard-line government leaders like Ramiro Valdés and José Ramón Machado Ventura. They hold key posts in the government and ruling Communist Party even though they are nearly 90 years old.
On the U.S. side, the main concerns could focus on censorship by the Cuban government, which tries to tightly control the internet content that Cubans can access. The agreement for establishing the Google Global Cache servers in Cuba has a “freedom of expression” clause in which ETECSA promises not to restrict the content. Additionally, the content is encrypted.
Some Google services, such as Project Shield, are not available on the island because of the U.S. embargo, despite broad exceptions for the telecommunications sector. Schmidt said at a news conference in Havana that he shares Flake's opposition to the embargo. The senator has submitted several bills in Congress to eliminate the embargo and end all restrictions on travel to Cuba.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres