Second part of the interview with First Deputy Minister of Communications Wilfredo González Vidal.
The installation of an underwater fiber optic cable from Martinique to Cienfuegos seems to be the great telecommunications project in Cuba. The news has aroused expectations among Cubans, at a time when problems connecting to the Internet in the country have increased — and, consequently, criticism from the population —, as the authorities themselves have recognized.
The new cable, whose objective is to “expand and diversify international connectivity” on the island, should come into operation next April, but authorities and experts warn that it will not be an immediate solution. It is also necessary to improve the rest of the infrastructure within the country and to the end user To take better advantage of its capabilities. What is called “the different layers of the country’s networks,” as First Deputy Minister of Communications Wilfredo González Vidal explained to OnCuba in the first part of this interview.
Beyond the cable and its desired impact on the island’s connectivity, there are other issues related to this sector that are indisputably relevant in the current Cuban context.
Relations with the United States, the reforms of the economy and its new actors, and the process of computerization and digital transformation underway in the midst of the economic crisis, are also part of the country’s current affairs in terms of telecommunications. All these aspects directly or indirectly influence daily life in Cuba.
On these aspects OnCuba also spoke with González Vidal.
In what state are relations between Cuba and the United States in terms of telecommunications? How much of what was achieved during the bilateral rapprochement in the time of the Obama administration is maintained and what difficulties hinder a possible improvement in this direction?
First of all, it must be said that the Ministry of Communications of Cuba reiterates the will to continue seeking ties and commercial relations with U.S. companies in our sector. And along these lines, starting in 2014, during Obama’s presidency, various projects emerged. Agreements were reached with various U.S. operators for issues related to roaming, international long-distance telephone traffic, which are active today, which continue to function commercially without any type of problem, with AT&T, Verizon, Spring. We also have relations with Google since those years, which also work well. And we are willing to continue this work and, if possible, to do it with U.S. companies in the software industry.
Now, these negotiations have to be fair, they have to be beneficial and respond to the needs of both parties, not only of the institutions and companies, but also of the countries, of the peoples. Those are basic principles that must be followed. And there is no doubt that today there are limitations for this type of exchange, due to U.S. regulations and the blockade, which also affects the telecommunications sector. And even with what was established as of 2014 by the Obama administration at that time there were also limitations, which remain.
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For example, that we cannot obtain any type of financial credit from the United States to be able to develop telecommunications in the country. That is a major limitation. As well as the fact that we can’t acquire a set of supplies and technologies because they contain a certain percentage of U.S.-sourced components, and so we have to look for them in places much further away.
Another significant limitation, which did not change, is the export of certain services to our country; for example, the limitations on more than 60 computer platforms of United States origin, which are widely used by any person anywhere in the world and, however, in Cuba we cannot use them. This is a limitation that affects the training of professionals, in the incorporation of solutions of this type to national computer tools to achieve greater development, greater speed.
More recently, already during the Trump administration, there is the inclusion of Cuba on the unfair list of countries that sponsor terrorism, which is an issue that affects us a lot when we try to negotiate or establish a commercial relationship with any company, not just Americans, and it cannot be carried out for that reason.
We have tried to speak with certain U.S. companies in the area of the software industry, which for us is an important activity in which there could be beneficial links for both parties, and in which Cuba has real capabilities based on computer training throughout the country, and yet it has not been possible, even though we have tried.
Is this software development sector in Cuba in a position to be competitive if it is able to access the U.S. market?
I believe so, that there is competitiveness in the national industry of computer applications and services. And in this case, we work on two aspects: the first is linked to individual professional competence, because we have human capital, with a high level of training, which can promote a type of service such as outsourcing, contracting, and would give possibilities of commercial exchange between U.S. and Cuban companies, whether private or state. And possibilities could also open up with national, quality computer products, with sovereignty, that could expand their development if they had that access.
After years of setbacks and stagnation, in 2022 there were some official exchanges between the two countries. In this context, has there been any rapprochement in terms of telecommunications, or have the Cuban authorities observed any signs of improvement in this direction?
To be honest, we have not seen any improvement, nor any indication that something positive is going to happen in this regard. I could not answer otherwise, because the most recent thing that has happened is precisely the “suggestion” — in quotes — by Team Telecom of the United States Department of Justice to the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, not to accept a project of connection of our country, through a U.S. company, with the Arcos 1 system, so that ETECSA would have the possibility of leasing capacities from that cable.
This really affects us, because we are talking about an infrastructure that passes very close to the island. And it is very difficult to believe their argument for that refusal; in this case, the argument that Cuba is a danger to the security of the United States. This news was made public recently. But there have been other moments in which the U.S. government has also denied us the possibility of connecting to a cable infrastructure like the one that surrounds the island and which, furthermore, is used by several countries, especially in the Caribbean.
With this issue, there is a position of double standards on the part of the United States government, because on the one hand, it talks about wanting to provide Internet access to Cubans — from a position that can even be understood as interventionist, because that is an issue that is the responsibility of Cuba and the Cuban institutions in the first instance, due to a question of sovereignty —, and on the other hand, it suggests to its country’s telecommunications regulator not to accept this type of project. And, at the same time, it supports subversive media programs against Cuba, which use the Internet as a weapon of aggression against the country, when we really need the Internet, like all the countries in the world, to create better conditions for development and for the people to live better and have a better level of access.
In recent years, Cuba has been implementing changes in its economic scenario and new actors linked to it have emerged. How has this process impacted the telecommunications sector?
In the case of our sector, it must be explained that the Cuban telecommunications operator, in this case, ETECSA, has a concession to provide certain essential services, related to telephony, data transmission, and Internet access. That is services that are only performed by the company. But there are other services that can be provided by other legal entities and individuals.
In the case of the new economic actors, the largest representation is in the area of the software industry. Today the private MSMEs linked to this line of work, with the part of developing, and programming, are already more than 160, while the state entities that develop software are around 30. In this field of computing, there is, so to speak, much more space for these new actors, because their main resource is intangible. It is true that they need computers, that they need means to process, but the main resource is closely linked to knowledge, to human capital, and this can be seen in the results they achieve.
What remains to be achieved in this new scenario?
In my opinion, the fundamental challenge in this new scenario is to achieve greater integration and complementarity between both sectors, between state-owned companies and MSMEs, both for attracting foreign currency — which is something very important, because it allows us to close the cycle and to be able to generate investments —, as well as to fulfill the responsibility of further computerizing the country. It is necessary to achieve a much more established national industry of computer applications and services, in which we can reach higher levels of exports, because they are still discrete, and also incorporate the country’s main sectors.
In this sense, there are positive examples such as that of the private Guajiritos MSME, which for several years now has maintained working ties with the tourism sector, and has developed a group of specialized products, with sovereignty, in open code, for the entire topic of hotel management, of global distribution systems, of connecting tourists from the moment they arrive at the airport with different services of their choice. This is a good example of the integration and development to which we aspire, as there are also in the state industry, although we still have a lot to achieve because there are capabilities and conditions that we can take advantage of even more.
In the case of the digital transformation process that is being carried out today in the country, are there really conditions for its effective implementation?
Due to its importance for the country, digital transformation is an issue that is on the development agenda until 2030 and is one of the pillars in the work of the Cuban government declared by President Díaz-Canel. For us it is an evolution of the process of computerization of society, which we have been involved in for several years and which has not happened in the same way in all sectors, from the point of view of its dynamism and results. There are some sectors that have made more progress and are in a better position to carry it forward, while others have made less progress.
We must also explain that, although we were commissioned to make a proposal for a digital transformation policy in the country, which we must present in the coming months, it is not an exclusive matter of our Ministry: it is a very cross-cutting issue, that involves different sectors, the whole of society and that places man at the center of this process. And this gives us greater clarity, better interpretation, for example, on issues related to procedures and services.
Regarding the conditions, we can say that a group has been created that is basic for this topic. Today there are more than seven million Cubans with mobile telephony in the country; 6.7 million with Internet access on their cell phones; more than 260 government websites accessible to citizens; two national payment gateways such as Transfermóvil, with some 3.9 million users, and EnZona, with more than half a million, which make possible everything that has to do with payment of procedures, invoices, and electronic commerce; and also a national industry of computer applications and services, which can favor everything related to this process.
Now, this issue many times is not just technological. Here there are issues that are organizational, that are cultural, in which you have to look for the impact of things, not as a slogan. And this is definitely a process that requires much more speed. It also needs an adequate interpretation of everything that could be done and resolved by properly applying technology in different places. In addition, it is a process that is not alien to the economic situation that the country is going through today; that is to say, it cannot be taken out of context, it cannot be seen as something independent of what affects and the problems of the rest of the Cuban economy.
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What projects are currently being worked on?
There is a group of projects that obey this necessary digital transformation. For example, the installation of the new underwater fiber optic cable is a driving project for the purposes of this subject. Work is also being done on platforms in the Internet environment, where procedures and services for the population are much easier, more accessible, platforms that can be used in a much faster way and avoid the inconvenience of standing in line. For example, there is a project that we hope will go public in the coming months: a new digital government platform that closes cycles, that gives the possibility of paying for a procedure if it has a tax on public documents, that allows the use of digital signatures, as a citizen, and that government officials can also do it, to achieve greater fluidity.
In the case of government websites, for example, we have already covered the first stage, which is face-to-face, but now we are working on achieving greater interaction with people. That is a challenge, because it is something that provides greater transparency to government work, which facilitates feedback and the opportunity to reach people much more easily and directly. That is a transit we are in right now.
Projects are also carried out such as the single citizen file, which simplifies processes, because it automatically legitimizes people in the Internet environment. Or the digital clinical record, which is developed by entities such as Softel in conjunction with the public health sector, and which is already being used in various institutions, such as the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital. This is a project that makes it possible to achieve synergies and facilities in hospital services, but its implementation still requires greater speed, and, in some places, it also depends on resources.
Where then to place the emphasis to achieve objective progress?
Today the issue of digital transformation also includes the issue of equipment, terminals, computers, because there is a significant level of aging and technological obsolescence, and a renovation is required. And in the current situation, with the financial availability that the country has, that really is a problem. But I believe that by well concentrating resources and efforts in the places and services with the greatest impact on the population, progress can be made. That is a strategy that the Ministry has, that the country has, and that is currently being worked on.
It is also necessary to take into account the issue of cybersecurity, which goes hand in hand with the computerization of the country and on which it is necessary to promote a greater culture in people and institutions, responsible use of information technologies, an enabling framework for citizen protection, the use of their data. In addition, work must not only be done internally but also to prevent external attacks, as we have received, on the country’s communications infrastructure.
In general, on the subject of computerization and digital transformation, we are on a positive slope, which needs a faster pace, greater speed, and on which there is understanding and political will to continue advancing. The impact that technologies have today on the economy and social life of a country has been demonstrated, and Cuba still has capacities to exploit in this regard, for the benefit of people and socioeconomic development. But we must continue working in that direction.
(OnCubaNews) by Eric Caraballoso
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/
Orinoco Tribune 2https://orinocotribune.com/author/yullma/March 28, 2023
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