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Google executives promote Internet freedoms on Cuba visit

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez was among those who met with the Google executives.
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez was among those who met with the Google executives.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Internet of Cuba is trapped in the 1990s," Google's Eric Schmidt writes
  • Cuban government tightly restricts Web access, has criticized tech firms like Google
  • "A night of technology without technology," says blogger who met executives
  • Schmidt also says he met with Cuban government officials

Havana, Cuba (CNN) -- Google's chairman said Monday that he and other executives from the Internet search giant recently traveled to Cuba to advocate for greater access to the Internet.

"Access to the internet can bring better education, better business, and a more open, accountable government to Cuba," Chairman Eric Schmidt said in a statement. "Our visit confirmed that the government recognizes some of the benefits of increasing access for Cubans, but it has not gone far enough in implementing the policy reforms needed to open the country to the web."

Cuba has the lowest level of Internet access in the Western hemisphere.

"If Cuba is trapped in the 1950's, the Internet of Cuba is trapped in the 1990s," Schmidt wrote in a blog post after visiting with three other executives from the Internet search giant to promote "a free and open Internet."

Schmidt said on a posting on his Google+ account that the executives had traveled to the island with a U.S. Treasury business license.

Under a five-decades-old embargo, U.S. citizens need to apply for U.S. government permission to visit Cuba or face potentially hefty fines.

The visit, the first by a team from Google, was not reported in Cuba's official state media. The government tightly restricts access to the Internet but also regularly criticizes tech companies like Google for blocking certain services to users in Cuba.

Cuban blogger and government critic Yoani Sanchez said the Google team met with her Friday at her apartment in Havana.

On her online newspaper, she wrote that the executives complained about the slow speed of Internet connections in Cuba and restrictions on information.

"It was a night of technology without technology," Sanchez wrote on her site, 14ymedio. "No one surfed the web on their mobile phone, that's not possible in Cuba, no one thought to show us the latest doodle (on the Google website)."

In 2013, the government opened navigation centers across the island where people can access the Internet. Though users lined up, many complained that the $4.50 hourly cost was too steep in a country where the median salary is about $20 a month.

In his post, Schmidt said he met with government officials and Cuban techies skirting state restrictions on connectivity.

"Cuba will have to open its political and business economy," Schmidt wrote. "And the US will have to overcome our history and open the embargo. Both countries have to do something that is hard to do politically, but it will be worth it."

In 2013, Schmidt visited North Korea to promote greater Internet freedom there despite State Department criticisms of the trip.

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