Google has worked as an intermediary between the Trump administration and the Cuban government as it has sought a deal to improve internet access on the island, according to private remarks by Google’s manager in Havana.
A new memorandum of understanding unveiled this week between Google and Etesca, the Cuban telecommunications monopoly, is set to kickstart negotiations on technical ways that Google could help improve internet connectivity, including the possible buildout of an underwater cable.
The memo, which reinforces Google’s unique position of being the only western company with a telecommunications foothold in Cuba, is an extension of an agreement that was launched under Barack Obama, and reflects years-long engagement between Google and the Cuban government.
At times, that engagement has included working as a go-between between the Trump administration and Havana, according to private remarks made by Brett Perlmutter, the head of strategy and operations at Google Cuba who has been active in Google’s Cuba policy since 2014.
Perlmutter recently said in a private conversation that he helped to “convey” messages between the Trump administration and the Cuban government and that Google was used as a “messenger” for the greater relationship, according to two sources with close knowledge of the matter. The Cubans, he said, trusted Google more than they did the Trump administration.
The US president has publicly had a contentious relationship with the internet company, but the remarks underscore how the administration and Google have also worked together on projects when they share mutual interests.
This week, just weeks after Trump criticised Google in an apparently unprovoked attack on Twitter in which he accused the company of “helping China and their military”, the president announced that he and Google’s chief executive had a productive meeting at the White House.
In a tweet, Trump said his meeting with CEO Sundar Pichai, who promised Google was “committed” to the US military, had ended “very well” after they had discussed “political fairness” and “various things that Google can do for our country”.
The Trump administration has taken a hard line on Cuba and rolled back steps by the Obama administration to re-establish diplomatic ties with the island. But Trump has maintained one important loophole that was established under Obama: a move to allow telecommunications groups to offer services to Cuba to increase access to the internet.
At the same time, the US – and Google – are competing with Russian and Chinese companies in a race to wire up the island.
Google has denied that Perlmutter was working as an unofficial diplomat, and said he was part of the company’s infrastructure team, focused on Cuba. Through a spokesperson, Perlmutter denied ever having referred to himself as a diplomat between Cuba and the US government. The company said Perlmutter had two meetings with the state department over the last two years.
“We’re exploring an agreement that aims to improve internet access for people on the island. The MOU kicks off a phase of exploration between Google and Etesca,” the company said.
The state department also denied that it had ever used Google to communicate messages to Cuba.
Asked whether Google had been helpful in the US relationship with the island, a spokesperson said it was US policy to support the Cuban people through the expansion of the internet, free press, free enterprise and lawful travel, and that there were many US companies working to expand internet access for Cubans.
The state department would not answer questions about how many meetings Perlmutter had with the department, but a spokesperson said department officials “routinely” meet with private sector leaders to help its understanding of markets, industries, and conditions in any given country.
“We do not coordinate US foreign policy messaging with private sector actors,” the spokesperson said.
While it is possible that Perlmutter was privately exaggerating his role as a mediator between the US and Cuba, the manager and Latin America expert has been an active part of the company’s strategy in Cuba since 2014.
Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google who was close to the Obama administration and still serves on the board of Google’s parent company, has maintained his interest in the country, and twice met with the Cuban president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, in 2018: once in Havana and once at Google’s New York office.
A new report by Campaign for Accountability, a progressive watchdog group that is critical of Google and has obtained some funding from Oracle, a Google rival, has chronicled the way in which the company sought to forge ties in Cuba beginning in 2014, when Schmidt and three other Google executives flew to Cuba on a private jet as part of what they said was an academic research project.
New documents obtained by CFA through freedom of information act requests show that Google attorneys sought to get permission for the trip from the US government at the time by alleging that it did not serve any “commercial purpose”. Months later, after their return, Google announced that Chrome would be made available in Cuba for the first time, followed by other products.
The report by CFA alleges: “Google’s early trip to Cuba – made ostensibly for academic research purposes – turned out to have broad commercial implications for the company, putting it in pole position to connect one of the largest remaining virgin markets in the hemisphere.”
At the time, Schmidt argued in a blogpost that the Cuban blockade was contrary to US interests, and that the best way for the US to help the country to modernise was to empower citizens with smart phones and “encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly”. He also argued that the lack of American businesses allowed Chinese technology to dominate the island.
Six months after Schmidt’s trip, the Obama administration announced, in December 2014, that it was easing restrictions against Cuba and restoring diplomatic relations. This included reversing rules that had blocked US companies from providing the island with internet service.
In its analysis, CFA found that Google’s involvement with the Obama administration, and later Trump, has given the company a “crucial edge” over competitors in opening new markets around the world, including Cuba.
Google said its objective was to improve internet infrastructure capacity for the Cuban people, and that this week’s announcement reiterated its commitment to that effort.