- Las Comunicaciones Internacionales de Cuba: Del Correo Marítimo al Satélite by José Altshuler
Islands, by their nature, have special problems communicating with the rest of the world. All of them, except Great Britain, are beholden to outside powers for their international communications. Cuba’s size, economic importance, and strategic location in the Caribbean increase both its need to communicate and its dependence on other nations. This book, by a distinguished Cuban historian, describes the technologies of Cuba’s external communications and its vulnerability to foreign interests.
From 1492 to 1867, communications with the outside world went solely by ship. Starting in 1664, regular mail ships linked Cuba with Mexico and Spain. After American independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams advocated annexing Cuba, sparking a rivalry between the United States and Spain for control of the island. In the early nineteenth century, as Cuba’s external trade grew, regular sailings linked the island to the United States and to Great Britain.
In the 1850s, a new technology—submarine telegraph cables—aroused a great deal of interest. Proposals for a cable linking Havana to the United States via Key West promised to stimulate trade, but also whetted the American eagerness to annex Cuba. In 1866, an American firm obtained the concession for a cable to Cuba. The opening of telegraphic communication coincided with the first Cuban war for independence from Spain. The revolt failed but the cable business thrived, and new cables were laid between Cuba and other Caribbean islands and to South America. During the Spanish American War of 1898, the U.S. Navy attempted but failed to sever Cuba’s communications with Spain. Victory in that lopsided conflict gave the United States control over Cuba’s internal affairs and possession of the Guantanamo naval base.
The invention of wireless telegraphy led to a rivalry between Cubans [End Page 975] and Americans for control of this new medium. The first experiments on the island were conducted by a professor of electrical engineering and his students at the University of Havana. However it was Americans who put the new technology to practical use, namely the De Forest Wireless Telegraph Company, the U.S. Navy, and the United Fruit Company. Another new technology, telephony, also was controlled by an American firm, the Cuban Telephone Company, a springboard from which Sosthenes and Hernand Behn created the International Telegraph and Telephone Company that dominated international telecommunications in Latin America and parts of Europe.
Submarine telegraph and telephone cables between Cuba and the rest of the world remained stagnant from 1930 to the 1950s. Then came an explosion of new technologies. In 1954 and 1955, television coverage of the World Series was retransmitted between Florida and Cuba by an airplane equipped with a powerful receiver and transmitter. In 1957, the first tropospheric scatter antennas allowed telephone and television communications without cables or airplanes.
Not all communications were under American control, however. Portable and inexpensive shortwave radio transmitters were used by Radio Rebelde during the uprising in 1958. Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government, which seized power in 1959, announced that Cuba needed international communications independent of American companies. Soon thereafter Cuba established its own coastal shipping network and a shortwave broadcasting station, using Swiss, German, and Dutch equipment operated by Cuban engineers and technicians. Cuba also established shortwave links with Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. In 1965 a Soviet communication satellite, Molniya 1, inaugurated a link between Cuba and Eastern Europe. A new organization, Intersputnik, provided communications with Soviet bloc nations. Statsionar, a satellite in geostationary orbit over the mid-Atlantic, connected Cuba with Africa and Latin America.
Since the mid-1990s, Cuba communicates with the outside world, despite interruptions caused by political and financial disagreements, via an AT&T cable to West Palm Beach and satellites belonging to Intelsat, an intergovernmental consortium.
In describing the checkered history of Cuba’s international communications, José Altshuler provides sufficient detail to satisfy any hardware buff, balanced by a nuanced view of the political context of Cuba...