Reports from Cuba: The conflict between Google and Huawei has Cubans scrambling

Zunilda Mata reports in 14yMedio from Havana via Translating Cuba:

The Conflict Between Google and Huawei Has Cubans Scrambling

The highest-end terminals on the island cost over 500 CUC (close to the annual salary of a professional).

As soon as the news was heard, webpages were filled with offers for Huawei phones accompanied by the words ‘rebate’ and ‘bargain’.  One of the ads included the phrase, “Don’t listen to what Google says, Huawei will win this battle.” The American technological giant announced last Sunday the suspension of all commercial activity with the Chinese firm, which has a huge market share in Cuba due to the sanctions imposed by the US Government.

Users who already have Huawei brand devices may install new applications and download updates for Google services, but they can not update the Android operating system, which presents an ongoing security problem.

“I already had to exchange my Blu-branded phone last year because it did not work for me to surf the internet with 3G service and I bought this Huawei Honor 7A,” explains Yaima Chávez, a Havanans who fears she will have to get rid of a device that she finds “practical and efficient.” However, she does not want to “have to jump through hoops and pay technicians under the table to update the operating system.”

“If there comes a time when I can’t update it, I’ll have to sell it, but who’s going to want to buy this when the thing gets uglier?” she says. In Cuba, as soon as you enter the José Martí International Airport in Havana, the posters with Huawei advertising immediately trumpet the firm’s leading role in the country.

The step taken by Google is in line with the executive order issued by Donald Trump, on May 15, which prohibits US companies from using services of foreign telecommunications firms that “endanger the country’s security.”

Huawei is currently the second largest manufacturer of telephones in the world and in Cuba it has deep roots among users due to its more favorable prices and the quality of its screens.

Since 2008 when the Government of Raul Castro authorized Cubans to contract for cell phone service, the number of customers with mobile lines has soared. Currently there are more than five million subscribers to the prepaid service of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa), in a country with a population of about 11.5 million people.

Osvel Álvarez Jacomino, a graduate of the University of Computer Science (UCI), downplays the situation and believes that it will not affect customers too much. “If you can’t use Google Play there are other alternatives. In Cuba you can visit platforms such as Apklis, or Cubapk.com, Apkpure, Uptdown and many others that, although they do not have as much security, basically provide the same service,” he says.

Ezequiel, a 27-year-old mobile repair technician who works in a small workshop on San Lazaro Street, has a different opinion. “People get very nervous with anything like this and it is enough that Google has said that things will not continue as they have, with Huawei, for someone in the market for one of those Chinese mobile phones, to think twice about it.”

Ezequiel believes that “when it comes to their pockets, the buyers want to play it safe.” Most of the sales of terminals take place in the informal market because the state network fails to satisfy users, who complain that Etecsa offers outdated models at very high prices.

Etecsa telepoints continue to sell models such as Huawei Y3 and Huawei Y520 for 80 and 85 CUC, respectively. Cataloged as low-end terminals with limited features, these devices are an option for those who can not afford higher-end terminals that, on the island, can exceed 500 CUC.

Huawei’s presence is felt not only in phones. In 2000, the Chinese company obtained a contract to install the national fiber optic network and its equipment is also used in Wi-Fi hotspots and in the newly-created Nauta Hogar service that provides Internet access from homes. The presence of the firm on the island dates back more than three decades, according to Javier Villariño Ordoñez, sales director.

But this presence has not been exempt from controversy. The freedom-defense organization Freedom House, based in Washington, has closely followed several allegations about Huawei’s close ties to Chinese state power. The entity warned about the security and human rights problems that have been associated with the company.

In the midst of this conflict, Huawei has called for calm saying that it will continue to provide security updates to existing models, including those already sold and those in stock.

“We will continue to build an ecosystem of safe and sustainable programming to provide the best experience for our users,” said the company, which has lamented Google’s decision.

The biggest markets affected by Google’s actions are the European and Latin American, since the US and China already inhabit practically different universes. In the US, Chinese phones are only 1% of the market and in China the presence of Google is very rare. However, in Europe, 18% of phones are from Huawei and in Latin America it ranges from 28% in Costa Rica to 17% in Chile.

“It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.  If I already didn’t trust Huawei very much because of all the security scandals, now this comes along and it is not worth risking it,” says a young man who, on Wednesday, convinced several friends to change to the Samsung brand. At the centrally located corner of G and 23rd Streets, the passionate user assured that “South Korea and the United States are not going to be squeezed out, so better safe than sorry.”