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Google Cuba deal could bring improved internet to once-cloistered nation

The agreement means Cubans will have an improved connection to the internet. Currently, access on the island is expensive and limited.

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Lismai Aguilar, 18, uses a mobile phone to connect to the internet at a hotspot in downtown Havana, Cuba.

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

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Google and Cuba have signed an agreement that will bring expanded internet access to the island, sealing a deal between the United States and its former foe that many hope will further cement the renewed relationship between the two countries.

Word of the deal first came in March as President Obama made his historic trip to the nation, becoming the first US president to visit the island in almost 90 years. At the time, he said it was vital that the United States refrained from acting as “agents of change” in the nation, but instead encouraged Cubans to facilitate change on their own terms in their country.

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"We want to make sure that whatever changes come about are empowering Cubans," he told ABC at the time.

Cubans have lacked crucial access to the internet at staggering rates, with less than four percent of homes receiving consistent web access. Expanding those resources across the nation has been a key part of Mr. Obama’s work to re-open and normalize relations between the US and one of its former enemies.

"The time is right. Obviously our intention has always been to get a ball rolling, knowing that change wasn't going to happen overnight.... We felt that coming now would maximize our ability to prompt more change.... And it gives us, I think, the opportunity before I leave office to continue to stay on track in moving things forward," Obama said before he began the trip. "Change is going to happen [in Cuba] and I think that [President] Raul Castro understands that."

Google’s initiative will grant Cubans access to the Google Global Cache network, which includes content from sites like Gmail and YouTube, through ETECSA, the nation’s telecommunications monopoly.

"This deal allows ETECSA to use our technology to reduce latency by caching some of our most popular high bandwidth content like YouTube videos at a local level," a Google statement said of the agreement.

Cuba resisted the project initially, citing national security concerns associated with allowing another nation to wire it. But the Google deal became official Monday as officials in Cuba and the US sought to finalize remaining agreements before Obama leaves office.

President-elect Donald Trump has been less amicable toward Cuba, threatening to repeal the executive orders Obama put into place that diminished trade embargos and improved relations between the two countries unless Cuba agrees to go along with US demands.

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Many hope that expanded internet access will help to bolster the spread of information and communications throughout the nation, allowing Cubans to become more active members of their communities and project their own voices further.

“Over time,” Obama said in March, “if in fact you start seeing access to the internet – which is necessary for Cuba to enter the 21st century economically – invariably that gives the Cuban people more information and allows them to have more of a voice.”

This report contains material from Reuters.