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Chavez absence poses problems for military
by Staff Writers
Caracas (AFP) Jan 24, 2013


Cuba turns on fiber-optic IT link to Venezuela
Havana (AFP) Jan 24, 2013 - An undersea fiber-optic cable stretching from Cuba to Venezuela has been switched on, in the first hard-wired link from the communist-run island to international telecom networks, the state telecom agency announced Thursday.

Havana has been unable to join other undersea fiber-optic cable networks due to a US embargo.

But state telecom company Etecsa said the new Internet link, which also extends to Jamaica, would not mean the island was lifting its restrictions on Internet access.

"Since last January 10, we began to perform quality testing of Internet traffic on the system. They are conducted using real traffic to and from Cuba," Etecsa said in a statement published in the state-run Granma newspaper.

The 1,600-kilometer (994-mile) cable, estimated to cost $70 million, was actually completed in February 2011 and was due to come into operation in July 2011. However, officials never explained why it remained unused.

In its statement, Etecsa said the cable has been "operational since August 2012," and was initially tested with international telephone traffic.

But it warned that the "conclusion of the testing process ... will not automatically mean an increase in access" for Cubans to the Internet.

"It will be necessary to make investments in the domestic telecommunications infrastructure and increase foreign exchange resources to pay for Internet traffic in order to achieve the gradual growth of a service we provide mostly for free today," Etecsa said.

A US embargo bans Cuban access to underwater Internet cables, one of which runs from Miami to Cancun, Mexico, a mere 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Havana.

Because of this, Cuba had connected to the Internet via slower satellites. The government has blamed the limited bandwidth for restrictions on Internet access, saying it forces them to "prioritize" it for "social use" purposes, with universities, companies and research centers favored.

Dissidents have said the government's true goal is to control access to information.

The lack of details explaining the cable's operational delay also sparked reactions.

"Remember, the cable has a lifespan of 25 years. The clock is ticking," the official blogger Arian Perez wrote on his blog earlier this month.

The project is considered one of the most ambitious examples of cooperation between the close allies in Caracas and Havana, where Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is convalescing following cancer surgery in December.

Hugo Chavez's long sick leave in Cuba has created serious obstacles for the Venezuelan military, which looks to the ailing president for hands-on leadership as its commander-in-chief, analysts say.

Chavez, 58, is a soldier by training and during his 14 years in power has transformed the once symbolic role into one with direct operational control.

Promotions, appointments, salary increases, the annual budget and the movement of troops in the event of a conflict all fall under the purview of the leftist leader.

The president, says expert Luis Alberto Butto, has "the last word on all the military's operational and administrative matters."

But since Chavez departed for Cuba on December 10 to undergo his fourth round of cancer surgery, there has been a lapse in those controls, according to Butto.

While Vice President Nicolas Maduro has assumed many of his responsibilities, Butto says his brief does not extend to the military.

"The responsibility of commander-in-chief of the armed forces cannot be delegated," said Butto, who is with the Center for Latin American Security Studies at the Universidad Simon Bolivar.

"There is a breakdown in the armed forces because the figure who has to give instructions to the operational strategic command is not there," he said.

If public disturbances were to break out, for example, there would be "enormous confusion," he predicted.

Chavez assumed greater military powers in recent years, as he intensified his quest for a socialist, "Bolivarian revolution."

"Before, the commander in chief of the armed forces was a symbolic figure who reaffirmed civilian control over the military, but it was not an operational rank," Butto said.

Now the president has all the trappings of high military rank -- "a uniform, insignias and a standard."

In addition to the authorities granted him under the law, Chavez has taken a hands-on approach to the military, and it in turn has become deeply influenced by his socialist, anti-imperialist world view, said political scientist Jose Antonio Rivas.

"Chavez exerts leadership in a highly personal and top down manner. His ascendency is unquestionable," said Rivas, author of a book on the militarization of Venezuelan politics.

From the start, Chavez has taken care to bring men and women in uniform into the political process, thereby assuring that his Bolivarian revolution is "peaceful but armed." And he has used the military's logistical resources to support the government's social programs.

Chavez, who was an army lieutenant colonel when he led a failed 1992 coup against then president Carlos Andres Perez, was himself the victim of a coup that removed him from power for two days in 2002.

After that episode, the armed forces underwent a major purge, and Chavez put his own stamp on the institution.

The word Bolivarian was added to the formal name of the armed forces, and top military commanders began adopting slogans that included the phrase "socialist fatherland." Last year, Chavez asserted that the armed forces were "Chavista."

He also created a militia of armed civilians that report directly to the presidency.

Meanwhile, retired military officers, many of them former comrades of Chavez, have been given important political positions.

Currently, 11 of the country's 23 state governors, eight cabinet ministers, 20 directors of autonomous institutes, about 30 ambassadors, and the speaker of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, are from military backgrounds.

Before going to Cuba for his latest round of cancer, Chavez named Maduro, a former union organizer and lawmaker, as his political heir in the event he became incapacitated.

But if new elections are held, whoever wins the presidency would also become the armed force's top officer, creating what Butto described as an "irresolvable contradiction" for civilian rule in Venezuela.

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