Monday, September 25, 2006

Cuba fires telecoms, computing chiefs in shake-up

Reuters

Mon Sep 25, 2006 2:19pm ET

By Marc Frank

HAVANA, Sept 25 (Reuters) - Cuba has fired the heads of two of the country's most influential companies in a bid to bring the computing and telecommunications enterprises back under firm state control amid a national anti-corruption drive, industry sources said on Monday.

Information Technology and Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes, 74, a former revolutionary hero, took over the sensitive sector that controls communist Cuba's communications, computing, Internet and software development late last month.

His was acting president Raul Castro's sole ministerial appointment since he took over temporarily from his brother Fidel Castro on July 31 after the latter underwent intestinal surgery.

The shake-up at the companies did not appear to be aimed at opening up the sector to foreign capital or to information and entertainment from outside the country, said the foreign and local sources, all of whom wished to remain anonymous.

They said Valdes was unhappy with the independence shown by some company directors and their inability to rein in subordinates despite an ongoing drive to increase state control over the economy, improve efficiency and fight corruption.

Cuban President Fidel Castro declared war on corruption a year ago, warning it could undo his 1959 revolution. Together with his brother Raul, Castro mobilized youth and Communist Party stalwarts to root out corrupt practices within the state bureaucracy, leading to widespread sackings in recent months.

Valdes fired the president of Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba SA (Etecsa), Jose Antonio Fernandez, and the vice minister for information, Nelson Ferrer, for failing to control the fixed-line and mobile services monopoly, the sources said.

Etecsa, with revenues of more than $400 million in 2005 and in which Telecom Italia has a 27 percent interest, is one of the most powerful and visible companies in the country.

Valdez also fired the president of the powerful state-run Copextel corporation which imports, assembles and distributes advanced communications, computing and other technology, the sources said.

Copextel, with annual revenues of more than $200 million, has been caught up in recent corruption scandals involving kickbacks from foreign companies.

Etecsa's new president, Maimir Mesa Ramos, and Copextel's new boss, Antonio Orta Rodriguez, were both promoted from within the ranks.

International studies have found that Cuba occupies last place in Latin America for both mobile phone and Internet penetration, and is fifth from last in terms of its number of fixed telephone lines.

The government blames the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo for its poor communications infrastructure.

But Cuba's 11 million people cannot buy a computer or subscribe to the Internet without a government permit, satellite television is prohibited, and mobile phones are available only for hard currency. (Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle)

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