Cuba slow to make launch into cyberspace

But government has begun to increase public access to the Internet

November 19, 2006|By Los Angeles Times

HAVANA -- In this most literate of Latin American nations, where free higher education is one of the proudest achievements of Fidel Castro's revolution, Cubans are being left behind as the rest of Latin America surges ahead on the Internet's information highway.

The Cuban government has long sought to shield its citizens from outside sources of news and information. Cubans are prohibited from having personal computers at home without official authorization, and their use is closely monitored in schools and workplaces. Less than 2 percent of the country's 11.4 million citizens have access to the Internet.

But in apparent recognition of the risks of being left on the sidelines of the global cyber-revolution, the state-owned telecommunications monopoly in recent months has expanded Internet public access points, allowing broader use of the Web, or at least its ideologically vetted venues.

Internet cafes called "Correos de Cuba" have cropped up in busy corners of the capital, enabling those who can afford the minimum $1.70 for an hour of slow-speed e-mail access to at least get acquainted with computerized communication. For a little over $5 an hour, an international connection can be made, enabling the user to browse most Web sites, although Big Brother might be watching.

"I just use it to send simple personal messages: `I'm fine.' `The weather is terrible.' `Kiss the children for me,'" said a man who identified himself as Ricardo, an artist whose emigre son procured an e-mail address for him outside the state-supervised national system. "You don't go into details or talk about anything sensitive. You don't know who is reading what you write."

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based journalism advocacy group, conducted an undercover survey of Internet restrictions from mid-August to mid-September. Freelance reporter Claire Voeux visited dozens of Internet cafes and business centers, experiencing a contradictory array of blocked sites and security warnings. She concluded that the government's means and methods of detecting what it considers subversive information couldn't be deciphered in consistent detail.

"Internet surveillance seems to be fairly haphazard, with the level of vigilance varying from hotel to hotel, and from computer to computer," Voeux wrote in a report published last month.

Access and expense also vary widely, with some Internet offices requiring ID and registration ahead of each session. Others are under the supervision of state employees who let friends use the computers anonymously for a lesser payment under the table.

In upscale tourist hotels such as the Parque Central, guests and foreign visitors to the business center can buy an hour of Internet time for 12 so-called convertible pesos, known as CUCs, or about $13.50 at the dollar exchange rate. At the Havana Libre, also rated at the high end, an hour's use costs 9 CUCs, and no record is kept of the Cuban or foreign customers logging on at the business center's half-dozen computers.

Voeux and other journalists who have used hotel-based Internet services report that certain words and names appear to trigger government-installed spyware. Voeux recalled several instances when she typed the name of a dissident or sought to read news stories about the health of Castro, eliciting a flashed warning and Web site shutdown.

Even with the recent expansion of public access to the Web, global marketing surveys such as Internet World Stats estimate the number of Cubans regularly using the Internet to be only 190,000, or 1.7 percent of the population. That compares with a Latin American average penetration of almost 19 percent, with Cuba at the bottom of the heap in many surveys.

Cuban officials blame the 45-year-old U.S. embargo of their nation for the snail's pace of Internet growth.

At a United Nations forum in Athens, Greece, this month, Juan Fernandez of the Cuban Commission on Electronic Commerce told the global gathering of Internet technology specialists that the embargo prevented Cuba from obtaining the latest technology and equipment and forced Cuba to build its system through costly third-country purchases.

"I'd like to remind you here that the main obstacles to access to Internet is hunger, lack of education, discrimination and exclusion," Fernandez said in reply to other participants' criticism that access is hampered by Cuban government censorship more than by economics.

The National Assembly moved to control the Internet as soon as it was grudgingly allowed into Cuba a decade ago for use by foreign investors. A 1996 law designates the Internet as a resource to be used "to contribute to the nation's life and development," and forbids the exchange of any information that would violate unspecified moral principles or jeopardize national security.

To obtain a legal Internet address, a Cuban must apply to the government for approval and submit to reviews by the national telecommunications company and a panel of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the Communist Party's neighborhood watchdogs.

As with most state efforts to sever Cubans from the outside world, however, the regulations appear to be broadly circumvented. Laptops brought in from abroad or computers put together from purloined or homemade pieces can be seen in the homes of Havana professionals with access to dollars. Cubans with authorized Internet connections also often rent out their identities and passwords to others.

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