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Isolated Cuba begins to inch into the Internet Age

As officials grant more access to a citizenry that's been left behind, users are well aware that there are limits and they're being watched.

November 19, 2006|Havana

This article was written by a correspondent not authorized by Cuba to report there.

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 in the dust 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 other information. Cubans are prohibited from having personal computers at home without official authorization, and PC use is closely monitored in schools and workplaces.

Less than 2% of the country's 11.4 million citizens have Internet access.

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 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 districts of the capital, allowing 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 more than $5 an hour, an international connection can be made, allowing the user to browse most websites, though Big Brother may be watching.

"I just use it to send simple personal messages: 'I'm fine.' 'The weather is terrible.' 'Kiss the children for me,' " said Ricardo, an artist whose emigre son procured his e-mail address for him outside the state-supervised 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 in Cuba 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 couldn't be deciphered in any reliable 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 for a price

Access and expense also vary widely, with some Internet centers 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, about $13.50. At the Havana Libre hotel, an hour's use costs 9 CUCs and no record is kept of the Cuban or foreign customers logging on to the half a dozen computers.

Voeux and other journalists who have used hotel-based computers report that certain words and names appear to trigger government-installed spyware. Voeux recalled several instances in which she typed the name of a dissident or sought to read news reports about the apparently declining health of Castro: A warning flashed on the screen and the website shut down.

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% of the population. That compares with a Latin American average of almost 19%. Cuba is at the bottom of the heap in many surveys.

Cuban officials blame the 46-year-old U.S. embargo of their nation for the snail's pace in Internet growth.

At a United Nations forum this month in Athens, Juan Fernandez of the Cuban Commission for Electronic Commerce told the global gathering of IT specialists that the embargo prevented Cuba from obtaining the latest technology and equipment and forced it to build its system through expensive 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 response to other participants' criticism that Cubans' access was hampered more by the government's censorship than 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.

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