Monday, November 28, 2005

Internet use is limited in Cuba, which blames U.S.

Posted on Mon, Nov. 28, 2005

Internet use is limited in Cuba, which blames U.S.
The Internet is a luxury to the privileged few in Cuba, and the government there says the U.S. economic embargo is at fault.

Oscar Visiedo says that when he helped bring the Internet to Cuba in 1992, he faced three daunting obstacles: the U.S. economic embargo, technological shortcomings and ominous state security.
Thirteen years later, steep prices and strict government controls largely keep ordinary Cubans from the World Wide Web, while the island's authorities still blame the embargo as the reason the country stalled on the information highway.
So, even while the Internet boomed in Cuba -- the government alone has at least 200 sites -- usage remains among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, and the hurdles remain unchanged.
''There is a fear -- a fear that is practically pathological -- of access to information,'' said Visiedo, who worked at the government office that introduced Cuba to the Internet, back when nobody there knew what it was. He now works in management information systems at Carlos Albizu University in Miami.
While Cuba boasts that it has computers in every school, a U.N. Human Development Report says nine of every 1,000 Cubans are Internet users, compared with 288 in Costa Rica and 44 in Honduras. Even Haiti, with 500,000 Internet users, has a higher rate. Other reports estimate the number of internet users in Cuba at 150,000.
Private persons in Cuba cannot legally buy computers or sign up for regular Internet service without government permits that are almost impossible to obtain, so the nation's 335,000 desktops and laptops belong largely to the government, state enterprises and special individuals such as trusted doctors.
Internet cafes aimed at foreigners charge up to a month's wage -- $15 -- for an hour of surfing and ban locals. But a black market for illegal passwords has emerged, where users ''rent'' time slots from friends.
''We, for instance, used to have a connection between the horrendous hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., but it was better than nothing,'' anthropologist Katrin Hansing, an associate with Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, who lives in Havana, said in an e-mail.
The government blames its cyberspace inadequacies on the United States. At an Internet summit in Tunisia this month, Cuba used the international stage to argue that the U.S. economic embargo prevents it from buying not only software and servers, but marine fiber-optic cables that would allow it to plug into the Internet at higher speeds and lower costs.
The Cuban and other delegations also pushed to break the U.S. monopoly on Internet domain names, saying it amounts to a worldwide impediment.
''Our country counts on satellite access as the only Internet connection,'' Cuban Information Minister Ignacio González Planas wrote during an Internet forum earlier this month. ``We haven't been able to implement plans for fiber-optic cables for international connectivity principally because of the lack of necessary permissions needed from the Yankee government.''
But U.S. officials and other experts say the embargo is a smoke screen for Cuba's real problems.
''I cannot think of a single thing they need that they would absolutely only be able to get from us,'' said a State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to speak publicly. 'They can go to a Spanish telephone company . . . which uses Japanese equipment and say, `Help us set up Internet.' That has nothing to do with us.''
The real obstacles, the official added, are internal Cuban policies that prevent ordinary people from getting on the Internet.
Earlier this month, the France-based organization Reporters Without Borders denounced Cuba as one of a dozen nations with the most controlled and least accessible Internet. It lumped Cuba with Iran and Vietnam.
''The Chinese model of encouraging online activity while controlling it is too expensive, so President Fidel Castro has plumped for an easier way -- simply keeping the Internet out of reach of virtually all Cubans,'' the organization said.
Visiedo said there is no question that the American embargo hampers Cuba's efforts to buy the equipment it needs. But he said he doubts that the government would embrace the technology even if it could.
Experts said the Internet on the island is more like an intranet -- it's an internal network of more than 200 government-run sites and controlled access to outside sites.
Every school in the country -- even those with just one student and no electricity -- has a computer, González said. Because the focus is to provide collective social access rather than individual use, he added, 600 youth clubs nationwide are also equipped with Internet access.
''We are doing everything possible to extend it more every day,'' González wrote.
But only up to a point.
The Cuban government acknowledges that it blocks websites that it considers to be terrorist, subversive or pornographic. Attempts to view blocked sites, such as the Cuban American National Foundation's, result in generic messages such as ``This page cannot be shown.''
''Even the trusted Cubans they authorize to have [Internet access] can't see all sites,'' said dissident writer Oscar Espinosa Chepe. 'If they send an e-mail the authorities don't like, they get an e-mail that says, `Hey, you can't do that.' ''
That has not restricted news sites like The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, The New York Times and The Washington Post, Espinosa added in a telephone interview from Havana.
To get around the controls, homemade computers using smuggled parts are growing in popularity, and government workers with legal Internet access are selling passwords and log-on hours on the black market for up to $50 a month.
''Like everything else in Cuba, it's resolved through friendships,'' Espinosa said. 'As we say in Cuba, `Invent as you go along.' ''
The U.S. Interests Section in Havana has 46 terminals available for free to preregistered dissidents, students and activists, a service that the Cuban government has branded ``an illegal act.''
Visiedo acknowledges that among his first tasks in bringing the Internet and e-mail to Cuba was to come up with a way to monitor the new technology.
''Otherwise, I knew I wouldn't get very far, and they would prohibit it,'' Visiedo said. ``As a technocrat, I walked a tightrope.''

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