September 20, 2007

Cubans wonder where their Web access went

By Michael Martinez, Tribune correspondent. Chicago Tribune, September 14, 2007.

HAVANA - At a government-run Internet cafe inside a Havana post office, the 1,942 Cubans signed up to use the computers were left with a question this summer: Why had the government abruptly cut their Internet access, leaving them only with e-mail on a state account?

At this and three other public centers in Havana no longer on the Web, managers and clientele could only speculate why:

Did demand exceed the woeful infrastructure? Or was it the latest example of information control in the communist nation, as Internet rumors abound about Fidel Castro's illness and prognosis? Did the communications minister make good on a February pronouncement that the Internet "can and must be controlled"?

"They don't want us to see the critical press," one man said.

"They want to keep us in darkness," said another, adding that his e-mails can be more easily monitored.

Not even two employees at the post office knew why they lost Web surfing in early July. "I don't think there should be any limitations because it's not good for cultural advancement," one manager said.

The Internet blackout in at least four Havana cafes, including one in the Ministry of Communication headquarters, provided a snapshot of Cuba on the short end of the digital divide, where developing countries struggle to put and keep institutions and people online.

Ordinary Cubans have trouble affording and securing authorization for computers and home dial-up service (high-speed access doesn't exist in Cuban homes).

That makes the Internet cafe, whose overall numbers throughout Cuba couldn't be ascertained, the all-important public means to access the Internet. Foreign visitors can access the Web in hotels, where Internet cafe prices of $12 an hour and strict guest policies keep out average Cubans.

One report estimated that only 220,000 of the country's roughly 11 million people are online. If Cubans have a computer at work, Web access is often scant -- limited to pages related to their job -- except for senior officials, government journalists and certain other professionals.

Communications Ministry officials declined to comment. One government aide who didn't have firsthand knowledge of the blackout said a temporary "technical problem" could be the cause.

While not speaking about the cafes' loss of Web browsing, a second government official who asked not to be named said many problems stem from poor infrastructure created by a U.S. policy preventing Cuba from accessing undersea high-speed cables as close as 12 miles from Havana, in addition to an American trade embargo on computer software and hardware.

'Our infrastructure is the worst'

Cuba must rely on an expensive but relatively slow satellite connection to the Internet, and those limits frustrate officials who highlight computer training as early as the 1st grade.

"Our infrastructure is the worst," the official said.

Many of those shortcomings will be remedied after Cuba and Venezuela complete an underwater 965-mile fiber-optic cable in 2009, the official said. The cable will modernize and expand the island's digital capacity.

Critics, meanwhile, aren't convinced the U.S. is entirely to blame.

Jean Francois Julliard, head of research for Reporters Without Borders, which last October criticized Cuba's "system of control and surveillance" of the Internet, said U.S. policies are wrongheaded. But as for Cuba, which is noted for subsidizing and providing a high level of free education and medical care, he asks, "Why couldn't they provide a cheaper access to the Internet?"

Since last year, Reporters Without Borders, a French non-profit group, has been raising concerns about Cuba.

"With less than 2 percent of the population online, Cuba is one of the world's most backward countries as regards Internet usage," the report said, ranking it as the worst in Latin America and on a level with Uganda or Sri Lanka.

The U.S. State Department contends that Cuba blocks Web sites deemed politically objectionable.

But Nelson Valdes, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico who has studied Cuba's Internet for several years, said limited capacity forces the government to make tough decisions.

"At present, it's a zero-sum game," Valdes said. "I would have to say that those who make the decisions in Cuba, they would say, 'How do [Internet access priviliges] contribute to development (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text)? Do we give [Internet usage] to dissidents or to a hospital?'"

Some still bypass constraints

Meanwhile, Cubans still find illicit ways to get online.

For example, a government auditor spent several hours one recent afternoon using a friend's Internet account at one of the government-controlled media outlets, which are at the most open levels of Web access.

The accountant's own office computer had very little Internet access, confined to matters related to his work.

"I can access Google, Yahoo and probably pornography if [I] wanted, but I'm sure that's monitored," said the auditor, who asked that his name not be published because his Internet use was unauthorized.

"The biggest problem for me and my friends is we can't download anything more than a few [megabytes]. All you can do is send one e-mail one photo, one e-mail one photo," he said.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune

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