Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Yes to Computers and Internet – But Not at Home, Thanks

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Nov 14 2005 (IPS) - Cuba’s computer technology policy gives priority to the social uses of information technology and telecommunications, while excluding private access to tools like the internet.

“As we are able to afford them, new areas will open up,” the Cuban minister of Information Technology and Communications, Ignacio González Planas, assured IPS on Friday at an Internet forum organised by the foreign ministry.

González Planas did not, however, clarify whether those “new areas” would include the possibility of access by Cuban citizens to the Internet from personal accounts on their home computers.

That option does not appear to be a part of current plans, which focus on developing intensive social use of available connection resources.

According to official information, there were 335,000 computers in Cuba at the end of June this year, or 2.98 computers per 100 inhabitants. But only 13 out of every 1,000 Cubans had access to the Internet in 2004.

Primary and secondary schools in Cuba, 93 of which have only one pupil, started the present school year with a total of 46,290 computers available to their students.

In this country, where the entire population has access to free education, all the universities are connected to the Internet, as are the scientific centres and the media (a state monopoly), among other institutions.

But buying or importing a computer is subject to strict regulations, and the same is true for private access to the worldwide web.

“My father brought me computer components from abroad, and we assembled it here. Then I got an e-mail account,” related María del Carmen, a 26-year-old economist who declined to give her surname.

This young woman, who preferred not to go into details about the origin of her e-mail account, stated that e-mail connections are more numerous than those for surfing the web, but they are nevertheless subject to restrictions in the private sector.

“In the office we have Internet, and I use it to look up whatever I need for the graduate course I’m studying,” she said. Buying a password on the “black market” to surf the web at home would cost her about 40 dollars, which would entitle her to three hours’ access a day – but that is beyond her means, she explained.

González Planas stated that economic conditions in Cuba prevent mass access to the Internet, and therefore the government has elected to make such resources available for social use, through collective centres, e-mail and web-surfing rooms, schools, universities and computer youth clubs.

“This is definitely more effective and more citizens can have access than if, for example, we installed connections in a few homes, which only a small élite could afford and would use up a large part of our band-width,” said González Planas.

However, the e-mail and web-surfing rooms are few and far between, and are mainly located in the tourist hotels. Furthermore, they only accept convertible pesos (local currency equivalent to the U.S. dollar), and they do not always admit Cuban citizens.

At present, Cuba’s connection to the web has insufficient band-width to satisfy the country’s demand, and the only link to the Internet is via satellite.

According to experts, the problem could be solved by connecting a fibre optic cable between Cuba and the U.S. state of Florida, but the terms of the U.S. embargo against Cuba prevent this.

“If for economic reasons citizens cannot have access to the Internet in their homes, other options should be encouraged, such as distributing the existing sites more widely, and offering the service at moderate rates,” dissident Manuel Cuesta told IPS.

In his opinion, the economic aspect is being used to “mask” ideological reasons. “It’s a way of extending the limits on freedom of expression, which is a greater evil, to the area of technology,” he maintained.

Cuesta is a spokesperson for Progressive Rainbow, a coalition of moderate dissident groups linked to the electronic magazine Consensus, which has just issued its fourth edition. “We pool our resources to obtain access to the Internet. Ours is the only opposition electronic magazine from within Cuba,” he remarked.

The Cuban government considers all dissident groups to be “mercenaries in the service of the empire” (the United States). Some of these groups have web pages located on servers outside the country.

Cuba will be represented at the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society, to be held in Tunis Nov. 16-18, by a 20-strong delegation headed by the minister of Information Technology and Communications.

One of the matters to be discussed at the conference is governance of the Internet – that is, how the worldwide web’s technical and political facets should be administered, and how domain names and numbers should be assigned.

Governments of developing countries and civil society organisations are demanding participation in the way the Internet is governed. The web was originally created and developed in the United States, and the U.S. government continues to exercise dominance in its administration.

Havana will take the opportunity at this meeting to demand that the United States cease “illegal” radio and television transmissions aimed at Cuba. Expert sources say these transmissions add up to 2,425 hours per week and are broadcast on 30 frequencies.

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