Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

COMMUNICATIONS-CUBA: Internet Only in Dollars, and Away from Home

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Jan 14 2004 (IPS) - Internet access will become even more limited in Cuba when a government resolution takes effect later this month, allowing only those who pay for telephone service in dollars to connect – except for some specially authorised cases.

Even though Cubans currently do not have opportunity to create a personal account for navigating the Internet, in the future the majority will not be able to access the web from their homes at all.

“I work from my home most of the time and I need access to information. Until now, I had resolved things with the password that a foreign friend gave me for using the Internet early in the morning,” a researcher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IPS.

Other people also use informal channels, even paying 25 dollars a month – with no guarantees – for an access code that someone stole from a Cuban government institution or from any of the clients of the Internet service providers on the socialist-run island.

“If the owner of the account changed the password, tough luck. It is a risk one has to take,” said an independent publicist who for the past five years has been downloading programmes and information from the Internet, “buying a password here, another one there.”

Internet connection is also put forward as an “extra” by some private businesses that rent out rooms to foreign tourists.

And there is a veritable underground cyber-market, which includes the design, production and placement of pages on web sites outside of Cuba, advertising rental property, tour guides, art galleries and private restaurants on the island.

A web page of this type can cost 600 to 800 dollars to post.

Complaints of paying Internet customers about stolen passwords have become commonplace in the past few years, despite the fact that the information for each account-holder includes the telephone numbers they use to access their Internet account.

Suspicions of password theft and account fraud often fall on the technicians of the few Internet service providers existing in Cuba, all of which belong to the state.

For every legally connected computer, there could be 10 or more with illegal Internet access, according to estimates by communications experts.

As such, the new resolution of the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology assures that customers paying in dollars will maintain access to navigate the Internet.

The regulations, which enter into force on Jan. 24, include measures to prevent passwords from being stolen and unauthorised use of the web service.

At the same time, excluded from the new resolution are those computers that connect via phone lines paid for in Cuban pesos, authorised for the heads of state entities and institutions.

Around 500 journalists who work for the national media and other officially authorised exceptions will continue to connect to the Internet from their homes and pay their bills in the national currency.

“They give us the right to 80 hours a month for 30 Cuban pesos (one dollar is 26 pesos) and the broadcaster pays a good part of my telephone bill,” a national radio reporter told IPS.

The media sector is, however, an exception.

Paying for telephone service in dollars is not an option that is open to the general population in this country of 11 million people. And even if it were made available, only a small minority would be able to afford it.

Specialised sources indicate that around 60 percent of Cubans have access to U.S. dollars, but that their income in that currency is unstable and, in many cases, minimal.

Internet access is limited to state entities, especially approved institutions, universities, certain science and research centres, the diplomatic sector and foreign companies.

In the case of state institutions, only previously authorised staff can navigate the Internet. And many of the island’s intellectuals and artists with their own computers have only the right to use e-mail. They cannot conduct Internet searches for information or news.

A large portion of the Cubans with electronic mail accounts connect with servers at their places of work, allowing them to download or send messages without going beyond to the Internet itself.

Economists consulted on this matter say it would be much more beneficial for the country to open up Internet services for everyone who is interested, instead of maintaining high rates payable only in dollars.

A full-time connection can cost 230 to 300 dollars a month, depending on the Internet service provider.

Communications authorities assure that the Fidel Castro government would be willing to make Internet access available to the general public, but that there are major economic barriers that have forced the government to give priority to certain sectors of the population and to what is known as “social use”.

According to Ignacio González Planas, minister of information technology and communications, “The country’s policy of giving priority to access from institutions is based on technical limitations.”

Ministry figures indicate that some 270,000 computers are operating on the island, 65 percent of which are connected to the Internet. Of that total, 58,800 are found in educational institutions of all levels.

A report published in the official press states that Cubans have more than 480,000 e-mail accounts, compared to the 2001 total of 60,000.

E-mail and Internet navigation services have been made available through the Cuban post office system and through a still limited number of cybercafés, an option that will remain available through pre-paid cards – in dollars.

“I pay 4.50 dollars for a card that doesn’t last at all, but I don’t have any other choice,” says a woman who uses Internet services at a post office in order to chat on-line with her daughter, who lives in the United States.

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