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Cuba tightens official grip on public access to the Internet
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Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Monday, March 26, 2007

MIAMI — An anti-Castro dissident in Cuba is speaking by telephone to a journalist in Miami.

"Give me your e-mail so I can send you some information," says Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, who lives in Ciego de Avila, about 250 miles from Havana. "But it will take a couple of weeks to get it to you."



The average Cuban who wants to connect to the Internet must go to a government-run computer outlet. Users can sign on to an island-wide network of mostly Cuban government Web sites for $1.50 per hour.
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"Why so long?" the reporter asks.

"Because we don't have computers and we have to drive to Havana, where one of the embassies lets us use theirs," Gonzalez Leiva says. "It's a long trip for us, and we only do it every couple of weeks."

As Diane Cabrera, a Miami anti-Castro activist in contact with dissidents, puts it: "In Cuba, e-mail and snail mail are the same thing."

Foes of the Cuban government say Internet connection in Cuba always has been difficult, but lately it has gotten even worse.

In June 1996, the first official measure to address Internet use, Decree 209, called it a technology of "selective character" and stressed that national security could be at risk.

By January 2002, it was illegal for private citizens to buy computers or printers without official permission. Government officials eventually announced that unauthorized Internet use was punishable by up to five years in prison.

During the past year, control has become even more explicit. In August, longtime Communist Party hard-liner Ramiro Valdes was named minister of technology and telecommunications. That was shortly after Fidel Castro stepped down from power because of illness.

Valdes, one of Castro's original fighters in the Cuban mountains during the 1950s, previously served as the interior minister, in charge of the secret police and other tools of Cuban political control.

Last month, Valdes made his most extensive public comments about the use of the World Wide Web by Cubans.

The Internet, "the wild colt of new technologies, can and must be controlled," he said Feb. 12.

Valdes noted that both Google and Microsoft had admitted cooperating with the U.S. government in its global war on terrorism. Given that, he said, the Internet "constitutes one of the tools of global extermination. ... It will take the destabilizing power of the (U.S.) empire to threatening new levels."

Computers host 'spyware'

Cuba already ranks near the bottom of the list of Latin American nations in the number of citizens with access to the Internet and in the number of computers available for any use at all.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, based in Geneva, only 1.7 percent of Cubans have regular access to the Web compared with 7.6 percent in China, 19 percent throughout Latin America and 66 percent in the United States.

Some are able to sneak onto the Internet because they know people who work for the government or otherwise have approved access to the Web.

But today for a regular Cuban citizen to own a computer, a permit must be approved by a commission linked to the local Committee for the Defense of Revolution, a Communist Party neighborhood watchdog group. The permits are rare.

"In the question of the Internet, Cuba is much like North Korea," says dissident Elizardo Sanchez, who lives in Havana. "Even China is way ahead of us."

The average Cuban who wants to connect to the Internet must go to a government-run computer outlet: in post offices, cyber cafes or institutions called Computer Youth Clubs.

Users of those sites have an option: They can sign on to an island-wide network, called the "intranet," which connects them mostly to Cuban government Web sites, including texts of Castro's speeches. That costs them about $1.50 per hour in a country where the average monthly wage is less than $20.

The other option is to pay about $5 per hour for the real Internet. In hotels, the charges are usually even higher.

But all of those computers are monitored, at least periodically, by government state security agents.

According to Reporters Without Borders, an international journalists organization based in Paris, Cuban security forces have installed "spyware" in the computers.

Claire Voeux, an investigator for the group who was in Cuba last year and used Havana hotel computers, says that while receiving e-mails that contained the names of dissidents or typing messages that referred to Castro's health, a message suddenly flashed on her screen:

"This program will close down in several seconds for state security reasons."

Then the Internet connection ended.

The organization includes Cuba on a list of about 15 countries that it calls "enemies of the Internet," a rogues' gallery that includes North Korea, Iran and China.

Cable to boost capability

The Cuban government has says it cannot spread and liberalize the use of the Internet because the U.S. trade embargo against the island has made it impossible to buy the necessary technology. But the journalists group doesn't buy that.

"The chief reason for keeping citizens away from the Internet is to prevent them from being well-informed," Reporters Without Borders stated in a November report.

Guillermo Fariñas agrees.

Fariñas, 44, a psychologist-turned-independent journalist, staged a seven-month hunger strike last year to protest government control of Internet access.

He did so after he was banned from using the lone site in his home city of Santa Clara, from which he could send reports critical of the government to outside publications. Fariñas' strike brought foreign attention to the problem but did not improve the situation.

Now what dissidents do to access the Internet and avoid government monitoring is go to friendly embassies in Havana to use their computers. Some do this about once per week, but others less frequently, depending on how far they live from the Cuban capital. Among the embassies allowing that use are the U.S. Interests Section, the Canadian Embassy and various western European delegations.

"At least we can use the Internet for a few hours per week," Sanchez says. "More than 10 million Cubans have no access to it at all."

In February, it was announced that the Venezuelan government will help Cuba lay a 965-mile underwater fiber-optic cable between the two countries, which will increase Cuban cyber capabilities to some 160 gigabytes per second, about 1,000 times the current capacity.

But dissidents see little hope that the cable will increase public access to the Internet and information in general.

"They will use it for their own benefit and not for the public," Havana-based dissident Oscar Espinosa Chepe says.

Espinosa refers to Valdes as a member of the hard-line, or "Taliban sector," of the Cuban leadership and sees him as leading the charge to control information and thought.

Valdes seems to be doing a good job.

According to Reporters Without Borders, last year five students at the University of Information Sciences in Havana were expelled for selling Internet access codes to people outside the school and setting up chat rooms on U.S. sites.

"You wonder how the regime thinks it's going to train these young people to use computers but limit what they can access," Cabrera says. "It's crazy."

Cabrera recalled a recent conversation with a dissident journalist on the island, Liannis Merino Aguilera, 23.

"I started to tell her about how journalists here in Miami use the real Internet," Cabrera says. "I told her how you can plug in any topic and find out what people from all over the world think about it.

"That girl was amazed," she adds. "She was absolutely amazed."