Cuba tightens its control over Internet
Cubans walk by an Internet access cabin reserved for tourists in Havana.
Cuba plans to crack down on illegal Internet access by blocking accounts not controlled by the government. CNN's Lucia Newman reports
HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) -- At a downtown Havana post office, Cubans line up for hours for their turn in the "surfing room."
When users get to one of the four computers, they can send and receive e-mail and surf an Intranet of Cuban Web sites, but access to the global Internet is barred.
Getting online is not easy in communist-run Cuba, where the state strictly controls all Web servers and recently announced plans to crack down on illegal Internet access.
E-mail accounts are available at the Cuban Postal Service, but writing to friends abroad comes at price: A three-hour prepaid card costs $4.50, one-third of the average Cuban monthly wage.
"It's very expensive for us, but this is the only way we can send e-mails at will," said Ignacio, a health ministry employee, facing a two-hour wait.
At the recently opened Servi-Postal cybercafe in Havana's leafy Miramar district, Cubans who can afford the dollar prices wash down ham and cheese sandwiches with cold Bucanero beers.
But even here Cubans don't get to surf the World Wide Web.
"The Internet is for foreigners. The Intranet is for Cubans," said Miguel Perez, managing the cybercafe in Havana's International Business Center where Cubans have to show identification and sign a contract to get an e-mail account.
Cubans said some small cybercafes do allow them Internet access, including the National Academy of Sciences cybercafe where users are charged $5 an hour.
But President Fidel Castro's government, in power since a 1959 revolution, maintains that restricting access to the Internet is necessary for the social good in poor developing countries where the telecommunications infrastructure is insufficient.
Castro's critics say Cuba, like China, represses access to the Internet to stop the free flow of information and keep the lid on dissent in the one-party state.
Connectivity has grown quickly in recent years in the Caribbean nation of 11 million people. There are 270,000 computers in the country, 65 percent of them connected to Cuba's Web, according to the government.
Cuban domain names which end in .cu have multiplied to 1,100, some of which are used solely for e-mail, and there are now 750 Cuban Internet sites. Most are dedicated to informing the world about Cuba, either to attract tourism or counter the United States in an ideological war waged for four decades.
Cuba has more than 480,000 e-mail accounts, roughly the number of users, but only 98,000 users can legally surf the Internet, according to government figures.
Cubans are authorized to access to the Internet through their work places in government offices, hospitals, universities, research centers, state-run media, artists and writers unions or foreign companies.
"We have given priority to the social use of the Internet, in health, education, science, press and television, banking and other important areas of the economy," Communications Minister Ignacio Gonzalez told a newspaper recently.
He argued that regulating Internet usage was a democratic way to share limited resources in developing countries.
Gonzalez said Cuba lacked bandwidth to allow unrestricted access to the Internet and blamed the technological lag on trade sanctions the United States has imposed on the island since the Cold War.
With government authorization needed to connect to the Internet, Cubans have increasingly sidesteped state control and turned to a black market for stolen or borrowed logon identities and passwords, costing up to $50 a month.
But three weeks ago the government decreed a crackdown on unauthorized Internet usage, ordering the state telephone monopoly ETECSA to stop illegal access.
Days later, apparently responding to a wave of protests, the main ISP in Cuba -- E.net -- announced that home users could connect if they paid in dollars, at a prohibitive rate for Cuban Web surfers of 8 cents a minute.
The measure, which goes into effect Saturday, will generate hard currency for Cuba's cash-strapped state and may have the effect of letting cost limit usage. Many Cubans see it as a way to further tighten control over who gets to use the Internet and muzzle freedom of expression.
"The new measures, which limit and impede unofficial use, constitute yet another attempt to cut off Cubans' access to alternative views and a space for discussing them," the human rights organization Amnesty International said.
Dissidents said the government was confining Internet access to its supporters. They also complained that Cuba blocks access to the Web sites of exile groups and dissident news services such as Cubanet.org.
"The authorities thought they could control the flow of information on the Internet, but no one controls the Internet, not even the government of the United States," said dissident Vladimiro Roca, whose e-mail account was closed two years ago.
"The only thing they can do is limit access by Cubans and block the Web sites they don't like," said Roca.
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