The International Herald Tribune
Saturday, December 13, 2003

Internet in Cuba: access barred

     Claudia Márquez Linares IHT
      
    HAVANA On the eve of the World Summit on the Information Society, which ended
    Friday in Geneva, the director-general of Unesco declared on these pages that
    "freedom of expression, as expressed in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of
    Human Rights applies to the Internet as much as it does the older forms of press
    and radio." ("The free flow of ideas pays off," by Koichiro Matsuura, IHT, Dec. 9)

    Here in Cuba the government jails its citizens for distributing this same Declaration and
    we do not enjoy freedom of expression in any media whatsoever, not even in private
    conversations.

    Since my country was represented at this summit, I feel that as a Cuban and as an
    enthusiast of Internet I can contribute a few clarifications.

    We have heard over and over again the government's data about the number of
    computers installed in schools for the development of information society since the
    earliest age.

    The Cuban delegation to the summit no doubt criticized the embargo against Cuba and
    said that all the obstacles we Cubans have to accessing the Web are due to the
    "imperialism" of the globalized world.

    But seen from here, the problem is not in globalization or imperialism but in the lack of
    freedom. Cuban citizens cannot buy computers, only state enterprises can.

    Although, as for other things, the black market does wonders, there is always the risk
    of losing it all. "Operation Windows," in which the government orders searches and
    confiscates all electronic equipment that was not bought in its monopolistic
    hard-currency shops, makes cybernauts go clandestine.

    People hide their computers and give up connecting to the Internet in order to protect
    their laptops. The lucky ones who have access to the Web at work give - or sell - the
    password.

    There are two main Internet providers in the country and they offer services to state
    enterprises and hotels for foreign tourists. Individual access for local people does not
    exist.

    For the past few years there have been several cybercafes where Cubans can surf the
    Web. The cheapest price is five dollars an hour, which means that a physician would
    spend his whole monthly salary in four hours. Given the slow connection, one needs to
    have rich cousins abroad who send cash, or a foreign spouse.

    Entering most hotels where the Internet connection is faster is forbidden to local
    citizens. The price there is between six and eight dollars an hour - the monthly salary of
    a Cuban worker.

    Even if a Cuban manages to enter such a hotel, the Web sites that address Cuban
    subjects from a perspective other than the one approved by the Cuban government are
    blocked.

    Schools do have computers, but not the access to the Internet. A few have a Cuban
    version of the Web on Intranet, which contains only those Web sites that the
    government of Cuba put there.

    Perhaps the connection is so slow because hundreds of persons working for the
    Ministry of Interior are checking on the traffic on the Web. Although this has never
    been confirmed, everybody is convinced that the e-mails are under state surveillance.

    A Cuban woman buying a card for Internet access was told by the saleswoman,
    "Pornographic and counterrevolutionary materials are not allowed." The saleswoman
    did not elaborate if the latter meant reading a newspaper published in Miami, sending
    data on our husbands who are political prisoners to Amnesty International, criticizing
    the government through an e-mail or joining a chat group with an exiled Cuban. But
    she did take the name of the card buyer and noted down the number.

    The Cuban paradox is that here the Internet is a tool that the government uses to better
    control us, to catch its own citizens in this tangled web it weaved.

    The writer is vice president of an independent association of Cuban journalists,
    "Manuel Márquez Sterling" and co-editor of its samizdat review, "De Cuba." Her
    husband, Osvaldo Alfonso Valdés, is serving an 18-year sentence for opposing the
    regime.

               Copyright © 2003