Los Angeles Times
March 25, 2002

The Web Isn't Wide in Cuba

Access to PCs, Internet Is Tightly Controlled by Havana


HAVANA -- Jesus Garcia Leiva flashes a nervous smile at the small desktop computer and 14-inch monitor, both arranged carefully on a lace tablecloth barely
hiding the crude wooden table beneath.

Wearing the kind of dark suit worn here only for solemn events, the cyber-dissident declares that the Pentium machine will launch a new computing learning center for
opponents of President Fidel Castro.

"An hour from now, this computer could be gone," Garcia, a systems analyst and programmer, recently told a small gathering. Although the communist government
has multiplied efforts in recent years to promote cyber-literacy in the workplace and youth clubs, it tightly controls access to computers and the Internet, restricting
private use to the politically trustworthy and to foreigners.

That hasn't stopped hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Cubans hungry for Internet access from finding unauthorized and sometimes illegal ways to get online.

Authorities have seized unauthorized computers, mostly from government opponents, preventing the Internet from posing a serious political threat.

The government blames the controls on economic limitations, not politics.

"Technologically it is impossible to connect all those who are interested," said Sergio Perez, director of the government office that maintains the country's official Web
site, in a rare interview.

Although Cuba has used foreign investment to expand and modernize its antiquated telecommunications grid, it still had just 4.4 phones per 100 people in 2000, half
as many as Mexico.

Cuban officials have shied away from discussing the country's Internet program with foreign media, except for a few news conferences organized after reporters
sought interviews.

But the government teaches millions of Cubans how to use computers, send e-mail and conduct Web searches--albeit on island-wide networks that use the same
protocols as the global Internet but are not connected to it.

Cuba's restrictions are similar to those of such tightly controlled countries as Myanmar and North Korea. They are far stricter than those in China and Saudi Arabia,
for example, which merely use software to block sites authorities deem objectionable.

At more than 300 government-run computer youth clubs, dozens of young people can be found furiously typing away at computers.

Castro himself champions these computer literacy efforts, often showing up at club openings to chat with young cyber-philes.

The government estimates that 60,000 of the island's 11 million citizens have e-mail accounts.

In a country where the average monthly government salary is about $9, post offices sell $4.50 cards that provide three hours of access to international e-mail and
domestic Web sites, including those of official media.

But even wealthy Cubans cannot legally buy a personal computer. Nor can they sign up for one of several full-access Internet services available to foreigners for $60
a month.

What is available to all Cuban surfers are several national intranets, some with specialized content such as Infomed, which is geared toward physicians and other
health-care workers.

In 1996, the first law passed to govern how the Internet would be used stated that access would be selective and granted "in a regulated manner ... giving priority to
the entities most relevant to the country's life and development."

The government controls full Internet access--which depends on satellite connections to Europe and Canada--through three service providers including Infocom,
which is operated by Cuban telephone monopoly Etecsa, a mixed enterprise in which Havana has a majority interest in partnership with Telecom Italia and a
Panamanian consortium.

Informaticos, or Cuban Internet rebels, also can get full access to international e-mail and the World Wide Web via pirated accounts.

Scores tell of paying $40 a month to buy clandestine access to an already existing Internet account--often held by an unsuspecting foreign firm.

"We cannot find out what is really going on in the world," Garcia said. "That's what we want--not just the government's version."