Internet use is very restricted and under tight surveillance. Access is only possible with government permission and equipment is rationed.
The government says development of computers and Internet resources is a national priority. Computers and communications minister Roberto Ignacio González Planas said in October 2002 that the number of computers in the country had tripled in two years and that fibre-optic cable now linked Havana and Camagüey and would soon reach Santiago, at the other end of the island.
But material restrictions are still the main obstacle to major public expansion of the Internet. There are only four phone lines for every hundred people and the high cost of international calls ($2 a minute to the United States) and the rarity of lines to the outside world, which are assigned on a political basis and closely monitored, effectively prevent any connection through a foreign ISP.
Luis Fernández, spokesman for the Cuban government’s Cuban Interests Section in Washington, blames the long-standing US embargo of Cuba for the dearth of equipment. "If we didn’t have to cope with that, everyone would have computers by now," he says.
This dodges the fact that the necessary equipment, including the most modern, is available in special government-run shops but only for authorised people. It also ignores the internal trade ministry’s January 2001 ban on the sale to individuals in these state-run shops of computers, printers, copying machines and "all other means of large-scale printing." If such a purchase is deemed vital, permission must be sought from the ministry. The general sale of modems was banned. So the Internet in Cuba is a very limited affair, even though Cuban computer firms are perfectly familiar with all aspects of the technology.
Priority for institutions
The government passed laws as soon as the Internet appeared in Cuba. In June 1996, Decree 209 (entitled "Access to the World Computer Network from Cuba") said it could not be used "in violation of the moral principles of Cuban society and its laws" and that Internet messages must not "endanger national security."
Cuban who want to log on to it or use public access points must have official permission, and give a "valid reason" for wanting to and sign a contract listing restrictions. Decree 209 says access is granted "with priority given to bodies and institutions that can contribute to the life and development of the country." Apart from embassies and foreign companies, this means political figures, top officials, intellectuals, academics, researchers and journalists working for the government, managers of cultural bodies geared to exports, computer firms and the Catholic hierarchy. Cuban export firms have access to national e-mail and the local Intranet.
A ministry of computers and communications was set up on 13 January 2000 to "regulate, manage, supervise and monitor" Cuban policy on communications technology, computers, telecommunications, computer networks, broadcasting, radio frequencies, postal services and the electronics industry.
Beatriz Alonso, head of Citmatel, one of the country’s two ISPs, said in the official daily Granma International on 18 June 2001 that "Internet use by our institutions means having access to information we need in today’s world. We don’t have the sites about pornography, terrorism and other evils that are common in capitalist countries, especially the United States. Internet use in Cuba is based on ethics and humanism. We encourage exchange of information for our professionals and technicians, publicise Cuba’s development achievements and give our schoolchildren and students sources of knowledge."
The country’s two servers are Citmatel and CenaInternet, a branch of the ministry of science, technology and the environment, and Infocom, which belongs to the Italian-Cuban telecommunications firm Etecsa.
E-mail under close scrutiny
A black-market in e-mail addresses has developed for the few Cubans who have a computer. A Monitoring and Supervision Agency was set up on 1 January 2001 in the ministry of computers and communications to track down people who "improperly" used the Internet. Its head, Carlos Martínez Albuerne, said in an article in the daily paper Granma on 23 April 2003 that in 2002, sanctions had been taken against 31 people for this reason or for "using e-mail addresses that did not belong to them." He did not say what the punishment was.
Where e-mail is concerned, obeying the rules means agreeing to be monitored. Since September 2001, Cubans have been able to access from the Etecsa centres a special national e-mail service without connecting to the Internet. An ID card to use this service costs $5 for four hours (the average Cuban monthly wage is about $10). The applicant must prove identity, fill in a long form and give an address. The ISP can thus monitor beforehand all messages being sent or received and decide whether to deliver them. Some users have noticed delays in their e-mail, which sometimes even "disappears," especially when sent or received from abroad.
Vicenç Sanclemente, former Havana correspondent for the Spanish TV station TVE, tells how in 1999, he was worried he had not received any e-mail at his office because he was expecting an important message from the Dominican Republic. He contacted the communications ministry technician who had set up his e-mail connection, fearing there had been a technical problem. The official told him he had not turned on the computer at his home for the past few days and informed him that waiting for him on it were "three messages from the Dominican Republic, two from Barcelona, one from Montse and another from Margaret."
Access to cybercafés is restricted for Cubans. Visiting foreigners who show their passports can now access the Internet in Havana’s two cybercafés, while nearly all the city’s big hotels have an Internet centre. Etecsa is also increasing the number of phone and Internet access points in Havana and provincial towns for use by foreigners and authorised Cubans. Web-surfing is unrestricted at these access points, although ISPs can, and do from time to time, block access to some sites.
Modem links are adequate but the cost of connection is prohibitive - at least $8 an hour, compared with the Mexico and the Dominican Republic, where high-speed links cost only $2. So very few people go online.
Members of the National Writers’ and Artists’ Union (UNEAC) have their own cybercafé, El Aleph, at the Book Institute in Havana, where they can do e-mail and access a national Intranet which carries officially-approved websites.
The government is setting up through youth organisations about 300 Internet clubs around the country and increasing the number of computer training courses. When these centres are connected up, Internet access will be restricted to the officially-approved sites.
A window of freedom...
Despite the very tight control, the Internet is opening a window of freedom in Cuba and the audience of the country’s independent journalists has expanded. The creation abroad (mainly in Miami) of websites or web pages carrying news they send out by phone or fax means wide distribution for material they still cannot publish in Cuba. Their articles are now stored and accessible to the whole world when before they were only to be fleetingly heard on Radio Martí (US government-funded and operating from the US), which is not picked up easily in Cuba.
News such as the arrest of a regime opponent, a social trend among the population or initiatives by civil society groups - things that used to be ignored abroad - are thus now immediately reported to the outside world and increasingly reproduced by the international media, a sign of the independent journalists’ growing credibility and professionalism.
However, the spread of even a small amount of new technology and Internet access has led to a limited but well-organised black market. Some registered users rent out their log-on names and passwords for about $60 a month (equal to about six months salary), while others bring customers to their private point of access and charge for time online. Staff at the Etecsa centres, who have a password to connect up tourists and registered users, give friends and relatives demonstrations of the Internet and sometimes charge for it.
Some Internet users have reportedly managed to smuggle into the country receiver dishes and modems to connect to big US-based satellite ISPs such as Starband and DirecPC, with the cost paid by relatives in the US ($500 for signing up and $100 a month subscription).
José Orlando González Bridón, secretary-general of the illegal Cuban Democratic Workers’ Confederation (CTDC), was arrested on 15 December 2000 and became the first opposition activist to be sent to prison for publishing something on the Internet. In an article that had appeared on 5 August that year on the Florida-based cubafreepress.org site, he had blamed police for the death of the CTDC’s national coordinator, Joanna González Herrera. He was accused of "subversion" for also having sent the article to a Miami radio station.
He was freed on parole on 22 November 2001 three weeks before the end of his sentence, officially for "good behaviour." He said he thought he was really released then because the government wanted to make a public relations gesture on the eve of the 23-24 November Ibero-American Summit in Peru of 23 heads of state from Latin America, Spain and Portugal. He was also let out a week before a meeting in Havana to restart political talks with the European Union (EU), which since 1996 has conditioned its aid to Cuba on increased respect for human rights and political freedom. At the time, Cuba was keen to join the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific (ACP) group of countries.
González Bridón said he was held in prison at Combinado del Este (Havana province) in a punishment cell where the toughest prisoners were normally sent for maximum three-week periods. He was kept apart from other prisoners for 10 months and his only piece of furniture was a bed brought to his cell at 6 in the evening and taken away again at 6 in the morning. His wife Maria Esther Valdés was only allowed to visit him every three weeks. The prison authorities refused to give him a special diet he needed to control his high blood pressure, but he managed to avoid serious health problems.
He said he had witnessed brutal treatment of prisoners and had denounced corruption at the prison, where prisoners paid guards to get better conditions or obtain drugs.
His trial took place on 24 May 2001 after several postponements. Foreign media and regime opponents were kept away by heavy security and only his family was allowed to attend. The rest of the public gallery was filled with police. He was sentenced on 2 June to two years in prison for "putting out false news harming the reputation and image of the Cuban state" with "clear intent to collaborate with a foreign power."
At an appeal hearing on 21 August, the charges against him were altered to "denigrating institutions, organisations and heroes and martyrs" and the sentence was reduced to a year’s imprisonment. Friends said the Internet article was used as an excuse by the authorities to punish him for his overall anti-government activity.
Sites carrying articles by independent journalists inside Cuba:
nuevaprensa.org (in Spanish)
cubaencuentro.com (in Spanish)
cartadecuba.org (in Spanish)
Government "Internet and Institutions" portal
Government media portal