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Cuba29 March 2002

Government forbids the sale of personal computers

The Cuban government has banned the sale of personal computers to the general public except in cases of special need, when official permission must be sought. The ban, reported by the online newspaper Wired News on 25 March and first disclosed by the Cuban exile website Cubanet, was confirmed by several RSF sources in Cuba who said it had been imposed in Havana in mid-January and extended to the rest of the country on 1 February. Wired News, which said the measure had caused a row inside the government, was contained in decree 383/2001, banning the sale of "computers, offset printer equipment, mimeographs, photocopiers and any other mass printing medium" to "associations, foundations, civic and non-profit organisations and Cuban private individuals." If such equipment, or spare parts or accessories for it, was considered essential, authorisation would be needed from the internal trade ministry. A source in Havana told Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that a notice pinned up in a shopping centre in the capital’s La Playa district announced that computers, spare parts and accessories could not be sold to individuals from 16 January. Other shops confirmed this though one in La Playa was still selling them to people.

The sale of any kind of printing machinery has always been strictly controlled by the government to prevent the appearance of independent publications, but the purchase (in dollars only) of personal computers and fax machines had become easier in recent months. However, the new measure comes after the illegal Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, headed by the well-known dissident economist Marta Beatriz Roque, opened an Internet website (www.cubaicei.org) last 7 December. Cubans’ access to the site, which is run from Miami but is the first one to carry news wholly supplied by dissidents inside Cuba, was blocked by the government less a week later.

The Cuban government spokesman in Washington, Luis Fernández, was evasive when questioned about the ban by Wired News, saying that "if we didn’t have an embargo, there could be computers for everybody." Sergio Pérez, then head of the state enterprise Teledatos, said in an article in the official daily Granma on 7 February last year: "In a country the victim of an embargo, where medicine is in short supply, how can you not expect an shortage of Internet access too?" However, such problems in Cuba go beyond economics and access is strictly controlled. Its use is conditional on respect for "the moral values of Cuban society and the laws of the country" and only foreign companies and government institutions are allowed access. There are two cybercafés, but one is reserved for tourists and the other is restricted to members of the official Writers and Artists Association, UNEAC.

Since last September, ordinary Cubans have been able to get an e-mail address and consult the Internet at four post offices in Havana. But surfing is limited to a collection of government-approved sites known locally as the "Intranet." It is also expensive, at $4.50 (_5) an hour, when the average monthly wage is only $12. Civil society and human rights organisations, which are not recognised by the government, regularly send articles by phone and fax to be published on Miami-based websites.

In Cuba, where the Constitution says "freedom of expression and the media is subordinate to the goals of a socialist society," only a government-controlled media is allowed. A hundred or so independent journalists, grouped into about 20 press agencies and other associations not recognised by the government are constantly harassed and since 1995, about 50 journalists have fled abroad.



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