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[liberationtech] Cuba and the Internet: Wired, at last - The battle of the blogs begins?

Moritz Bartl moritz at
Fri Mar 4 02:05:33 PST 2011
Mar 3rd 2011 | HAVANA | from the print edition

ACCORDING to government figures, only 3% of Cubans frequently use the
internet, making the communist island the least connected place in the
Americas. Those that do require patience: according to an industry
survey, Cuba’s dial-up internet access is the world’s second-slowest,
after Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. Under the guise
of rationing the use of bandwidth, internet access is banned in most
private homes and censored in offices.

For this sorry state of affairs, Cuba’s authorities have long blamed the
United States’ trade embargo. They have a point. Although a fibre-optic
cable, capable of carrying heavy data traffic, runs tantalisingly close
to the island’s northern coast, George W. Bush’s administration blocked
a proposal by AT&T to hook Cuba up to it. In 2009 Barack Obama
authorised American companies to provide internet services to the
island. But Cuba showed no interest in exploring the possibility.
Instead it turned to its ally and benefactor, Venezuela.

Last month officials celebrated the arrival of a 1,600km (1,000-mile)
fibre-optic cable laid along the seabed from Venezuela by a consortium
including France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Britain’s Cable & Wireless.
Venezuela’s government has put up the $70m it cost (including a second
link from Cuba to Jamaica). Once fully connected in a few months’ time,
it will raise data-transmission speed almost 3,000 times.

So will Cubans now have free access to the internet? The government has
no fear of that, insisted Jorge Luis Perdomo, the deputy-minister of
information. Yet last month it charged Alan Gross, an American arrested
in 2009 for distributing satellite gear for accessing the internet to
Jewish groups in Cuba, with spying. Mr Perdomo says that Cuba simply
lacks the cash to install the necessary computers and routing gear.
Nevertheless, it recently found $500m as an upfront payment to buy out
an Italian group which had formed a joint venture with the state
telecoms firm.

Officials know that they face a small but active band of critical
bloggers. In practice, the government has found it impossible to block
access to the internet completely. Many Cubans bypass curbs by buying
internet accounts on the black market. The loophole they exploit is that
senior managers, doctors and some academics are permitted home internet
accounts. Some use this perk to supplement their state salary of $20 a
month by selling their usernames and passwords for around $30 a month,
often several times over.

In a video circulating in Havana, probably leaked by the government, an
official promises to fight back against the American government’s use of
social-networking sites to promote dissent. “They have their bloggers
and we have our bloggers,” he says. “We will fight to see who is
stronger.” Recently, for the first time in three years, Cuban internet
users could access the website of Yoani Sánchez, an opposition blogger.
Along with her many supporters abroad, a handful of government backers
have taken to posting their hostile comments. A virtual battle has begun.

Moritz Bartl

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