Thursday, July 11, 2013

Havana Journal: Salons or Not, Cyberspace Is Still a Distant Place for Most Cubans

Until last month, though, the closest Mr. García, 59, had been to cyberspace was the painfully slow e-mail service at his local post office. Then on June 4, Etecsa, the state telecom company, opened 118 Internet salons around the island, expanding public Web access — by a fraction, at least — in what is regarded as the least wired country in the Western Hemisphere. Mr. García, a retired military officer, immediately signed up.

“This is like a Three Kings’ Day gift,” Mr. García said of his newfound Internet access, referring to the Jan. 6 holiday when people dressed as the Magi hand out goodies to children.

But as gifts go, it is extremely expensive, he said. At $4.50 an hour, a session at one of the new cybersalons costs almost as much as the average state worker earns in a week, prompting many Cubans to wonder whether President Raúl Castro is serious about bringing the Internet to the masses, or just playing for time.

“At this price, hardly anyone is going to be using it,” said Mr. García, who figured he could afford to buy an hour or two a week because his daughter helped him out and he had just sold his house.

Cuba’s limited Internet access is a source of festering resentment among Cubans, millions of whom have never been online. Some people — medics, for example, or journalists — qualify for a dial-up connection at home. Others use pirated connections, rent time on a neighbor’s line or log on at a hotel, where they pay about $8 an hour. Many trade information on memory sticks or rely on stodgy state-run periodicals for news.

“We are living in the back of a cave,” said Walfrido López, a Cuban blogger and information technology specialist. “People here are asleep, because they don’t have information.”

He added, “Having information is what enables you to make decisions, take positions.”

Government figures indicate 26 percent of Cubans had Internet access last year, but this includes millions who entered only an intranet linked to their work. The International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations agency for information and communications technology, puts the number of broadband subscriptions in Cuba at 0.04 per 100 inhabitants, or about one in 2,500. That is lower than in Haiti and Sudan, two places that are not considered the least bit tech-friendly.

Even Cuba’s new cybersalons, which operate under the brand name Nauta, amount to just one for every 95,000 Cubans.

The new service is “a gesture of openness within a context of the ability to have monopoly control,” said Ted Henken, a professor at City University of New York who closely follows the Cuban blogosphere, noting that Etecsa requires users to sign a contract warning that they will be monitored for subversive activity. Still, he added, the government has “created a conversation around access that didn’t exist before.”

Harold Cárdenas Lema, 27, a blogger and philosophy teacher at the University of Matanzas, said the cybersalons represented a “transcendental” shift because they put a relatively fast, fairly uncensored Internet service at the disposal of individuals.

However, the government risks a deep digital divide if it does not cut prices in line with most Cubans’ salaries, Mr. Cárdenas said. And despite an official pledge to prioritize “social” use of the Internet, he and others using university or hospital connections complained they were as slow as ever.

Wilfredo González Vidál, vice minister of communications, in an interview with the official news media in May, assured that “the market will not regulate access to knowledge in our country.” But Rogelio Moreno Díaz responded in his acerbic blog, Bubusópia, that this was “the final insult to the public’s intelligence.”

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