Online, at a price: Cubans get public Internet spots

Online, at a price: Cubans get public Internet spots
Cubans barred from logging onto the Internet at home on Tuesday flocked to newly opened public access spots to surf an uncensored World Wide Web if they could afford the high prices.

"I was able to get onto Facebook, download some music and I was able to chat with my family in Italy," said Luis Alonso, an 18-year-old student who paid to use communist Cuba's 118 newly expanded public access web offices.

Cuba, the Americas' only one-party Communist ruled nation for five decades, has one of the lowest Internet use rates in all of Latin America: 2.6 million in 2011 out of a population of 11.1 million, official data show.

Only doctors, journalists and certain other professionals are allowed to connect to the Web from home.

Dissidents have said the government's goal has been to control access to information and that restricting Internet access is just another form of censorship in a country where all media outlets are state-controlled.

The government long claimed it was unable to join undersea fiber-optic cable networks due to the US embargo in effect since 1962, forcing it to connect to the web via slower satellites hookups.

And the government in the past blamed limited bandwidth for restrictions on Web access, saying it is forced to "prioritize" it for "social use" purposes, with universities, companies and research centers given preference.

But now that may be changing, at least for Cuba's financially well off.

Having secured an undersea fiber-optic cable from Venezuela, Cuba opened the public access sites at offices of the state phone company Etesca.

The public can access the Web for $4.50 an hour, down from the previous $6.00 an hour, or check their email for an unchanged $1.50 an hour.

With almost all Cubans -- from doctors to street sweepers -- earning around $20 a month, even the reduced rate will likely only appeal to those receiving money from abroad or earning hard currency tips in the tourism industry.

"As low as the (access fees) may seem, they are still high in comparison with salaries we earn," Tania Molina, a doctor, said. "So we'll just continue as before."

But a few of the more fortunate gave it a go with the World Wide Web.

"The hardest thing for me was to upload photos on Facebook; I guess the size of the files was too large," Alonso told AFP.

He was among a group of people logging on to check out Twitter, Facebook, other social media and international media at one of the new access points in Havana's landmark Focsa Building.

Yoeldis Rodriguez, 34 and an employee at the government's Cuban Institute of Radio and TV, said the price tag meant she would just check her email, or use the Cuban-media only intranet.

"I know the government said it needs to recoup on its investment but the price is astronomical," she said. "For the average Cuban, it just cannot be paid, especially international access."

"It is a step forward in the sense that before, you did not even have this," she said, adding: "How big of a step forward may be debatable."

Some people said they felt intimidated because they had to show their government ID cards to get their web surfing passes.

Yet once they were online, they were surfing censorship-free, even to sites virulently opposed to Cuba's government, AFP observed.

There was a lot of bottled-up demand for Internet access in many of Cuba's provinces.

In Holguin, in the east, a line of 15 people snaked outside one of the new web-access spots, one new web surfer told AFP. At one spot in Cienfuegos, a line of 20 people backed up waiting to log on, an employee said.

Just last week a senior official had denied that public access to the Internet was being limited in Cuba for political reasons, insisting it was due to "technological and financial" considerations.

"At this moment, it's not possible to immediately generalize access to the Internet," Cuban deputy communications minister Wilfredo Gonzalez told the state newspaper Granma.

Opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, better known outside Cuba than within the country due to state media control, urged Cubans to use the access they have.

"Despite the high cost, which is the small print on this contract, and our not being allowed to have Internet access at home, we have to move into these little cracks in the wall," she wrote.

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