Cubans barred from logging on to the Internet at home on Tuesday flocked to newly opened public access spots to surf an uncensored 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 Cuba’s 118 newly expanded public access Web offices.
Cuba has one of the lowest Internet usage rates in all of Latin America: 2.6 million in 2011 out of a population of 11.1 million.
Only doctors, journalists and certain other professionals are allowed to connect to the Web from home.
Dissidents have said the Cuban government’s goal has been to control access to information and that restricting Internet access is just another form of censorship.
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 it has blamed limited bandwidth for restrictions on Web access, saying it is forced to “prioritize” it for “social use” purposes.
However, now that may be changing, at least for the financially well-off.
Having secured an undersea fiber-optic cable from Venezuela, Cuba opened the public access sites at offices of the state telephone company Etesca.
The public can access the Web for US$4.50 an hour, down from the previous US$6 an hour, or check their e-mail for an unchanged US$1.50 an hour.
With almost all Cubans earning about US$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,” doctor Tania Molina said. “So we’ll just continue as before.”
However, a few of the more fortunate gave it a go with the Web.
“The hardest thing for me was to upload photos on Facebook — I guess the size of the files was too large,” Alonso said.
He was among a group of people logging on at one of the new access points in Havana.
Yoeldis Rodriguez, 34, an employee at the government’s Cuban Institute of Radio and TV, said the price tag meant she would just check her e-mail 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.
“It is a step forward in the sense that before you did not even have this,” she said. “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.
Just last week, a senior official had denied that public access to the Internet was being limited in Cuba for political reasons.
“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.