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By Frances Kerry
HAVANA (Reuters) - In a cool room in a post office in Havana's Vedado district, a row of seven young Cubans lean over computers that let them send e-mail, enter a single Cuban-run chat room and surf a small corner of the Internet. The center, which opened last month, is one of four such facilities in Havana, and the plan is for them to spread to post offices across the communist-ruled island. In a sense, they are like cyber-cafes without the coffee -- or the full-fledged Internet. Their limitations typify Cuba's slow entry into the cyber world. It is not that President Fidel Castro's government has not seized on the Internet with enthusiasm as a tool to spread its political message and even sell its wares. The several hundred sites it has set up or approved in recent years range from details on the Communist Party and the single labor union through online state media, business, the arts and sports. But so far, Castro critics say, the government has kept a lid on widespread usage of the Internet. For many of the Caribbean island's 11 million people, the Internet is hard to access, or a peek-hole if you get there. To such criticism, the government counters that Cuba is a developing country with more pressing economic needs than putting its people online, noting for example the low rate of telephones per inhabitant. Officials said earlier this year Cubans have 60,000 e-mail accounts, and just a quarter of those have Internet access. But the government's critics at home and abroad say the reason is at least partly political. The Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a private think-tank that studied the impact of the Internet on China and Cuba, said in a report in July that the governments of both countries have managed to limit political discourse and contain subversive elements: China by monitoring what goes on online and Cuba by limiting access. But for Cubans with a few dollars to spare, the new post office system, however limited, is a leap forward.
With a card costing $4.50 for three hours' use, a huge sum for many Cubans earning about the equivalent of $12 a month in the local peso currency, people can go to the Vedado post office, open an e-mail account and send and receive messages. They can converse with people in Cuba or abroad in a Cuban chat room, at the islagrande.com portal, and surf Cuba-approved sites, known as the "intranet." There are plans to access online encyclopedias. "So long as they don't bother their neighbor or damage the equipment, they can do what they like," said post office net administrator Ivan Gonzalez. Gonzalez did acknowledge another thing clients can't do, which is to surf the whole Internet. He did not know if or when surfing at the post offices might occur. The post office idea -- one that will at least serve to make quick communications with relatives and friends abroad a lot cheaper than phoning at $2.50 a minute to the United States -- is one way Cubans have gone online in the last five years. Only a small number can freely surf the Internet, legally at least. Access is available to foreign residents and foreign firms, and in luxury hotels. The Internet is also available in work places, such as research institutes, ministries and state companies, as well as to students at universities. Cubans say users often have to tell an administrator they are logging on, and sheer lack of computers makes for crowds. "Imagine," said a biology student, Jorge. "In theory we have the Internet at university. But there are very few computers for a lot of people, so it can be hard to find a space, or much time." But at least access costs nothing.
At an e-mail-only center in the Playa district of Havana run by a state tourism agency, Infotur, people pay $1 a message to communicate with people abroad. At the Infotur office, you can't open a private e-mail account. Messages go to the Infotur account, an Infotur worker phones the recipient to let them know they have a message and opens it when they come in, printing it out for another $0.25.
Since the account is not personal, users' mail would be easily read, although an administrator, Marcos Marin, said as "a question of ethics, of course we don't read it." But some people are so new to computers that they labor over the keyboard and blow their privacy by asking for help. "I get people dictating love letters to me," he smiled. But alongside such lovelorn novices, there are also highly sophisticated computer users and a black market in Internet use that has led to a privileged few surfing illicitly at home. Some computer administrators in work places that have access to the Internet illicitly charge around $50 a month -- a fortune for most Cubans -- to rig people up on their home computers and give them a password to the Internet. "They shut down the access if they know that there is about to be a workplace inspection," said one illicit client. The Internet is home to fierce criticism of Cuba and its one-party system: such as the sites of exile organizations or work by independent journalists on the island. Some of these journalists have been in trouble with authorities because of articles posted on the Internet by exiles. One illicit Internet user said she was aware of such material but always steered away from politics and concentrated on things that interested her more, such as health and beauty pages or wandering the world in chat rooms. The Cuban government meanwhile, presses ahead with opening sites which it is happy to present as a window on official thinking, or what a commentator in the official Granma newspaper recently called "a world political weapon of peoples against the empire (the United States)." Online just last month are the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), neighborhood block groups charged with defending the social order. The site at www.lacalle.cubaweb.cu/, includes a detailed explanation in Spanish of the aim of the organization. "CDR's are still a firm bastion for our freedom and our development, and an unbending obstacle for the interests of our external and internal enemies," says the introductory page. But it is not all politics. You can go online spending in Cuba -- if you have a foreign credit card.