• Population: 11,271,000
  • Internet users: 120,000 (2002)
  • Average charge for 20 hours of connection: 45 euros
  • DAI*: 0.38
  • Situation**: very serious

The Cuban regime does its best to keep its citizens away from the Internet. The sale of computer equipment is strictly regulated, Internet access is controlled, and e-mail is closely monitored. Looking something up on the Internet can prove dangerous. The indictments of most of the journalists imprisoned in March 2003 contained references to their Internet activity.

Cuba is the world's biggest prison for journalists and free expression is banned. The regime carefully processes the news it feeds to its citizens and tolerates no independent press. The government has a contradictory position on the Internet. It trains thousands of students in the new technologies (official sources say some 30,000 are currently receiving training). But it prevents the vast majority of the population from having online access. The authorities have gone as far as to call the Internet "the great disease of 21st century" because it feeds its users with "counter-revolutionary" information. But it is also essential for Cuba's economic development, as telecommunications minister Ignacio González Planas keeps repeating.

Cuba is one of the world's 10 most repressive countries as regards online free expression. The Internet is reserved for the ruling elite. But even the privileged few usually have access only to an Intranet specially created and filtered by the authorities.

Cubans have found ways to get round the government's ubiquitous censorship, by buying Internet access on the black market or sharing the few authorised connections. The government nonetheless severely punishes any "illegal" use of the Internet. The island's courts moreover increasingly use a new charge against dissidents: "counter-revolutionary" Internet use.

Acquisition of equipment strictly controlled

The material restrictions are the main obstacle preventing the Internet from reaching the general public. On the one hand, there are only six phone lines for every hundred inhabitants. On the other, prohibitively expensive international phone calls (two dollars a minute to the United States) and the scarcity of international lines (granted on the basis of political criteria and closely monitored) prevent people from using an Internet Service Provider based abroad.

The necessary equipment, whether or not the most recent models, is only available in specialised state shops which only authorised persons can enter. Furthermore, the sale of "computers, printers, duplicators, photocopiers and mass printing tools" to private individuals by state shops has been banned since January 2002 by a ministry of domestic commerce decree. If a purchase is considered indispensable, authorisation must be requested from the ministry of domestic commerce. The sale of modems to the public had already been banned. Under these conditions, the Internet is inevitably a limited phenomenon in Cuba, although Cuban computer technology companies seem to have mastered all the necessary know-how.

Internet access subject to authorisation

The government passed laws as soon as the Internet appeared in Cuba. In June 1996, Decree 209 (entitled "Access to the World Computer Network from Cuba") said the Internet could not be used "in violation of the moral principles of Cuban society and its laws" and that Internet messages must not "endanger national security."

Cubans who want to have their own Internet access or use public access points must have official permission. To obtain it, they must give a "valid reason" and sign a contract listing restrictions. As with obtaining a telephone line, they must get also approval from ETEC SA, the country's only telecom company, and from a local commission linked to the neighbourhood Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, which evaluates the merits of applicants.

Decree 209 says access is granted "with priority given to bodies and institutions that can contribute to the life and development of the country." Apart from embassies and foreign companies, this means political figures, top officials, intellectuals, academics, researchers and journalists working for the government, managers of firms that export cultural products, computer firms and senior Catholic church officials.

A ministry of computer technology and communications was set up on 13 January 2000 to "regulate, manage, supervise and monitor" Cuban policy on communications technology, computers, telecommunications, computer networks, broadcasting, radio frequencies, postal services and the electronics industry.

E-mail surveillance

Cubans have been able to use a special national e-mail service at ETEC SA access points since September 2001, without connecting to the Internet. Three hours of access to this service - valid for only one person - costs 3.5 euros (a third of the average Cuban monthly wage of about 10 euros). The user must prove identity, fill in a long form and give an address. The ISP is able to monitor all messages before they are sent or received. According to official figures, Cuba currently has 480,000 e-mail accounts.

Internet centres that only offer access to an Intranet

Unless they have official authorisation, Cubans cannot access the Internet from a public access point. The Internet is only available to tourists - at a prohibitive charge of about 6 euros an hours - in hotels and a few cybercafés.

The government has set up Internet centres - usually in post offices - where Cubans can access their e-mail and an Intranet called Tu Isla (Your Island), consisting of websites chosen by the authorities, including the sites of the state radio and TV stations that broadcast their programmes online. To use these public access points, they have to sign a register and show ID.

Black-market Internet

No matter how limited the spread of new technology and Internet access, it has given rise to a small but well-organised black market. Some registered users rent out their log-on names and passwords for about 60 euros a month (equivalent to about six months' average salary), while others bring customers to their private point of access and charge for time online. Some staff at the ETEC SA centres let friends and family go online, or let others go online for a fee. Some Internet users have reportedly managed to smuggle receiver dishes and modems into the country to connect to US-based satellite ISPs such as Starband and DirecPC, with the cost paid by relatives in the United States (500 dollars to sign up and 100 dollars a month subscription).

A black-market in e-mail addresses has emerged for the few Cubans who have a computer. A Monitoring and Supervision Agency (ACS) was created in January 2001 as an offshoot of the ministry of computer technology and communications to track down people who "improperly" used the Internet. Its head, Carlos Martínez Albuerne, said in an article in the daily Granma on 23 April 2003 that in 2002, sanctions had been taken against 31 people for this reason or for "using e-mail addresses that did not belong to them." The article did not say what the punishment was.

Hunting down "unauthorised" users

The government issued a decree in January 2004 imposing a complete ban on the use of ordinary phone lines to connect to the Internet, in order to combat pirate connections. The decree said ETEC SA would "use all necessary technical means to detect and prevent Internet access" by unauthorised persons. This decree has not yet taken effect.


* The DAI (Digital Access Index) has been devised by the International Telecommunications Union to measure the access of a country's inhabitants to information and communication technology. It ranges from 0 (none at all) to 1 (complete access).

** Assessment of the situation in each country (good, middling, difficult, serious) is based on murders, imprisonment or harassment of cyber-dissidents or journalists, censorship of news sites, existence of independent news sites, existence of independent ISPs and deliberately high connection charges.


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