The U.S. blockade’s effect on Cuba’s access to the Internet was a topic earlier this month as some 1,650 participants from 58 countries participated in Cuba’s 12th Information Technology Fair, held in Havana, Feb. 12-16.

The fair featured workshops, symposia and plenary sessions covering software innovations, electronic equipment and computer use in health care, education and business. It was directed at companies, both foreign and Cuban, as well as health care leaders and educators.

Opening the conference, Ramiro Valdes, Cuba’s minister of information sciences and communications, condemned the effects of the U.S. blockade on Internet access in Cuba. He spoke about Cuba’s own restrictions on access and highlighted the country’s technical advances and the dispersion of computers throughout the island.

Valdes pointed out that the 1996 Helms-Burton law bars Cuban use of a high-capacity, fiber-optic underwater cable running close to the island. Cuba is confined to low-capacity satellite linkages that limit Internet exchanges to a mere 124 megabytes per second for incoming communications and 65 megabytes per second for outgoing messages.

Cuba must prioritize Internet access, he said, based on considerations of social use. Health care, education, cultural and scientific institutions, plus businesses, embassies, media centers and government offices all have free rein.

A Cuban law promulgated in January 2004 restricts Cubans’ Internet access via home telephone lines. The measure, criticized by Amnesty International, exempts foreigners who are allowed to purchase access at considerable cost.

In this connection, Valdes discussed the problem of “cybernetic crime” and defended Cuba’s prohibitions against the diffusion of pornography, fascist ideology and material promoting terrorism or racism.

Critics say that access to anti-government web sites is also blocked.

The Cuban minister also discussed Microsoft’s near-monopolization of software, efforts by the U.S. government to subpoena Google’s records about its users’ searches, and the “digital divide.” He denounced U.S. policies blocking vendors worldwide from selling computer and electronic equipment to Cuba, a policy that also bar U.S. inquiries and potential purchases mediated through Cuban web sites.

Cuban speakers at the fair noted that 15,000 university students have studied computer science, and 38,000 others have taken classes at the technical school level. There are 600 young people’s computer clubs, plus computers in most classrooms.

Government sources say that as of 2005, Cuba had 335,000 computers, or 29.8 per 1,000 people. International studies, however, place Cuba last in Latin America for both mobile phone and Internet use. A government permit is required to buy a computer or subscribe to the Internet.

Internet access may be improving. Among 16 agreements the Cuban and Venezuelan governments signed Jan. 24 on tourism, oil exploration and trade, one has Telecom Venezuela extending a 970-mile-long fiber-optic cable from one country to the other. Officials say the project, which will increase Cuba’s Internet capacity 1,000 times, will be completed within two years.

Cuba’s Internet shortcomings came to world attention in early 2006 when Guillermo Farinas, a jailed government opponent, carried out a hunger strike to gain full Internet access, claiming his right to freedom of information was being violated.

At the time, Ignacio Alvarez of the Organization of American States condemned Cuban restrictions. He cited an OAS and United Nations joint resolution of the previous year noting “an obligation on all States to devote adequate resources to promote universal access to the Internet.” Reporters Without Borders, a recipient of CIA funding, chimed in, listing Cuba as one of 15 nations notorious for Internet restrictions.

Some see such criticisms as motivated by less than benevolent intentions.

Fabio Leite attended the fair representing the International Telecommunications Union, where he is director of radio communications for this UN agency. “This sustained political aggression of Washington against Cuba,” he declared, “violates rules of the international organization.”

In this instance he was referring to unwelcome U.S. radio and television transmissions to Cuba that add up to 2,425 hours per week over 30 radio and television frequencies. They began in 1960.

Leite vowed that upon returning to Geneva he would denounce U.S. actions personally and inform all levels of his organization about Cuba’s telecommunications achievements, despite the blockade.

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