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In Cuba, young people long for Web access

By Franco Ordonez, McClatchy Newspapers –

PINAR DEL RIO, Cuba — The 24-year-old volunteer shows off the seven computers sitting on wooden desks under a painting of Saint Juan Bosco in a small, 6- by 10-foot cement room at the back of the church.

Adalberto Malagon has taken several classes here. He learned how to write book reports on Microsoft Word and crop photos using Adobe Photoshop. But what he really wants to learn is how to surf the Web.

Like many young Cubans, Rojas is frustrated that he can’t access Facebook and Google like his peers around the world.

“We’re ready,” he said. “We have so much culture and education in Cuba. There are many Third World countries with much less culture and education than Cuba that have had the Internet for many years.”

That may not come for years. Cuba, with its authoritarian communist government in control of the Web, has the lowest Internet-penetration rate in the Western Hemisphere, with just 16 percent of its population online. Even earthquake ravaged Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, has a higher percentage of its people on the Internet.

In Cuba, only government officials and foreigners can set up the Internet in their homes, and the vast majority of Cubans can’t afford the fees charged at tourist hotels, where an hour of Internet equals about a quarter of the average Cuban’s monthly salary.

“Think about it,” said David Gonzalez, 20, who sometimes sneaks onto the Internet at the hotel where his mother works. “For $5 an hour, it’s not worth it.”

Since taking over the presidency from his ailing brother Fidel, Raul Castro has moved to liberalize the country’s economy. He’s slowly introducing modern technology. In 2008, islanders first received the right to have private cellphones.

But the government has been more cautious with the World Wide Web. An undersea fiber-optic cable now connecting Cuba and Venezuela will increase the country’s bandwidth, but service has yet to begin.

The Cuban government is concerned about the online potential for dissent and social mobilization, according to experts such as William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist and dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington.

The government feels confident that it has control of the traditional dissident community, LeoGrande said, but it’s less familiar with the techniques of a new crop of younger dissidents who’ve been inspired by the revolutionaries who used social media to start anti-government movements across North Africa and the Middle East.

The island does have a limited intranet service that is more widely available. Cubans can surf local sites and open email accounts.

Yaremis Guerra, 18, takes classes twice a week at the Youth Computer Club near her home outside Havana, where she looks up music sites and exchanges emails with cousins in Texas.

“I get lost in that world,” Guerra said.

Jakeline Diaz, 25, has access to email through work at a local hospital near Pinar del Rio. But she really longs to get on Facebook. A colleague recently returned from a medical mission in Angola, where she had access to the Web and created a Facebook page.

“She has a lot of friends,” Diaz said. “She puts up photos. I’d love to have friends from around the world.”

On a recent afternoon, Gonzalez was walking with two friends through Old Havana to watch a televised soccer match that he’d learned about on the Internet at his mother’s hotel. Since traveling outside the country isn’t an option, the Internet is the best way to learn about the outside world, he said. If you asked every young person, he said, they’d tell you their first or second desire is to be able to have more access to the Web.

“No one has the Internet,” he said. “Not the young people. Not the old people. Really, the only people who have the Internet are the people with power.”

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