In December, the number of internet users in Cuba increased by 10 per cent, at the same time as some sectors complained that the access speed (209 megabits per second for outgoing transmission and 379 megabits per second for incoming transmission) is insufficient.
The Cuban newspaper Juventud Rebelde said that this is a minimum figure and compared the figures with those of Mexico (which has an average of 1.1 megabits per second). Yet it conceded that 'it is still insufficient for the development needs of the country's IT sector'.
The problem is that internet connection on the island has to be provided via satellite, because the US embargo, imposed in 1962, blocks access to the undersea cables that would ensure a higher quality service. When the Western powers talk of censorship on the island and the lack of information for its citizens, they always avoid making reference to the US policy in this field.
Deputy Minister of Informatics and Communications, Ramon Linares, said the situation will improve in 2011, when a new underwater fibre-optic cable linking Cuba to Venezuela is due to come online. But he cautioned that this may not necessarily mean a radical change. He supports a policy of prioritizing social access, allowing personal accounts only to certain professionals - such as doctors and journalists - because the limitations are not just technological, 'but also financial'. This implies that the State currently subsidizes the internet services which are provided to universities and cultural, scientific and study centres.
Two years ago, President Raúl Castro freed up the sale of computers, but access to the internet is still limited. There are 11.2 million Cubans on the island but only 630,000 computers and network access for 1.4 million, according to official figures, which are similar to those of other countries across the region. Cubans have access to email services but they cost $1.50 per hour; accessing global networks in hotels costs $7 per hour. Such expenses are clearly prohibitive when the monthly salary averages $20. However, some Cubans gain internet access illegally by paying a monthly fee to a supplier who sidesteps the State's monopoly service.
A few days ago, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton hailed the United States as a guardian of free speech, declaring that the US is the cradle of the internet and that it has a 'responsibility' to ensure free access to it. Countries that restrict free access to information via the web violate the 'fundamental rights of internet users,' she said.
Clinton must now practice what she preaches, and ensure that the embargo on digital access to Cuba is removed. This would immediately give millions of Cubans cheap access to the internet. Such an action would undoubtedly be much more effective in promoting freedom and democracy that the restrictions imposed by the embargo itself.