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Posted October 11, 2007 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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By Esteban Israel | Reuters

When Yoani Sánchez, 32, wants to update her blog about daily life in Cuba, she dresses like a tourist and strides confidently into a Havana hotel, greeting the staff in German.

That is because Cubans like Sánchez are not authorized to use hotel Internet connections, which are reserved for foreigners.

In a recent “Generación Y” posting at http://www.desdecuba.com/generaciony , Sánchez wrote about the abundance of police patrolling the streets of Havana, checking documents and searching bags for black-market merchandise.

She and a handful of other independent bloggers are opening up a crack in the government’s tight control over media and information to give the rest of the world a glimpse of life in the one-party, Communist state.

“We are taking advantage of an unregulated area. They can’t control cyberspace out there,” she said.

But the bloggers face many difficulties.

Once inside the hotel, Sánchez has to write fast. Not because she fears getting caught, but because online access is prohibitively expensive. An hour online costs about $6, the equivalent of two weeks of pay for the average Cuban.

Independent bloggers like Sánchez have to build their sites on servers outside Cuba, and they have more readers outside Cuba than inside.

That is not surprising, since only 200,000 Cubans of the 11 million on the island have access to the World Wide Web, the lowest rate in Latin America, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Only government employees, academics and researchers are allowed to have their own Internet accounts, which are provided by the government.

Ordinary Cubans are allowed only to open e-mail accounts that they can access through terminals at post offices, where they can also see Cuban Web sites but access to the rest of the World Wide Web is blocked.

“My access to Internet is very irregular,” wrote the anonymous author of a blog called “My island at midday,”  http://isla12pm.blogspot.com .

The Cuban government blames the limited Internet access on the U.S. sanctions that bar Cuba from hooking up to underwater fiber-optic cables that run just 12 miles, or 19 kilometers, offshore, a highway of broadband communication. Instead, Cuba must use expensive satellite uplinks to connect to the Internet via countries like Canada, Chile and Brazil.

Critics say that is just a pretext to maintain control over the Internet, a powerful tool that some believe could play an important role in spreading information in Cuba.

Cuba has already had a taste of openness since the ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro agreed to temporarily hand over power last year to his brother Rául, who has encouraged debate at all levels of society on Cuba’s unproductive economy.

But the reaction to television programs in December that honored notorious censors from the early 1970s - when Cuba adopted Soviet policies and cracked down on writers, artists and homosexuals - showed the potential of the Internet to effect change. There was such a flood of e-mail messages from Cuban intellectuals, academics and others with Internet access that the government was obliged to meet with them and issue an apology for the program.

Dozens of government supporters, mainly state-employed journalists with Internet accounts, have blogs. But most of them avoid commenting on the travails of daily life in Cuba and stick to the official line.

Many reproduce columns that Fidel Castro has written from his sickbed, along with criticism of the United States taken from the state-run news media.

One exception is Luis Sexto, a columnist for the Communist Youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde, who recently posted a blistering attack on state bureaucracy at http://luisexto.blogia.com .

“Without public criticism, mistakes will continue to hurt our country,” Sexto wrote last month.

Others avoid politics and discuss cinema and literature, or nostalgia for the Soviet cartoons that many Cubans were brought up on http://munequitosrusos.blogspot.com .

But most prefer to remain anonymous or use pseudonyms in order to protect themselves.

A blogger who goes by the name of “Tension Lia” posts mostly photographs of the ruinous state of the architectural treasures of Havana on Havanascity http://havanascity.blogspot.com .

The creator of “My island at midday” said via e-mail that the anonymity of the blog had allowed him to say some things that nobody has dared write about.

“Dissent has always been frowned upon,” the author wrote.

“Intolerance is still the rule in Cuba, even though Cuban society is starting to adapt to diversity of opinions.”

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