Cuba unblocks access to a controversial dissident blogger's page and welcomes a high-speed fiber optic cable stretching from Venezuela that promises to boost connection speeds on the island.
HAVANA, CUBA (FEBRUARY 08, 2011) REUTERS - Cubans used to waiting in long lines for slow, unreliable and expensive Internet access and costly phone coverage will soon see a 3,000 percent increase in connection speeds according to the government which on Tuesday (February 8) also unblocked access to dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez's page, Generation Y.
Cuba has relied on satellites to get online, but this is about to change thanks to a 995-mile, high-speed fiber optic cable arriving on its shores from Venezuela.
Cuba charges that U.S. sanctions prohibit use of the many underwater cables in the area, forcing it to use a costly and slow satellite connection to the Internet.
In addition, web users here have to rely on crowded cyber cafes like this one, where frustrated users said they look forward to the benefits the arrival of the Venezuelan cable promises.
"[The arrival of the fiber optic cable] will be an advancement. Because honestly we're, well you can see [with bad connection]. For me an Internet connection café should be free and open. People should come in, leave and not have to suffer and wait in line to be able to communicate with family members," said cyber café user, Georgina Planche.
Cuba is one of the least connected societies in the Latin American region, with Internet access limited to officials, companies, academics and some other professionals.
The $70 million cable project, expected to be fully operational by July, will give Cuba a data transmission speed of 640 gigabytes, 3,000 times more than the actual one.
"Today's world is advancing a ton in terms of Internet and communications. And this represents a huge advancement in telephone communications, Internet and these kinds of things," cyber café customer, Yosbany Hecheverria said.
Nevertheless, officials have said financial and technological problems will not allow for the extension of Internet use in the short term, and residents will have to continue to rely on local computer clubs, work places and schools.
Still, others, like programmer, Jose Luis del Pino, doubt that a significant change is even on the horizon.
"Fiber optics have been around since about 1970, because I have information on this. The Internet has existed since 1969. That means we are getting connected to the Internet and fiber optics about 41 years late. What does this tell me? That things are going to be 3,000 percent better [he says 300,000 percent better, but later corrects himself]? It is barley going to get any better," del Pino said.
Curiously, dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez said on Tuesday (February 8) the government apparently unblocked access to her blog, which had been off limits on the island's Internet since 2008.
In a posting on Twitter, she wondered how long Cuban Internet users would be able to view her Generation Y blog, (www.desdecuba.com/generaciony/ <http://www.desdecuba.com/generaciony/).
She told Reuters it was not clear why it had been unblocked.
"It could be because of the 2011 Information Fair being held in Cuba, to amuse, in some way, foreign guests who are coming so they feel like there is room for debate and tolerance [here], which in reality is false. Or it could also be a strategy adjustment. During three years of censorship all they have managed to do is motivate the Cuban people to seek out my words even more," Sanchez told Reuters.
The 35-year-old's blog, which criticizes the Cuban system and the difficulties of daily life on the communist-led island, is little known in Cuba, where Internet access is limited, but she has an international audience.
Sanchez has become the new face of political opposition in Cuba, replacing an old guard less conversant in new technologies, and she has earned the enmity of the Cuban government, which frequently criticizes her on its websites.
She was mentioned prominently last week in a leaked videotape of a government meeting about the Internet as the new battlefield in Cuba's ongoing ideological conflict with the United States.
"Maybe they have decided to quit boycotting my blog. In hopes that, well, that people can read me and well, [in hopes that] what I write won't be so attractive, so searched out, so closely followed that it simply becomes something very enticing," Sanchez continued.
She has won a number of international awards and was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2008.
Her blog is translated into 15 languages and she has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter.
Though the submarine cable will more closely link Venezuela and Cuba, as well as Jamaica, Sanchez was optimistic about what a better connection means for Cubans.
"A cable, like a bridge, needs two shores. And I think the situation in Venezuela and the situation in Cuba are pretty fragile to be able to project the cable as some type of domino in the long term. Quite the opposite, I think it will be an umbilical cord of freedom," said Sanchez.
A Cuban government official did not respond to questions about why Sanchez's blog has been unblocked, but it came as Cuba hosted an international computer science conference.
A French ship laying the fiber optic cable left Venezuela last month and reached the eastern shores of Cuba near the city of Santiago Tuesday.
The president of Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, Wilfredo Morales, who oversees the Venezuelan-Cuban joint venture that owns the line, said the connection will strengthen communications ties.
"It is really important. It benefits the development of telecommunications in ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) countries, the sectors they support including cultural exchanges, health, education, software, banking, tourism, the service [industry], among others."
Human rights groups have criticized Cuba's tight regulations on Web access, saying it restricts citizens' freedoms.