Yoan used to earn $25 a month working as a computer technician for a state company — and an extra $500 selling internet access on Cuba’s vast and varied black market.
The 31-year-old managed 10 accounts for government employees who had authorised email access and would rent out their passwords to trusted clients under certain rules: they could only connect at night or in the early hours, and had to avoid political references.
“I did it because I couldn’t live off my salary,” Yoan said.
But the technician had taken a large risk amid a crackdown by the government of President Raul Castro as part of an offensive on illegal businesses.
“There was an audit a little while ago, they trawled through the telephone numbers and one customer gave the game away,” Yoan said.
“They sacked me and I paid a 1,500-peso ($60) fine.” Yoan, who also received a ban from working for four years, was a tiny link in the chain connecting Cubans to the illegal network: an email service costs $10-15 per month, it costs $50 per month to navigate the internet, and one dollar to send or receive an email.
“I need to be in contact with my friends and the world, but I can’t afford ‘underground’ internet so I only have email. I connect at night because that’s what my illegal provider tells me to do,” said Aida, a 38-year-old former waitress.
The Caribbean island connects to the internet by satellite because the decades-long US embargo prevents access to underwater cables which pass near its coastlines.
The government blames the embargo for its limits on the service — it gives priority to state and foreign companies, academics, doctors and research centers.
Dissidents and critics of the communist government say Cuba, like China, limits internet access to restrict freedom of information and control criticism of the single-party regime.
They say that is why authorities block dissident sites or blogs, such as the award-winning blog of Yoani Sanchez, for being subversive.
Cubans can connect to email at controlled state access points for $1,5 dollars per hour, or access the internet in hotels with cards costing seven dollars per hour.
But with the average monthly salary at $20, that is also out of reach of most citizens.
“I can’t pay that, that’s why I have illegal email to communicate with my father in Miami,” said Marilis, a 23-year-old law student.
“I’ve never written anything political,” she added indignantly.
Raul Castro allowed computer sales two years ago, but internet access remains limited.
Barely 1,4-million of the 11,2-million inhabitants have internet access, and only 630 000 have computers, according to official figures.
Shared access is blamed for slow and patchy connections.
Deputy Computing Minister Ramon Linares said recently that the island’s connection speeds had increased, and an underwater cable was due to start operating from Venezuela in 2011.
That still won’t be enough for Aida.
“Even if they solve the technical problems, we won’t have free access,” she complained.
“It’s clear that those who lead the country decide what we can consult.” — Sapa-AFP