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Cuba's Mobile Internet Access Is A Big Step, But It's Not Without Flaws


Cuba now has 3G mobile wireless. What that means is that Cubans can get Internet on their phones, but it comes from the state-run monopoly. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Iliana Hernandez (ph) is an independent journalist based in Cuba. She says a few days ago while riding the bus, she got emotional.

ILIANA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She was able to video chat on her phone with friends who live in Miami. When I reached her over the phone in Havana, she says, years ago, this would be unthinkable. This is the latest of several moves in recent years to bring down the digital divide between the island and the rest of the world. Cubans have had limited access to Internet for years now in hotels, Internet cafes and public hotspots. But as of early December, Cubans can get 3G Wi-Fi on their mobile phones. Hernandez says she's excited, and she's also scared.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "You know," she says, "our phones are tapped. They hear our conversations. They know what we are doing."

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She says because of her work as a journalist, every so often, the government detains her. Sometimes, she sees them watching her house. Professor Ted Henken teaches Latin America studies at City University of New York. He says that government surveillance is part of everyday life in Cuba. When it comes to the Internet...

TED HENKEN: I wouldn't compare it to China quite yet because Cuba - the surveillance of the Internet, it will have to catch up with the technology of the Internet. But most Cubans will tell you that everything that they send through the media, whether it's a telephone call or an Internet message or where they surf, they assume that it's being monitored.

GARSD: Henken says Cubans being able to access Internet on their phones - that's a big step, but it's not without flaws. The service is pretty bad. Several dissident sites are completely blocked. And also, Henken says that most Cubans can't afford the Internet packages the government is offering.

HENKEN: You can get a plan. And you pay a certain amount per month - $7, $10, $20 or $30. The irony, however, is that that would be equivalent to a whole month's salary for a Cuban professional - $30 a month.

GARSD: The day after Internet came to Cuban phones, Elian Gonzalez, once a child at the center of a custody battle between the U.S. and Cuban governments, joined Twitter with a post praising the regime. But this could also be a big deal for Cuba's growing wave of independent journalists, like Iliana Hernandez.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: "Sometimes, it would take eight hours to upload a video post," she says. And even though Cubans on the island would watch and read her blog, the audience was limited. Hernandez says she pays for mobile Internet with savings from living abroad a couple of years ago. She's just not sure how many Cubans can afford it. But Hernandez also believes slowly but surely things are changing in Cuba. And the Internet is going to accelerate that. People will be able to express their frustrations at the government.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: She says, "this is a little piece of the freedom we are all looking for. Now what we need to do is lose our fear." Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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