Thursday, December 22, 2011

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In Cuba, Dial-Up Internet Is A Luxury

Cubans wait to go online at an Internet cafe in Havana earlier this year. The Cuban government announced months ago that a new fiber-optic cable to Venezuela would improve Internet access and speeds, but that still hasn't happened.

 STR/AFP/Getty Images Cubans wait to go online at an Internet cafe in Havana earlier this year. The Cuban government announced months ago that a new fiber-optic cable to Venezuela would improve Internet access and speeds, but that still hasn't happened.

Cuba is one of the least-connected countries in the world, a time-warped place where millions of young people have never been online and a dial-up Internet account is the stuff of dreams.
An undersea fiber-optic cable linking the island to Venezuela was supposed to change that this year. But six months after its completion, frustrated Cubans are still starved for Web access.
Watching government-run television newscasts in Cuba is often a strange experience, but especially so when the topic is social media. Consider a recent report about Facebook and Twitter: The Castro government wasn't telling Cubans those sites are something to fear — it was actually the opposite.
The young reporter sat with a laptop and, without a hint of irony, extolled the virtues of social networking as a source of real-time alternative information. But given the low level of Internet access here, she may as well be describing the surface of the moon.
There are other strange sights on the island, like Cubans carrying new iPhones and BlackBerrys brought in from Miami or Madrid, which only work in Cuba for talking and texting.
Desperate For Wi-Fi
Some Cubans have brand-new laptops bought on the black market or sent from relatives abroad, but no Web access. So they stand outside condo buildings that house foreign businessmen, trying to catch an open Wi-Fi signal.
Then there are cybercafes that are woefully short on the "cyber" part. At one such cafe in Havana, young Cubans line up to pay $1.50 an hour to send and receive email. A snap poll of a dozen would-be Web users found only two people who said they'd ever been online.
One was 27-year-old Hamlet Chirino, who saves up each month to pay $6 an hour for Internet use at a tourist hotel. His other option is to go to underground cafes that offer black-market Web access over slow dial-up connections.
"Life is really good here," Chirino said, "but low salaries and the lack of Internet access are the two biggest problems. The government has been saying they're going to change those things for a long time, but we're still waiting."
Raised Expectations
Cuban authorities raised expectations earlier this year when they announced the completion of a $70 million data cable linking the island to Venezuela, boosting Cuba's bandwidth by a factor of 3,000.
But Web access remains as slow and scarce as ever, with no evidence of any urgency to get the cable working. Rumors swirl about technical problems or bad business deals, with others speculating that Cuban authorities have been spooked by the Arab Spring and the central role that social media has played in it.
There's been no official explanation, leaving 20-year-old Jessica Cruz saying she thinks she won't get online until the Castro government is gone.
"There's a saying here that flies can't get into a closed mouth," says Cruz, reflecting the view of many young Cubans who see a paternalistic government trying to deprive them of outside information.
Cuba's lack of Internet access is now a central theme in the 50-year standoff with the United States.
First the U.S. trade embargo kept the island cut off, Cuba says, and now Washington wants to use the Internet as a tool of subversion.
A U.S. government subcontractor, Alan Gross, has been in jail here for two years for trying to set up satellite Web access on the island outside of government control. And a small contingent of dissident Cuban Web activists has made Internet freedom one of their central causes. Blogger Orlando Luis Pardo says the government can't hold back the tide forever.
"In my opinion, that battle is lost. Not because the opposition or the independent bloggers are especially strong or very widely known by the Cuban people, but because the official information in the official media is very poor, it's very solemn, very unbelievable," he said.
A new Cuban government website called The Social Network could hold a clue to where things may be headed. The site is such a blatant copy of Facebook that it even has the word "Facebook" in its Web address.
But there is one big difference: The Cuban version only connects to other users on the island — not to the wider world.

 Study Abroad Leader Announces First Program in Cuba

STAMFORD, Conn.--(BUSINESS WIRE)-- The American Institute For Foreign Study (AIFS- ( today announced the launch of their first study abroad program in Cuba, in association with Presbyterian College and the University of Havana.
AIFS, one of the oldest and most respected study abroad organizations in the world, will offer the new Cuba program beginning in the Fall of 2012. Students can earn 12 to 15 academic credits while studying and living at the University of Havana.
“We are delighted to be opening a program in Havana,” states William L. Gertz, President and CEO of AIFS. “Cuba is a very unique country and AIFS is pleased to be the first study abroad organization to provide a semester long experience to college students.”
Due to the overwhelming interest in studying abroad in Cuba over the years, AIFS anticipates spots filling up very quickly for the program’s inaugural session that begins in late August 2012. The deadline for applications is May 1, 2012. Students can visit for more details and to apply.
The AIFS program in Cuba, sponsored by a collaborative effort of Presbyterian College and the University of Havana, stands apart from other study abroad opportunities in Cuba because of its unique pedagogical design and innovative curriculum. The program will focus on creating responsible global citizens by promoting an understanding of important historical and social realities that have led to inequalities and injustices throughout the world.
AIFS offers programs in Australia, Austria, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Czech Republic, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Spain and Turkey. All AIFS programs are comprehensive and include housing, meals, transcripts, insurance and a rich variety of built-in cultural activities and excursions. Additional scholarships and financial aid are also available.
To learn more about the new Cuba study abroad program, contact David Mauro at (800) 727-2437, ext. 5163 or email, or visit
As a leader in cultural exchange, AIFS sends more than 5,000 students abroad each year. Since its founding in 1964, AIFS has been committed to providing students with the safest, most enjoyable and highest quality educational programs. AIFS celebrates a proud history of providing opportunities to the international education community. Over 1.5 million people from nearly 1,500 colleges and universities have participated in AIFS programs.

Mike Liberty, 203-399-5187


Despite observers, Syria's Assad hikes crackdown

BEIRUT (AP) — Bashar Assad's regime would appear to be setting itself on a collision course: It let in outside observers for the first time Thursday to monitor his commitment to halting the crackdown on dissent, even as his security forces unleashed a fiercer onslaught this week, killing more than 200 in two days.
But the Syrian president and his inner circle are veterans at playing for time, maneuvering and denying realities on the ground, and they seem confident they can deflect pressure from Arab neighbors without easing their campaign to crush the uprising.
As an advance team for the Arab League observers flew into Damascus on Thursday, activists said the regime was already acting to prevent the mission from seeing protesters arrested in the crackdown, which is supposed to be part of its mandate. Thousands of prisoners have been moved into military facilities, which are off limits to the monitors, two dissidents said, citing reports from sources on the ground.
By allowing the observers in, Syria has avoided a worse scenario for the time being, defusing Arab League threats to ask the U.N. Security Council for action against Damascus.
The strategy, opponents and outside observers say, is to keep international pressure at bay for as long as possible while the regime tries to snuff out the uprising. Activists said given the high death toll of the past few days, the Syrian government appears to be furiously trying to control the situation on the ground before the full monitoring team arrives.
Tuesday saw the deadliest single attack by government forces so far in the nine-month crackdown.
A witness and activist groups said about 110 unarmed civilians fled the mountain village of Kfar Owaid near the Turkish border and were trapped in a valley by military forces, who then proceeded to systematically kill all of them in an hours-long barrage with tanks, bombs and gunfire. No one survived the onslaught, the activists said.
Government forces appeared by Wednesday evening to have gained full control of the rebellious Jabal al-Zawiya region, where Kfar Owaid is located. The region has been the scene of clashes between troops and army defectors, as well as weeks of intense anti-government protests. An activist who was on the run from the village said thousands of troops and special forces were deployed.
"There are tanks and checkpoints every few meters, snipers everywhere," the activist told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear for his safety.
Fresh raids and gunfire by government forces on Thursday killed at least 19 people, most of them in the central city of Homs and northern Idlib province, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees.
After Tuesday's bloodshed, Syria's former ally Turkey said the regime was "turning the country into a bloodbath," and the Obama administration accused it of continuing to "mow down" its people.
But Damascus has shown itself willing to shrug off world outrage over its onslaught against protesters, in which the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have died since March.
As the first observers arrived, the Syrian government sought to emphasize its own losses in the turmoil. It said in a letter to the U.N. Security Council and Rights Council that more than 2,000 soldiers and members of the security forces have died in attacks in the past nine months. The U.N. has said that its count includes around 1,000 soldiers.
The regime also accused the U.N. of bias, saying U.N. reports claiming a brutal crackdown were false and that the world body was ignoring the presence of terrorists operating in Syria. From the start of the uprising, Damascus has depicted the protests not as a popular movement but as the work of foreign-backed armed gangs.
In part, that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Far from being crushed, the uprising has morphed from peaceful protests into an armed insurrection by dissident troops who have launched bloody attacks on regime forces.
Haitham al-Maleh, a leader of the main opposition Syrian National Council, said the regime "is so focused on killing off and crushing the revolt that it is not thinking with logic, it is cornered and only thinking of ways to survive and hang on to power."
Assad already succeeded in keeping observers away for nearly two months as the military assault continued. He agreed in early November to an Arab League initiative that called for halting the crackdown, pulling military forces from city streets, starting talks with the opposition and letting in the observers.
But his government demanded changes in the observers' mandate, which the league refused. The 22-member body took the unprecedented steps of suspending Syria's membership and imposing economic sanctions and threatened to turn to the U.N. before Damascus finally accepted the league's protocol for the mission last week.
In theory, the observers would be the world's first direct look into the conflict. The country has been largely sealed off since March, with the regime barring international journalists and restricting local ones. Information has come from activists' videos posted on the Internet and from local witnesses.
But there are plenty of ways for Damascus to limit what the mission sees.
The advance team that flew in Thursday is to work out logistics before 20 military and rights experts arrive Sunday. Another team of 100 observers will leave for Syria within two weeks, according to the Arab plan. A total of 500 observers are planned.
The advance team will work with the Syrians on defining locations to send the observers, according to the team's chief Assistant Secretary-General Sameer Seif el-Yazal. That suggests Damascus will have an advance idea of their movements — and may have a say in directing them.
The opposition expects Syrian officials and security will accompany the team, hampering their activities. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said this week that the observers will be "free" in their movements and "under the protection of the Syrian government," but will not be allowed to visit sensitive military sites.
Opposition figure al-Maleh and Washington-based dissident Ammar Abdul-Hamid both reported that imprisoned protesters were being moved to military camps.
Al-Maleh said he also had reports the regime is forming committees of 20 to 30 people in towns and cities who will follow the observers around and attempt to deceive them with false reports and testimony.
Abdul-Hamid warned that Damascus is also likely to try to fill the monitoring teams with experts from countries sympathetic to the regime, such as Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Algeria, which could water down any criticism.
Syrian opposition members have already criticized the Arab League's choice of a Sudanese officer, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, to head the observers.
Abdul-Hamid warned in comments posted on his blog that the monthlong observer mission will just give the regime more time to kill with impunity.
"The killing will continue, and the situation on the ground will worsen," he said. "This is not a protocol over sending monitors, but a new lease on life."