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Students punished for Internet scheme
Five Cuban university students' academic careers were hurt after getting caught using school equipment illegally to get Internet access.
BY FRANCES ROBLES
Five Cuban university students were suspended for up to five years for violations that their information technology school deemed ''very grave'': running chat rooms and using school servers to sell Internet access to others.
Cuba's Internet police, the Office of Information Security, caught the students at the University of Information Sciences (UCI) using school property to charge $30 a month for stolen Internet passwords, according to a video of a campus meeting, smuggled out of the island.
Critics of Fidel Castro's government say the video illustrates the lengths to which young Cubans are willing to go to access information in a place where the government tightly controls all information. A university whose dean says in the video is aimed at ''training the guerrillas of the new era'' instead found its students using their skills to hack their way to the outside world.
'It's easy for you to say: `They were using stolen passwords or appropriating government resources,' but that's because here we have the option of using the Internet,'' said Antonio Rivera, editor of the online news site La Nueva Cuba, which obtained the video. ``They have no other alternatives.''
La Nueva Cuba posted the hour-long video, titled ''Point of Necessary Reflection,'' on its Web site. Intended by its makers for internal use, Rivera said it was smuggled out through a third country but declined further comment.
The video shows university officials blasting students for creating three chat rooms for students' online dating, and also for running a discussion forum hosted by a Cuban-American in the United States.
The students, officials added, also distributed hacked passwords belonging to authorized Internet users. A meager nine out of every 1,000 Cubans are estimated to be Internet users, most of them linked to the government.
None of the suspended students' activities were political, but university officials cautioned that at any moment they could have taken a turn against the Cuban revolution.
''We have to be very careful of these semi-clandestine chats which are not official chats,'' university chancellor Melchor Gil Morell, former vice-minister of Information and Communications, said on the video.
``The majority wind up hurting the revolution and conducting illegal acts.''
He said the government will revise its penal code to make illegal Internet access punishable by up to five years in prison.
Among those leading the meeting on the video are student leader César Lage, the son of Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, who urged students who have computers to use the Web to spread positive aspects of the government.
The newly released video comes amid the Cuban government's complaints that the U.S. trade embargo prevents Cuba from riding the information highway. Cuban delegations have turned to international forums to argue that Cuba would offer the Internet more broadly, were it not for the fiber optic cable connections it lacks.
''The war the enemy has against the revolution takes place on many fronts, including the Internet,'' Gil said.
The video, filmed Feb. 17, was shot two weeks after Cuban dissident journalist Guillermo Fariñas began a hunger strike to demand Internet access. His e-mail account was cut off by the government after Fariñas was quoted in a Miami Herald article.
Fariñas has been fed intravenously for more than four months and is in critical condition, dissidents said.
Reporters Without Borders last year denounced Cuba as one of a dozen nations with the most controlled and least accessible Internet, grouping the country with Iran and Vietnam. While Cuba boasts that it has computers in every school, a U.N. Human Development Report says the number of its Internet users pales in comparison with Costa Rica, with 288 users for every 1,000 persons, and Honduras with 44. .
Individuals cannot legally buy computers or sign up for regular Internet service without government permits that are almost impossible to obtain, so the nation's 335,000 desktops and laptops belong largely to the government, state enterprises and special individuals such as trusted doctors.
Internet cafes aimed at foreigners charge up to a Cuban's average one-month wage for an hour of surfing. But a black market has emerged, where users ''rent'' time slots from legally approved contacts.
''One of the things young people here most want is Internet, or satellite TV, or anything that offers different options than the ones offered here,'' dissident Vladimiro Roca said in a telephone interview from Havana. ``Young people have great initiative. They are fast at getting what they want. One way or another, they find it.''
The video showed that student Arian Molina of Havana was allegedly caught using a production lab computer and was hit with a five-year suspension. Magdiel Hernández, of Villa Clara, and armed forces cadet Reynaldo Mezquita, of Ciego de Avila used laptops at home and were suspended for four years.
Ibraín Ortega, described as the ''principal password provider at the university'' was slapped with a four-year suspension.
Chat room operators José Luis Malbar and Raúl Vellejo were also suspended for four years.
University officials said in the video that many students and even professors were using the passwords to access unauthorized Web sites.
''We're going to sit down and visit them,'' university official Silvano Merced said in the video.
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