HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba built an Internet search engine that allows users to trawl through speeches by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and other government sites, but does not browse Web pages outside the island.
The search engine (www.infosoc.cu/buscador) unveiled at a conference this week underscored restrictions on Internet access in communist-run Cuba, which the government blames on U.S. trade sanctions.
Cubans cannot buy computers and Internet access is limited to state employees, academics and foreigners. Cubans line up for hours to send e-mails on post office terminals that cannot surf the World Wide Web.
Passwords are sold on the black market allowing shared Internet use for limited hours, usually at night.
Cuba's first search engine can search any subject, but only on Cuban servers, or the Cuban intranet, including 150,000 government sites and the state-run media. It has a special function key on the homepage to browse through hundreds of Castro's speeches since day one of his revolution in 1959.
"The aim is to search Cuban Web sites without having to rely on foreign engines," said its creator, Leandro Silva.
Cuba has the lowest rate of Internet usage in Latin America, 1.7 users per 100 inhabitants, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Critics, such as rights watchdog Amnesty International, say Cuba restricts Internet usage to limit freedom of expression.
Cuba says Internet access is not available because of sanctions enforced by its longtime ideological enemy the United States that block connection to broadband fiber optic cables running undersea just 12 miles off shore.
Opening this week's IT conference in Havana, Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes said Cuba was forced to "rationalize" use of scarce Internet bandwidth in priority sectors such as scientific research, education and health care.
"Despite the fact that international fiber optic cables run very close to Cuban shores, the rules of the blockade prevent connection to these," Valdes said.
Cuba is forced to use a costly satellite channel with only 65 megabytes per second (mbps) for upload and 124 mbps for download, he said.
Cuba has turned to its main ally, Venezuela, to bypass the U.S. embargo and increase its Internet capacity by laying a 1,000-mile fiber optic cable between the two countries.
"A fiber optic cable will allow faster connection and significantly lower costs," Valdes said.
Havana initially saw the Internet as a U.S. Trojan horse designed to undermine its one-party state and quickly decreed its "selective" use in the "national interest."
Cuba harnessed the Internet as a tool in developing one of the most advance biotech industries in the Third World. It has also been a boon to the Caribbean island's tourist trade and provided a medium for Havana to get its views on the Web.
One expert on Cuba said Washington blocks Cuban access to high-speed Internet to hinder Cuba developing a knowledge-based economy based on a well-educated low-wage population.
"It is Venezuela that will give Cuba the real-time connectivity it needs," said Nelson Valdes, a professor of sociology at the University of New Mexico.
"This will open the huge world of Internet business to the island and Cuba's human capital could transform Havana into another Mumbai," he said.
Additional reporting by Anthony Boadle