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Cuba, Venezuela slammed on press freedoms

Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez attends a forum on September 17, 2013, in Prague
Cuban opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez attends a forum on September 17, 2013, in Prague

Venezuelan journalists and a dissident Cuban blogger denounced press censorship and other forms of media control by their countries' leftist governments, at a conference here Sunday.

Speaking on the second day of a meeting of the Inter-American Press Association, award-winning Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez said Cuban President Raul Castro in the past year has stepped up government crackdowns on free speech.

The crackdown has involved "violence carried out by pro-government mobs, intimidation, vandalism and the arrests of five (would-be) independent journalists," she said.

Cuban television, radio, newspapers and magazines are all state-run.

On a positive note, Sanchez hailed Twitter as "a great tool to report human rights violations in places that are under repressive regimes."

But she said that while Castro has opened cyber-cafe services to which Cubans can get paid access, most in the Caribbean nation of 11 million -- where the average salary is under $20 a month -- cannot afford it.

State media remains all that most Cubans have access to, since "it is prohibitive for anybody to spend a third of their monthly salary on an hour of Internet time," she said.

Cuba does allow government members, scientists and educators Internet access at work but home service is not an option.

Even the most influential non-state actor in Cuba, the Catholic church, has not been able to get its own schools and media in Cuba.

Venezuelan journalists pointed to the close coordination between Cuba and Venezuela on its "revolutionary" state-run media, which has expanded while the privately owned media has withered under government pressure.

Miguel Enrique Otero, editor of Venezuela's independent El Nacional newspaper, complained in debates that Venezuela was subject to a "media hegemony ... born in and advised from Havana."

Otero cited the example of a newly created Strategic Center for the Protection and Security of the Homeland (CESPPA). The group, which reports to the president's office, is supposed to censor at will any information deemed sensitive to national security.

"Sadly, the two governments are mirroring each other on the worst things -- in their failing to bring prosperity to their people, and in repressing freedoms," Cuba's Sanchez charged.

The two governments became close allies under the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who extended a lifeline to Cuba's cash-strapped communist government by providing it with cut-rate oil and hard currency.

Cuba's biggest hard-currency export earner is the more than six billion dollars a year Caracas pays Havana for the services of thousands of Cuban doctors and other medical staff.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro -- with six months in office -- so far has held to Chavez' line of extremely close cooperation with Cuba.