Netflix streams into Cuba

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The political backstabbing of House of Cards and global adventures of Marco Polo are now available in communist-ruled Cuba, with the launch announced Monday by streaming US television giant Netflix.

Netflix said "a curated selection of popular movies and TV shows" would be available to the estimated one quarter of Cubans who have access to the Internet.

The move coincides with a thaw in US-Cuban relations following a decades-old embargo by Washington that limited trade between the two countries.

Although some US programs are shown on state-owned television, Netflix is likely to vastly expand the offerings available on the island where media and Internet are tightly controlled by the government.

Full details of the programming were not announced, but Netflix said it would offer Cubans its original series such as House of Cards, about political intrigue in Washington and Orange is the New Black about life in a US prison, along with its new global series Marco Polo.

In a statement, Netflix said the service is available "starting today", for "people in Cuba with Internet connections and access to international payment methods".

The Netflix website was already online in Cuba on Monday although it required an international credit card to open an account.

"We are delighted to finally be able to offer Netflix to the people of Cuba, connecting them with stories they will love from all over the world," said Netflix co-founder and chief executive Reed Hastings.

"Cuba has great filmmakers and a robust arts culture and one day we hope to be able to bring their work to our global audience of over 57 million members."

The Netflix audience could be limited in Cuba however because of the relatively small number of people with high-speed Internet and a lack of access to hard currency.

Only about one-fourth of Cubans have Internet access, and most online access is filtered by the government, according to a December report by the human rights group Freedom House.

Many Cubans do get access to foreign television by black market trades of USB sticks loaded with Hollywood blockbusters, pop music or European football.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro surprised the world in December when they simultaneously announced plans to normalise relations following months of secret negotiations.

The raising of the US and Cuban flags in each other's capitals would send powerful signals of the new era the two nations want to enter, though no timeline has been given for the reopening of embassies.

Cubans have voiced hope that the warming ties will translate into improvements in their daily lives in a country where supermarket shelves are bare and people make around US$20 (S$27) a month.

Netflix announced last week it would start operating in Japan, on the heels of planned expansion in Australia and New Zealand.

Netflix subscribers can stream video content using smart TVs, tablet computers, smartphones, computers, and Internet-linked game consoles and set-top boxes.

The expansion comes amid an increasing shift to Internet-based on-demand television, with offerings from rivals such as Amazon, Time Warner's HBO and CBS, among others.

Netflix announced in January that it boosted membership to more than 57 million users at the end of 2014.

A 2014 study released by Cuba's Commission on Culture and Media urged the Havana government to create television and film programming not under government control, among other proposed reforms.

There currently are five national television channels available in Cuba, many fewer than most other countries.

The paucity of choice is "a far cry from the cultural, information and entertainment offerings needed for our people", the report said.

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