CIP Home
About Us
Press Room
Support our work with a tax-deductible donation.
Cuba Project
Human Rights
Last Updated:5/22/03

The Chicago Tribune

February 23, 2001



By Laurie Goering
Tribune Staff Writer
February 22, 2001

HAVANA -- Tony Borrego, a Havana poet and literature specialist, spends a few
minutes each day checking his e-mail in a little cyber-cafe hidden behind
blue doors at Old Havana's historic Plaza de Armas.

For 10 pesos a month, about half a U.S. cent, he and other Cuban artists have
unlimited access to four computer terminals, and a door to the world outside
Cuba.Foreign newspapers and magazines are conspicuously absent at communist
Cuba's public newsstands, and would be beyond the wages of most Cubans

But using his e-mail account, Borrego can exchange work with other poets in
Spain, Norway, Peru and the United States, as well as e-mail his relatives in
Miami."Almost every day I send something" to Miami, he said. "I could never
afford to call. This has been a big help."In government offices,
universities, hospitals--even in the back rooms of a few private
homes--e-mail and the Internet are arriving to Cuba.

The communist-run island of 11 million has 3,600 legal Internet accounts
provided through four government servers, according to government figures.
There are about 40,000 e-mail accounts, half of them with access outside
Cuba, and a small but growing number of people finding ways to access the
Internet on their own.

Over the last decade, hundreds of thousands of Cubans, particularly the
young, have learned to use computers as part of an effort by Cuban leader
Fidel Castro to ensure the nation is not left behind in a high-tech era.But
while e-mail is slowly becoming more accessible, chances for the average
Cuban to navigate the World Wide Web remain extremely limited.Many of the
legal Internet accounts in the country are in the hands of government
ministries and businesses, joint-venture corporations, and foreigners.
Universities, hospitals and youth centers provide Internet access but put
limits on how widely users can browse.

The island's only fully Internet-accessible cyber-cafe is off-limits to
Cubans, even if they could afford the $5 per hour fee.Just as difficult is
Cuba's lack of Internet infrastructure. The island has only 473,000 telephone
lines, one for every 23 Cubans. Power outages are frequent and home computers
with modems are rare. Cuban officials complain that the long U.S. economic
embargo has left them without money to extend Internet service to more of the
island."We have to be realistic," Sergio Perez, director of the computer firm
Teledatos, told the Communist Party newspaper Granma recently.

With Cuba rationing food and medicines, "how are we not going to be limited
in giving citizens access to the Internet?"For Cuba's government, the arrival
of the Internet represents an opportunity to confront the 40-year-old U.S.
economic embargo.For years, cash-poor Cuba suffered from a lack of access to
technical information, from papers on the latest heart-surgery techniques to
civil engineering journals. Now, thanks to the Internet, it can download much
of what it needs for free.

The government also has complained that news reports about the island fail to
reflect what it sees as the Cuban reality. Now, with access to the Internet,
Cuba's leaders can offer their unfiltered ideas to the world.Granma is
available on the Web. A British Web site design company, working in
cooperation with the Cuban government's main software company, now has 40 Web
sites about Cuba online, getting about a million hits a month.

The company hopes to add 130 more sites this year on everything from Cuban
culture to specific towns on the island."By October 2001, Cuba will be the
only island in the Caribbean with a full, concise informational network
visible from the outside," says Stephen Marshall, the British entrepreneur
whose firm, Dimension W, has created most of the highly professional
sites.For a Cuban government long interested in maintaining tight societal
control, however, the Internet also is seen as a risk.

At Havana's elegant Capitol building, Cuba's first cyber-cafe is open for
business, but only for foreigners, who must show identification before
sitting down at one of the busy terminals.Across Old Havana, in a historic
palace facing the Plaza de Armas, writers and artists have unlimited access
to four computer terminals and to e-mail, but they cannot access the
Internet. Instead the computers connect only to Cuba's growing "intranet" of
national Web sites, users said.

At Havana's huge Central Computing Palace, hundreds of youths sit at computer
terminals each day, learning basic computer skills beneath a sign reading,
"We Believe in the Future."Such centers, which officials say now exist in 179
municipalities in Cuba, offer courses in Web design, if few opportunities to
use the Web itself.

A handful of students working on limited-term "special projects" are checking
their Yahoo e-mail accounts, but most students must take Web search requests
to an information center, which looks up the material and returns the
results."It's better this way, since most people don't know how to do a
search," says Damien Barcaz, subdirector of the center.

"The Internet is very new in Cuba."Such limitations are the rule in many
Cuban universities, hospitals and other sites with Internet access. At each,
a director can block sites considered inappropriate, something Cuban
officials say is perfectly normal in the Internet world."In what part of the
world is a doctor permitted, for example, to use a hospital computer to visit
pornographic sites, pirate information or chat online with a friend instead
of attending to their responsibilities?"

Perez noted in Granma."It's absolutely false that the government is ordering
controls over some specific site," he said. "It's the businesses or
institutions connected to the Internet that decide where their workers or
students navigate."Still, many Cuban Internet users complain that they are
limited to visiting sites only within their specialties, and that general
surfing of the Web is blocked.Users who try to call up the CNN in Spanish Web
site, for instance, receive a message that "the Web page you have solicited
is not available at the moment."

A foreigner, trying to access the same site at the same time on an unlimited
Internet account, gets the information with no problem. Other Web sites
offering news, sports scores or the opportunity to download music, are
similarly blocked.

That's a frustration for Cubans like Alexander Hernandez, 25, a tour guide
and writer at the artist's cyber-cafe. He says he is fascinated by
archeological digs at ancient Hittite cities of Turkey and would love to find
out more about them on the Web--but he doesn't have full Internet access.The
Internet "would be pretty useful," he says.Over a year and a half, one
computer programmer in Havana cobbled together a homemade computer from
outdated parts, combined with $50 in pieces bought new from sympathetic store
clerks.The telephone line he borrowed from a neighbor's house. And the
sign-on and password were loaned by an acquaintance. For four hours recently,
for the first time in his life, the 30-year-old managed to get on the
Internet."CNN in Spanish is the best site," he says, eyes lighting up at the
memory. He read about Vladimir Putin in Russia, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and
about the United States, "to know what's happening," he said.He dialed his
relatives in Miami, using a phone service site. He checked out the Chicago
Museum of Science and Industry Web page, and that of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology."My time was so limited I wasn't going to be wasting
it on porn sites," the science buff said.

Still, unofficial use of the Internet remains relatively minor in Cuba,
largely because so few Cubans have access to all three things needed to surf
the Web: a computer, a local account and a phone line.Computer sales are
carefully controlled in Cuba, and buyers must pay by check from a Cuban bank
and present a letter of accreditation. The same type of letter is needed to
open a local Internet account with access to sites outside Cuba. Modems are
not automatically included with computers, as they are in the United States.

A black market exists for computer components. But, as computer aficionados
attempting to build their own machines at home quickly find out, a 17-inch
monitor is not an easy thing to sneak past the legions of police who guard
street corners in Havana.Accounts, too, can be difficult to get."If I went to
Infocom [one of Cuba's leading Internet providers] to ask for an account,
they're going to say, `What for?'" said one young programmer. "The one time I
asked for an account [at a different provider], I was told I needed a letter
from the Chamber of Commerce."E-mail remains far more widely available in
Cuba than the full Internet.

And computers are slowly changing the lives of a growing number of Cubans,
particularly those in remote parts of the island who now have better
communications access.Maritza Rodriguez, 40, keeps up with overseas clients
for her tour guiding services via an e-mail account borrowed from a friend at
the artists' cyber-cafe. In Cuba's communally oriented socialist society,
e-mail accounts are often shared with neighbors, friends and co-workers,
giving more Cubans access than the official numbers suggest.In Cuba, everyone
agrees, the future of access to e-mail and the Internet will be at public
cyber-cafes, rather than in private homes.

Marshall says he hopes by the end of the year to work with the Cuban
government to open three or four cyber-cafes in Havana that will cater in
part to Cubans.Under Cuba's socialist system, "you can't have some people
with and some without" access, said Marshall, Cuba's main Web site creator.

Search WWW Search

Financial Flows
National Security
Joint Projects

Center for International Policy
1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-3317 / fax (202) 232-3440