Web-browsing age is slowly beginning to click
Also known as the Joven Club, the palace has graduated thousands of students from its computer training programs under a sign that says, "We believe in the Future."
is growing demand for more Cubans trained to build Web sites and to
navigate the latest technology, few of the students who have
graduated have ever done an Internet search. Most of the palace
computers have no Internet access and so students must take their
search requests to the club's "Information Center," which conducts
the research for them.
knows how to do a search," said Joven Club assistant director Damian
embraced the Internet's ability to attract foreign investors and
tourists. Doctors and scientists in Havana praise it as a tool to
sidestep dusty, out-of-date journals.
It also has
become a way for Cuba to disseminate and control information from
the island. Or as Barcaz puts it, "Make our reality, our truth
to the Internet, and therefore the world, remains out of most
On this island
of 11 million, the Ministry of Communications and Information
reported about 3,600 permanent Internet accounts through four
are 10 times that many people connecting to e-mail on about 40,000
accounts. Half of these accounts have international access and the
rest are restricted to Cuba.
seeking a glimpse of the world outside their shores still rely on
surreptitious searches, a borrowed password or a generous Web
administrator. Those who do have passwords and access to computers
at work often share them with friends who furtively surf the Web or
send e-mails after hours.
island, full Internet access is mostly limited to employees at joint
venture companies, ministry officials, professional and cultural
institutions, diplomats, journalists and a few select
"We have to be
realists," Sergio Pérez, director of the Cuban company Teledatos,
told the state-run newspaper Granma last month. "Cuba, a poor
country which is economically blocked by the biggest imperialist
powerhouse in the world, has food rations and a shortage of medical
supplies. How is it that we also wouldn't have Internet access
other government officials blame the lack of access on outdated
infrastructure. Only about one in 23 people has a telephone. Out of
473,031 telephone lines, only 120,000 are
Even if they
had the infrastructure, most Cubans could not afford the cost on the
average worker's 220 pesos per month salary ($10). An Internet
account costs about $100 for 100 hours of access. But these accounts
are primarily available to foreigners.
Not only is
the $1,300 price tag on a computer prohibitive for most citizens,
but buying a machine is also a bureaucratic process requiring in
many cases a bank account, which most Cubans don't have, and a
letter of approval from the state.
chalks up the lack of Internet availability to overall shortages in
the economy and the embargo, which is often blamed for Cuba's woes.
absolutely false that the government is controlling specific sites.
It is the companies or institutions connected to the Internet that
decide where its workers and students browse," Pérez said in the
Granma article. "In what country in the world is a doctor
allowed to use a hospital computer to visit porn sites or chat with
have trouble accessing information about the world beyond their
shores, a handful of foreign entrepreneurs working on the island are
making sure tourists and investors have no trouble finding
information about Cuba.
October of this year Cuba will probably be the only island in the
Caribbean with a full, concise nationwide information network
visible from the outside. Everything you can think of, from the
nicest beaches to where you can find a burger in Holguin," said
British entrepreneur Stephen Marshall, who operates 40 Cuba Web
sites from his office in a pastel-colored villa at Havana's Marina
been working on the island since 1995 and his flagship site,
GoCuba.com, an online travel agency, offers services ranging from
planning a wedding to landing a private jet in Havana. Other sites
focus on Cuban movies, sports and even an online art gallery where
Cuban paintings and sculptures are sold and billed through
He says his
company, in 50/50 partnership with Cuban firms, plans to open seven
cyber-cafes that would bill clients in either pesos or dollars to
make the Internet more accessible to
is also exploring the possibility of setting up a network of
computers for Cubans, payable in pesos at post offices across the
country. Initially they would only have access to the 400
government-run Web sites.
are some Cuban techies who are not waiting for cyber-cafes or
One self-taught programmer who declined to be named said he has
cobbled together a Frankenstein-like computer with parts bought
legally and on the black market. He started with the simple things
-- a keyboard, a mouse -- and worked up to the more conspicuous and
therefore harder to come by monitor.
tried to get an Internet account through one of Cuba's four
providers, he found the paperwork was a complex bureaucratic process
requiring state approval.
very few people who have access," he said. "You are a foreigner, you
can have an e-mail account. Let's say I'm Cuban and I have $3,000
for whatever reason. I go to Infocom (one of Cuba's Internet
providers) and want to open an account. They say, 'What for?' Many
years ago I started to look around to see where I could get a
mailbox. When I saw so many problems, I decided to drop
So far he has
only surfed the Net once, for four hours, on an Internet account
borrowed from a friend. Quickly, he cruised from one site to
another, chatting with an aunt in Miami, reading Headline News on
CNN in Spanish and visiting high-tech
the challenges facing the burgeoning Internet culture, interest on
the island continues to grow.
from Havana's oldest square, in the back room of an 18th-century
colonial building, a handful of art and literature students take
turns checking their e-mail at one of Cuba's cyber-cafes. Students
have no direct access to the Internet, and only two of four
computers were working.
It is at best
a tentative step toward the information age. Still, the cyber-cafes'
limited services are in demand.
softly play in the background as students poke their heads into the
small, air-conditioned room to see if a computer is available. More
often than not they are told to come back
cyber-cafe's only Internet connection is through a server, which is
hooked up to a computer at the Book Institute, Cuba's main
publishing house. For Web searches, users go to the cafe's
administrator, who clicks on the system's menu of links to museums,
such as Madrid's Prado or New York City's Museum of Modern Art, as
long as the unreliable Internet connection is not interrupted.
students have registered to use the cafe's computers. They pay 10
pesos, about 50 cents, a month for six hours of e-mail use and an
additional two pesos for every additional
said he has searched through books to find the work of Jackson
Pollock, and he was eager to look up the graffiti art of Jean-Michel
A writer was
searching for the poems of Joseph Brodsky.
Internet could be a powerful tool to overcome Cuba's book shortage,
users at the cyber-cafe said searches were often clumsy and
using it and all of a sudden the connection will drop off," said one
user who declined to be named.
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