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Web-browsing age is slowly beginning to click in Cuba

By VANESSA BAUZA Sun-Sentinel      
Web-posted: 12:04 a.m. Mar. 2, 2001

HAVANA -- This month, Cuba's Central Palace of Computing will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

   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."

    Although there 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.

    "Not everyone knows how to do a search," said Joven Club assistant director Damian Barcaz.

    Cuba has 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 Doctors and scientists in Havana praise it as a tool to sidestep dusty, out-of-date journals.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 available."

    Still, access to the Internet, and therefore the world, remains out of most Cubans' reach.

    On this island of 11 million, the Ministry of Communications and Information reported about 3,600 permanent Internet accounts through four government-operated providers.

    40,000 e-mails

    There 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.

    Most Cubans 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.

    Throughout the 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 others.

    "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 limitations?"

    Pérez and 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 digital.

     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.

    The government chalks up the lack of Internet availability to overall shortages in the economy and the embargo, which is often blamed for Cuba's woes.

     "It is 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 a friend?"

     If Cubans 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.

    Cuba Web site

    "By 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 Hemingway.

    Marshall has been working on the island since 1995 and his flagship site,, 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 Canada.

    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 Cubans.

    The government 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.

    There already are some Cuban techies who are not waiting for cyber-cafes or post-office terminals.

    Homemade computer

     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.

    Although he 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.

    "There are 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 it."

    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 sites.

    Regardless of the challenges facing the burgeoning Internet culture, interest on the island continues to grow.

    Just steps 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.

    Beatles tunes 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 later.

    The 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.

    About 150 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 hour.

    One painter 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 Basquiat.

    A writer was searching for the poems of Joseph Brodsky.

    Though the Internet could be a powerful tool to overcome Cuba's book shortage, users at the cyber-cafe said searches were often clumsy and time-consuming.

    "You'll be using it and all of a sudden the connection will drop off," said one user who declined to be named.

    Vanessa Bauza can be reached at


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