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Desperate to get online, Cubans find mostly illegal ways

By PATRICK OPPMANN

St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


HAVANA -- Timeworn American automobiles from the 1950s glide through the streets here, and the island's leadership stubbornly clings to communism, but Cuba might soon be catching up with the rest of the world -- at least when it comes to the Internet.

The government recently announced an increase in the number of Cubans with access to e-mail and the World Wide Web.

Cubans wanting to get a first look at the information age are crowding into a cyber cafe that opened last year in Havana. State officials and foreign entrepreneurs say dozens of similar establishments are in the works.

At the same time, in a country where parts are scarce and the state restricts who can buy a computer, some Cubans find innovative -- and often illegal -- ways to go online.

Sitting in an Old Havana apartment along a crumbling block untouched by the citywide restoration project, Cristina demonstrates how a new class of Cubans have clandestinely joined the Internet revolution.

In a stifling, windowless room, Cristina, 34, unplugs the only fan to power up her computer, a patched-together Hewlett-Packard. The former technician, who like other illegal Internet users asked that her full name not be used, built the computer with pieces brought by relatives visiting from the United States or bought in Havana's thriving black market.

Using an access code she bought from a friend at a Cuban-Spanish joint venture, Cristina spends 20 fruitless minutes trying to connect. Suddenly, the homepage for the Spanish-language version of the search engine Google fills the small monitor. She is online.

"Cubans have become the world authorities on making do with less," Cristina explained while opening a new message on her free, Web-based Hotmail account. "Because of the crisis some people have to use Soviet parts to fix American cars or they roll fake cigars to sell to tourists. I built a computer."

Gilberto, a 29-year-old English teacher, stops by to see if Cristina has a part for his computer, an outdated Compaq laptop damaged by a power surge.

The teacher mentions a friend from the States who is helping him build a Web site to advertise the apartment he rents out to tourists.

"We are not really hackers," Gilberto said of Cubans, who, like him, have found ways to plug into the Net. "We are more like pirates, we steal or borrow passwords to go online using the government service providers," he said.

The Cuban techies recognize their hobby puts them at risk.

"If the police knew I did this they would confiscate my computer," Cristina said. "I can't say why. It's not like I look at pornography or go to counter-revolutionary sites. I almost never even look at news Web sites, except for CNN En Espanol to check the weather."

It's possible, but hard to get online legally

A few blocks away from Cristina's illegal Internet hookup, near the colonial Plaza De Armas, Cubans stand in line to get an officially approved, if somewhat more limited, glimpse of the Internet at the Aleph cyber cafe.

Named for a short story by the Argentine writer Jose Luis Borges, in which a character is able to see all creation through a mystical portal, the Aleph cafe stands at the back of a columned 18th century palace built when the Spanish occupied the island.

"Our aim is really to provide a way for novelists or artists to be able to send their work abroad," said Johanna Remirez, a supervisor at the government-run cafe.

The cafe provides members with six hours a month of e-mailing time for 10 pesos, around 50 cents.

Still, Cubans wanting to join the club are required to jump through bureaucratic hoops and travel to the other side of the city to get membership forms. Only after they get permission from a state-sponsored writers union can club members start sending e-mails.

Government authorities estimate that about 60,000 Cubans have e-mail accounts, mostly through universities, workplaces or computer clubs.

There is, however, no Internet access at the Aleph. Cafe supervisors have promised connections to the Web once the club's phone lines are improved.

Two other Internet cafes in the Capitolio building offer full Web browsing capabilities, but mainly for foreign tourists paying in dollars. Most Cubans, usually earning about $20 a month in pesos, can't afford the $5-an-hour cost.

According to Johanna Remirez, the controls and lack of Internet access have not put a damper on members' enthusiasm for the Aleph cafe. Since the club opened in October, the supervisor said, nearly 200 Cubans have become members, creating long waits to use the half-dozen monitors.

Despite limits, companies see opening for profits

Even as the Cuban government makes a tentative opening to the Net, some foreign businessmen are bullish about Cuba's potential as a capital of the wired world.

Situated on the outskirts of Havana, the office of the e-commerce company Dimension W is as frenzied as any Wall Street investment bank. Phones ring every two seconds, employees surf the Net and the company chief, Stephen Marshall paces while trying to get clearer cell phone reception and lighting another cigarette.

"We hope to open seven cyber cafes and build another hundred Web sites," said Marshall, a Briton. The company, a multimillion dollar joint venture with Cuba, has posted 42 sites, many of them promoting tourism on the island.

Besides package tours, the Web sites offer foreign visitors assistance in donating medicines or arranging a marriage.

"Most people here who work for the government or a foreign firm or go to school have access. So in that sense Cubans are already online," Marshall said. The ponytailed entrepreneur says his cyber cafe project promises greater accessibility, with debit cards for university students that can be bought in Cuban pesos, and full Internet connections.

Although the government plans to install digital phone lines and connect post offices to the Web, officials concede there are limitations on the Net's future in Cuba.

"We have limited resources and decided they should be distributed based on need," Sergio Perez, director of the state-run Internet service provider Teledatos, told Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper.

He said that the island, under a U.S. embargo and suffering from food and medicine shortages, will be hard-pressed to pay for costly Web infrastructure.

Many Cuban techies, like Cristina and Gilberto, claim the government uses the economic crisis as an excuse to control who goes online.

"They only approve access for people they know are loyal, people who are comunistas-capitalistas," Gilberto said, using a well-known term for Cubans who parlay status as a Communist Party member into coveted tourism jobs that pay in dollars and provide access to computers.

Several Cubans with Internet access said that since December the government has successfully blocked Internet protocol telephone sites like the popular Dialpad.com, which once allowed Cubans to make free calls to the United States over the Web.

In December, the Cuban government also cut direct telephone communications with the United States after a dispute over phone revenues.

For Gilberto and Cristina, the blocking is a bad omen for the future of the Web in Cuba.

"I'm worried about how much Internet they will allow here," Gilberto said as he watched Cristina locking up the small room where she keeps her contraband computer. "Once people are informed, they become harder to manipulate."

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