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Web of Resistance Rises in Cuba

By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, Tuesday 26 December 2000; Page A01

HAVANA - A nerdy new rebel has emerged in Cuba: the Internet guerrilla.

His laptop case has replaced the beret as the signature of revolution among thousands of mostly young male professionals, who through subversive cunning have become nearly as wired as anyone in the world despite Cuban law prohibiting unauthorized private Internet use.

Known among themselves as informaticos, they represent resistance to a government that has sought to stifle the flow of information since the revolution four decades ago. Encouraged by tentative government steps to wire the country, the growing number of Cubans who ignore official prohibitions to look at foreign news pages, listen to pirate music sites and browse computer training courses online are speeding along Cuba's plodding journey into the information age.

"I'm a member of the generation born just after the revolution," said a 31-year-old engineer, who like other illegal Internet users agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. "We all saw the giant Soviet mainframe computers linked together that did so little. The PC and Internet are new, independent ways of thinking. To us, Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds are gurus."

After watching the flow of information help fuel the Soviet Union's disintegration, Cuba's Communist government has clamped down on Internet technology even as the number of users throughout the rest of Latin America has doubled each year. Controlling what Cubans read and hear has been part of President Fidel Castro's rule from the beginning. In theory, Cubans have access only to state-run newspapers and government television and radio, but many listen regularly to foreign news broadcasts.

That the Internet poses a serious threat to the information monopoly has not eluded the leadership; Cuba has one of the lowest per capita rates of computer and telephone ownership in the hemisphere. Only a select few Cubans, mostly those with access to U.S. dollars, can afford a computer, even with deep discounts that come with government approval. Buying them on the black market is illegal. But, according to dissidents and computer enthusiasts, thousands of young Cubans do so, and the practice is well known.

Internet connections are prohibited without government permission. Only about 40,000 officials, businesses and foreigners in a country of 11 million people have been authorized to link up, the government estimates. But thousands more have found a way to plug into the official links without permission.

The government is just beginning to test the waters of the information age after years of blaming the U.S. trade embargo for depriving Cuba of the resources to prepare for it. Cuba plans to open a dozen cyber-cafes around Havana next year with foreign investment and to spend $100 million annually to bring in digital phone lines, wireless technology and other advances that could expand Internet availability.

Across the Spanish colonial-era capital, signs of a dot-com world are sprouting. Computer courses offered at youth clubs are jammed with students ranging in age from 4 to 40. A new breed of Internet entrepreneur has arrived, helping the government create Web pages mostly designed to lure tourists to the island. Streets are being torn up to install digital phone lines and cable.

"Without the U.S. blockade, we'd already have the resources to put the Internet in homes, offices, everywhere," said Francisco Miranda, who runs a rubber factory and receives government-approved discounts on computer equipment that bring prices down 75 percent.

Whether a liberalization of government Internet policy will accompany the new investment remains to be seen. Cuban dissidents say they believe the prohibition on home Internet connections will remain and that any Internet access in public places will be monitored by the government and cost too much for most Cubans.

"Castro wants to keep Cuba like a medieval fortress surrounded by a moat," said Elizardo Sanchez, a leading dissident. "For us, we would be jailed for using it, although I don't know if anyone has been so far. We have to have friends in the government who will allow us to use theirs to get any access at all."

Others essentially steal it, using authorized passwords assigned to the businesses where they work to log on to the Internet at home.

Behind the tin door of a crumbling building on the edge of Old Havana, a bare light bulb illuminates two chairs, a rusting refrigerator and a globe next to a partition of glass and wood. The partition hides a computer, cobbled together with parts bought on the thriving black market. There is no brand name on the casing and no top to hide the workings inside. It looms there like a stolen car in a suburban garage.

A high-pitched whistle and crackle rise above the street noise, a Yahoo Spanish-language home page pops onto the screen. With slicked-back hair and faded khakis, the computer's 26-year-old owner types the Web address for CNN en espanol, scans the headlines, then enters a site called dialpad.com where he places a free call to his sister in the United States.

"There is a very big group of us here who are huge enthusiasts," he said. "In a way, we are a kind of underground."

While limiting private Internet use, the Cuban government has embraced the financial possibilities of e-commerce. Stephen Marshall, a British citizen with a ponytail and seafront office at the Hemingway Marina here, has created 60 Web sites in partnership with the Cuban government since arriving five years ago. He said he will have 168 sites within three months, many of them linked to his travel agency.

At 32, Marshall is making enough money to decorate his office with the striking antique furniture of Havana's pre-revolutionary mayors, and he recently donated $1 million in medicine to Pinar del Rio province. He is also investing $2.5 million in seven cyber-cafes in partnership with the government.

"Here the cyber-cafes will be the Internet," Marshall said. "You open up a whole can of worms when one guy on the street can buy a PC and go online and the next guy can't. So this allows everyone access."

The government's first two cyber-cafes, which opened this year, are not as accessible as Marshall envisions. The first opened in Havana's graceful pre-revolution capitol building last summer. But with Internet use costing $5 per hour -- about half the average Cuban monthly salary -- the cafe is still used mainly by tourists and select Cubans who are paid in U.S. currency.

In October, the government opened a second cyber-cafe in the centuries-old Palacio del Segundo Cabo on Old Havana's Plaza de Armas. The monthly membership fee is 50 cents, but only members of the government-sanctioned writers union and a young artists group are permitted to use the six terminals. The cafe's computers were filled on a recent weekday, with a line forming along the coffee bar. But even these computers are filtered to allow access only to selected cultural Web sites.

"Generally, there is no place for us except in offices, stores and universities," said Evelio Perez Paula, 32, a member of a young artists association who is making compact disc anthologies of Cuban art to sell. "This has started pretty slowly. But I think it could become a popular spot."

A few blocks away in central Havana, a framed note hangs on the wall of a youth center for computer training. "I'm envious," it reads in sprawling marker, signed by Castro at the center's inauguration in 1991. On the far wall a slogan reads: "We believe in the future."

Upstairs, the classrooms are filled with students, some too young to read but learning how to use a mouse. They fill their screens with drawings of people on a summer picnic. In the next room, older students learn HTML, the programming language of the Internet. But the future has been slow in coming; although the government plans to bring Internet access to more than a 100 youth clubs, the work is probably a year from completion.

The wait has been unacceptable to many young Cubans, including some being trained in the prestigious Instituto Superior Politecnico Jose Antonio Echeverria. The university, Cuba's equivalent of MIT, occupies a complex of peeling concrete buildings near the airport adorned with Communist murals. Among its graduates are members of Castro's inner circle, and it is the chief recruiting location for arriving dot-com executives who just a few years ago looked to the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands for qualified high-tech workers.

A nerd chic has emerged, meanwhile, among Havana's computer-savvy youths. On a recent night, the 26-year-old Internet pirate and his 30-year-old friend headed out into Havana's bustling streets to catch a movie during a recent film festival. Both had laptop cases slung over their shoulders, although only one actually had a laptop.

"On weekends, we have LAN [local area network] parties," said the 30-year-old, where 20 or so friends link laptops for chats and mutual Web surfing. "I can show you places on the Internet where you can find the Microsoft code," he bragged.

The 26-year-old uses the Internet password from his workplace to log on, which he compares to borrowing a neighbor's phone. A computer student in the youth clubs a few years ago, the 26-year-old said he knows 32 Internet sites where he can make free calls to the United States at a time the government is blocking incoming U.S. calls.

"To me, none of this is a crime," he said. "If I were distributing anti-government propaganda on the Web, that would be. I look at this as if I didn't have a phone and was borrowing my neighbor's to make a call.

"We're not much different than computer people anywhere else in the world," he continued. "But here we just have to be more creative because we have so few resources available. And we have to be careful because this is Cuba."

2000 The Washington Post