The Web Washes Over Cuba, but Surfers Still Few

Economic hardship and a government wary of information flow hinder Internet's growth

University of Havana computer science majors Raul Gutierez and Miguel Herrera are shining examples of the anarchy of cyberspace. They cleverly skirt the Cuban government's tight control of the Internet to surf the World Wide Web despite the Communist country's information blockade.

Armed with only e-mail connections - e-mail access is permitted to select students by the government while Web connections are prohibited - Messrs. Herrera and Gutierez e-mail Web masters at selected sites around the world and ask for an attachment of their Web page. They then download the attachment from the return message onto their Web browser and can pull up anything, even anti-Castro propaganda.

"It's a slow way to surf," Herrera says, "but at least we're in the loop of the cyberworld."

Herrera, Gutierez, and their small band of Internet rebels are an anomaly in Cuba. The Internet has arrived on the isolated island, but not many people in the country know it. Most Cubans have a hard time finding a decent telephone connection. For most, a computer isn't even a thought.

This is no different than in many other developing countries. But in Cuba, more than 95 percent of the population is literate. This means it has a large number of readers who eventually may be able to take advantage of the benefits of the Internet.

Getting there will not be easy. A 35-year-old embargo imposed by the United States, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's former patron, have left the Cuban economy in shambles. The bulk of the country's infrastructure, including telecommunications, is antiquated. Most incoming information is heavily censored by the government.

Officially, Cuba is online. In January, Cuba announced its presence in cyberspace at an event featuring a big-screen television in the center of Havana. In front of a perplexed crowd, the government launched Cuba Web, a home page promoting tourism.

But economics have restricted widespread access to the Web.

Cuba legalized the use of dollars for tourism in 1994. Tourists, foreign business people, and black marketers feed this economy. An average Cuban makes about 110 pesos a month, about $5. An Internet connection with World Wide Web access costs about $260 a month here. E-mail costs about $67 per month.

"The Internet is only for priority sectors," says Ana Carbajal, a sales manager at the Center for the Interchange of Automated Information, CENAI in its Spanish acronym. The government agency is the only Internet-service provider in Cuba.

"Most Cubans can't afford access; it is really only for tourism, government officials, some students, and academics," she says.

The government won't let them get on anyway. As the only Internet-service provider, CENAI allows access only to those cleared by the government. It gives some computer-oriented university students, like Herrera and Gutierez, free e-mail access, but won't let them onto the Web.

Cuba also lacks the technological backbone to support a "wired" society. With its dilapidated buildings and rusted 1950s-vintage American cars, Cuba is in obvious decay. There are incongruent patches of modernity strewn throughout the country. A satellite dish can be seen adjacent to a battered building. The government telephone company, Etecsa, has fiber-optic lines and digital-switching systems. But most of the populace has archaic, noisy, analog lines. Data transmission over the Internet would be slow at best.

If more Herreras and Guitierezes emerge, will the newfound access to information begin to open up Cuba? Most observers don't think so.

"The Cuban government will repress this as soon as they realize it is a vehicle to [receive] information," says Jamie Suchliki, a professor of International studies at the University of Miami and a Cuba specialist.

Herrera and Guiterrez may have to continue to Web-surf patiently. Right now, for the rest of Cuba, the Internet revolution seems as far off as the Communist revolution 39 years ago.

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