September 5, 1997
The Web Washes Over Cuba
but Surfers Still Few
Economic hardship and a government wary of information flow hinder
Internet's growthDavid Lipschultz, Special to The Christian
Science Monitor, Sep. 1997
University of Havana computer science majors Raul Gutierez and Miguel
Herrera are shining examples of the anarchy of cyberspace. They cleverly
the Cuban government's tight control of the Internet to surf the World
despite the Communist country's information blockade.
Armed with only e-mail connections - e-mail access is permitted to
students by the government while Web connections are prohibited - Messrs.
Herrera and Gutierez e-mail Web masters at selected sites around the world
ask for an attachment of their Web page. They then download the attachment
the return message onto their Web browser and can pull up anything, even
"It's a slow way to surf," Herrera says, "but at least
in the loop of the cyberworld."
Herrera, Gutierez, and their small band of Internet rebels are an
in Cuba. The Internet has arrived on the isolated island, but not many
the country know it. Most Cubans have a hard time finding a decent
connection. For most, a computer isn't even a thought.
This is no different than in many other developing countries. But in
more than 95 percent of the population is literate. This means it has a
number of readers who eventually may be able to take advantage of the
of the Internet.
Getting there will not be easy. A 35-year-old embargo imposed by the
States, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's former patron, have
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
page promoting tourism.
But economics have restricted widespread access to the Web.
Cuba legalized the use of dollars for tourism in 1994. Tourists,
business people, and black marketers feed this economy. An average Cuban
about 110 pesos a month, about $5. An Internet connection with World Wide
access costs about $260 a month here. E-mail costs about $67 per
"The Internet is only for priority sectors," says Ana
sales manager at the Center for the Interchange of Automated Information,
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
provider, CENAI allows access only to those cleared by the government. It
some computer-oriented university students, like Herrera and Gutierez,
e-mail access, but won't let them onto the Web.
Cuba also lacks the technological backbone to support a
society. With its dilapidated buildings and rusted 1950s-vintage American
Cuba is in obvious decay. There are incongruent patches of modernity
throughout the country. A satellite dish can be seen adjacent to a
building. The government telephone company, Etecsa, has fiber-optic lines
digital-switching systems. But most of the populace has archaic, noisy,
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
a vehicle to [receive] information," says Jamie Suchliki, a professor
International studies at the University of Miami and a Cuba
Herrera and Guiterrez may have to continue to Web-surf patiently.
now, for the rest of Cuba, the Internet revolution seems as far off as the
Communist revolution 39 years ago.