Web of Resistance Rises in
Rebels Defy Restrictions on Internet
Use, Link Up to the World
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 26, 2000; Page A01
HAVANA -- A nerdy new rebel has emerged in Cuba: the Internet
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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 Company