Strolling down halls decorated with portraits of Che Guevara, Damian Barcaz proudly shows off the classrooms at the Palace of Computing youth club in Havana. The club's assistant director points to a room of 7-year-olds: Around 10 vintage PCs--machines from the early 1980s with a 286 chip--huddle 19 kids, learning MS-DOS. Other classrooms are equipped with refurbished 386s and 486s. Then there are the handful of brand-new Pentiums that are the center's crown jewels.
Cutting edge it's not. But something even more vital is missing: Not a single computer here is connected to the Internet. Barcaz himself has surfed the Net only once, during a visit to a government-sponsored fair. He spent the entire 20-minute session scrolling through the CNN and Microsoft Web sites. He clearly feels the Net's allure. As a staunch defender of the Cuban Revolution, however, he has mixed feelings about the medium's potential. "There's bad information on the Internet as well as good information," he says.
TIGHT REIN. As the century winds down, the Net is extending its tendrils even into Communist Cuba. But only a small, trusted elite that includes government officials, scientists, and academics is allowed unfettered access. Like the Chinese government, which for years fretted over the dangers of unfiltered information, Cuba's Castro regime has been keeping a tight rein on cyberspace. But even Beijing now permits its citizens to surf the Net, while Havana does not. Out of a total population of 11 million, only an estimated 20,000 Cubans boast an e-mail address.
But Cubans are resourceful by necessity, and it's only a matter of time before more of them find ways to go online. And it's anyone's guess what impact the Internet and its freewheeling exchange of ideas will have on a society that for four decades has remained an island in more ways than just one.
Internet access for individuals has been available in Cuba only since 1997. Authorized users--a group that includes foreign press correspondents and employees of overseas companies operating in Cuba--can choose from three Internet service providers, all government-controlled. Monthly charges range from $15 for six hours of low-speed connection on the Infonet service run by telephone company ETECSA to as much as $560 for unlimited high-speed access on the Colombus network set up by a government ministry. Visiting tourists and business executives pay $5 an hour to log on at two public Internet centers. But ordinary Cubans are not allowed in: Only those who can prove they have Internet authorization can step through the door.
It's not too difficult to keep a lid on Internet use in a country where the average wage is just $20 a month. No one knows how many privately owned PCs there are in Cuba, but it can't be many. Telephone lines are also a luxury: There are just 3 per 100 inhabitants, and bandwidths are pitifully inadequate.
But Cubans, who must make do with shortages of just about everything, are accustomed to sharing. Many log on surreptitiously at the home of a friend lucky enough to have both a PC and a telephone line, using a password borrowed from someone who works for a government institute or for one of the multilateral agencies that have offices in Cuba.
The few that have authorized access to the Net generally confine their surfing to government-sanctioned sites, aware that abuse might cost them their privileges. One of these is Infomed (www.infomed.sld.cu), an intranet set up by the Cuban Academy of Sciences that caters primarily to the island's medical and scientific community. Infomed, which started up in 1992 with a $300,000 grant from the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), links health authorities in Havana to hospitals and doctors in the provinces and provides access to research from hundreds of scientific institutes around the world. The site logs more than 20,000 visits each day, according to founder Pedro Urra.
Urra, 39, who prefers polo shirts to the Guayabera shirts worn by most Cuban officials, is also one of the architects of Cubaweb (www.cubaweb.cu), which has been dubbed Castro's Web site. He and his pal Anibal Quevedo, a former tourism official, have built a site that reflects a Cuban point of view--the official one, that is.
Quevedo, 35, had a tough time getting Cubaweb off the ground. In September, 1996, when it was launched, Cuban exiles hacked into the site, briefly shutting it down. Today, the operation boasts a sturdy firewall and backup servers in Canada and Europe. A state-run company called Segurmatica keeps an eye out for computer viruses, from garden-variety types such as Melissa to some 20 strains developed specifically by "enemies of Cuba" overseas.
MISGIVINGS. Cubaweb almost became a victim of its own success. In March, 1996, when Cuba shot down two airplanes piloted by an anti-Castro group in Florida, Quevedo began posting Castro's speeches and other details of the Cuban response on their site. CNN broadcast Cubaweb's address, and the number of hits skyrocketed. The only problem was that Cubaweb was using a dial-up connection to Toronto and had to pay its Canadian provider by the number of hits. "In just four days, we had to pay them $30,000," recalls Quevedo. "So we called CNN and begged them to take our address off the screen."
Initially, Cubaweb's founders also had to overcome strong misgivings from Cuban officials, who viewed the Internet as subversive, recalls Quevedo. "It was an influence coming from the North" where the "enemy" dwelled, he says. But now officials recognize the Internet's allure, and the site, which gets 8 million hits a month, earns $8,500 a month running banner ads from outfits such as state-run tourism company Cubanacan. Exiles can use the site to transfer money into their relatives' Cuban bank accounts. Fans of Cuban music can even buy CDs online.
State officials are still wary of relinquishing control over the Internet. After all, Cuba carefully screens what its citizens watch on the two state-controlled TV channels, and official newspapers carry only the news the government wants its people to read. "The Internet could be a very valuable instrument for development," says Dagoberto Rodriguez, a foreign ministry official. But, he adds, "it's a very recent phenomenon in Cuba, and we're just taking the first steps now to come up with an Internet policy to avoid its use for illegal purposes." Yet the Internet by its very nature is subversive: It gets information to people who don't have it. And that's scary stuff in these waning days of Castro's rule.