Cuba Not So Libre With the Net
by Julia Scheeres
2:00 a.m. Feb. 23, 2001 PST
Internet and e-mail access in Cuba is as jealously guarded as Fidel Castro's chokehold on power. But that hasn't stopped enterprising Cubans from finding ways to flout government restrictions.
The Cuban government controls the country's only Internet gateway and four national ISPs. Out of 11 million Cubans, only about 40,000 academics and government workers are permitted to have Internet and e-mail accounts, according to government spokesman Luis Fernandez.
At best, Cuba's attitude toward the Internet could be described as patriarchal. Father Fidel knows best. At worst, it's a pothole in the information superhighway that will slow, but not impede, the Net's inexorable reach.
The official reason for the island's low connectivity is economic. The U.S. trade embargo forces Cuba to use an expensive, sluggish satellite connection and bandwidth must be doled out carefully, Fernandez said.
"The state subsidizes the Internet, so researchers have priority," Fernandez said.
The real reason lies somewhere between economics and politics. All Internet accounts must be registered through the National Center for Automated Data Exchange (CENIAI) for a whopping $260 a month. With the average Cuban making $240 a year, the Internet is a luxury few people can afford, even if they are lucky enough to have a phone line and computer for a dialup connection.
But even the privileged few don't have complete access. Sites that include pornography and anti-Castro rhetoric are blocked at the gateway. Just as the Cuban government jams the signals of pro-democracy radio stations broadcasting on the island, it filters out "subversive" Web pages, Fernandez said.
"We need to do the same with the Internet because we can't have things that undermine Cuban society," Fernandez said. "The Internet is used only for good purposes in Cuba."
As for e-mail, Fernandez said the government only monitors people who are "under investigation" for anti-revolutionary activities, although he wouldn't specify the actions that merit wiretapping.
Yet there are many ways to circumvent the rules, according to Cuba experts and independent journalists living on the island.
"Cuban young people are really hungry for information and have a sense of being left behind," said Juan Carlos Espinosa, professor of Cuban Studies at St. Thomas University in Miami. "Cubans are very inventive, despite all the ways the regime tries to control information."
Laptops donated by foreign friends are secretly plugged into phone jacks at work; Internet passwords are traded on a burgeoning black market; blocked Web pages are sent as text attachments; free Web-based e-mail accounts allow free speech; used components are pieced together with hacked software to create what locals call "Frankenstein" computers.
The tech-savvy youngsters who hop on the Net despite difficulties are called "gurus," said Hector Maseda, an independent journalist in Cuba.
"They laugh at the restrictions imposed by the government authorities," Maseda said.
The gurus that have been caught with clandestine Internet connections have had their equipment confiscated, he said. Maseda said dissident journalists routinely have their equipment seized and risk jail time for expressing anti-Castro views. Two reporters are currently serving jail time for "anti-revolutionary" activities.
Paranoia runs deep in everyone with ties to Cuba; no one wants to anger the government.
Several academics contacted for this story refused to speak on record, fearing their research on the island would be compromised if they were critical of the government. A Cuban programmer queried via e-mail had an American friend call this reporter to tell her not to send more electronic missives. The government screens e-mail, he said, and the questions about censorship were too conspicuous.
The fear of government wiretapping is so great that some families create code languages for their electronic correspondence, said a Cuban exile living in New Hampshire who asked to remain anonymous.
Dollars are referred to as vitamins, and arranging for the illegal emigration of a relative is referred to as "delivering a package of medicine."
"Nobody says things straight," he said. "If you live here you don't want to jeopardize anyone's situation there. They could go to jail just for receiving an anti-revolutionary e-mail."
In a country where letters show obvious signs of being opened and re-glued and a person will stroke his or her chin in reference to Castro rather than say his name aloud, this isn't surprising. Meanwhile, the Cuban government has capitalized on the Net by hosting tourism sites to pump up the island's primary industry and publishing Castro's perorations in six languages.
"Cuba is full of those paradoxes," said Espinosa. "They want the milk but they don't want to deal with the cow."