Havana online

In Cuba, black market Internet access makes it easier for prostitutes to get connected than doctors.

Published October 10, 2001 7:01PM (EDT)

The apartment is an unlikely home for Cuba's burgeoning Internet revolution, the last place in the world that might encourage the use of words like "superhighway" or "digital." The walls are coated with plaster ready to crumble at a simple touch. A half-century-old mufflerless Chevy booms out a loud groan with a belch of exhaust on the narrow street two feet from the door. From appearances, you could be in any normal Cuban home in Old Havana. Instead you're in the residence of one of Cuba's few cyber criminals.

Rodrigo (who requested his name be changed for obvious reasons) is a little nervous. He is dressed in knockoff Gap khakis and a Polo button-down. He speaks some English, enough to show he's not a simple Cuban peasant but not enough to speak his mind. He circles the room a few times as if he is wondering how it is that I got here and what exactly he is supposed to say. Hadn't he made it very clear to my Cuban liaison that he was hesitant to discuss his extracurricular work? Still, he has let me into his house. He seems to feel some desire to self reveal.

Rodrigo is a classic example of modern Cuba's penchant for glaring contradictions. He is a member and employee of the Young Communist Association (YCA), an organization that espouses the communist axioms of anti-individualism and group equality. Yet he is also a totally self-motivated free marketer. As a systems administrator for the YCA he helps manage its computer network so that a very select group of academics and government officials can access the Internet. But in the true spirit of modern Cuba, he also steals all their logins and passwords and resells them on a newly formed black market to wannabe Net surfers.

In his day job he makes around $15 per month. His night job brings in $50 a person per month, and already he has a roster of dozens of customers.

He's a typical Cuban capitalist. He may be a member of the new economy, but he's not so different from the thousands of cigar factory workers who steal boxes of Cohibas with $150 price tags and then resell them for $40 on the black market. Or the rum peddlers who have been taking advantage of the fact that the end of the Cold War, and the demise of Cuba's chief benefactor, the Soviet Union, have forced Castro to open up Cuba to tourism and the U.S. dollars that come with it.

"The people live here off stealing from the government," says Alfonso, an ex-government security officer who won't divulge his last name.

And for some reason, maybe because he already assumes everyone knows this, or just out of simple entrepreneurial pride, Rodrigo does eventually sit down in front of me and begin talking about his illicit activities. "Even if the government tries to control it, people here understand that information is everything and they'll pay to get it," he says. "So I found a way to give it to them."

So who are Rodrigo's customers? Oddly, they aren't the country's elite but rather its counter-elite. $50 a month is a prohibitive sum of money for even upper echelon professionals in a country where the average wage is about $20 per month. But thanks to the influx of greenbacks, the class of Cubans who live in the dollar economy can get online.

That class is filled with people outside the normal state-run workforce -- hotel workers, underground restaurant owners, freelance tour guides, street scammers of all sorts and prostitutes. A hotel worker gets a buck here and there. A prostitute, at $20 a pop, can make exponentially more money. Put that in perspective: A lawyer makes $20 per month in a Cuban currency that's only accepted in state stores with limited merchandise. A doctor makes a similar amount. The result: A prostitute can surf the Web but a lawyer who doesn't have special governmental privileges can't.

Rodrigo has a client who is a prostitute. Like all of Rodrigo's clients, for her $50 she receives a password and login belonging to someone else. She's allowed access to the Internet only when the authorized owner of that login is certain to be offline -- from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. According to Rodrigo, she is desperately trying to leave Cuba. She wants to go to the U.S., but she's wary of the dangerous, 80-mile ocean stretch to Miami. The only safe way out she can envision is via marriage, says Rodrigo. So she uses Rodrigo, and the Internet, to post her picture and other vital details on the Net in the hope that a Web-surfing, Latin-loving (and surely desperate) American will take her hand in marriage -- and take her body to the U.S.

"She's not unusual," says Rodrigo. Many of his clients want to use the Internet as a tool to find a way out of Cuba. But others, he says, just want to be part of the information culture, to be on par with everyone else in the world. With a world-renowned literacy rate -- some estimate that it's as high as 90 percent -- Cubans are far from typical Third World citizens, despite their poverty. Cubans are highly educated, and produce world-recognized research in numerous fields.

"They want to be in the loop with other people around the world," says Rodrigo, who is getting an engineering degree at the University of Havana.

But that's exactly what the government hopes will not happen. According to Luis Fernandez, a government spokesman, only 40,000 academics and government officials (out of 11 million people) who can prove that they have special reasons for surfing are allowed Net access. One of the reasons for this, says the government, is that the country is so economically starved due to the U.S. embargo that it simply can't afford to build the infrastructure to supply Internet access.

But that's only partly true. Undoubtedly there are many technical deficiencies. The satellites relaying data in and out of the country are antiquated, and the local telephone loop, if it's even accessible, is often ancient. Many Cubans can't afford a telephone line, much less a computer.

But "they have fiber crisscrossing the country built out by the Russians," says Albert Weintraub, a WorldCom board member who used to be in charge of coordinating phone and data traffic from Cuba to the U.S. for his company. "The technology is there in many places."

Governmental fear of unfettered flows of information is likely to be a much bigger obstacle to widespread Internet access than any infrastructure issue. The government owns the TV stations, the radio and the newspapers. The information that passes through these mediums is censored. The government also owns and manages all four of the country's ISPs through an agency called the National Center for Automated Data Exchange (CENIAI). And all Internet data passes a government-controlled Internet gateway. Castro is on record as vehemently resisting any major change that might lead to more openness.

Once connected to the Internet, a Cuban could, in theory, get anything from anti-Castro propaganda to boating routes from Cuba to Florida. But even for the lucky few with a connection, access is still censored. Rodrigo says that e-mail is monitored by software programs that flag any mention of words such as "anti" or "Castro."

Such censorship is not without its loopholes, however. Cuban surfers, for example, can get blocked Web pages sent to them as text attachments, rather than HTML, and pass under the government's radar. "There are lots of ways to jump the fence," says Anival Cuevedo, the country manager of Cubaweb, a joint venture between a Canadian company and the Cuban government that is the only Web development studio in the country. "The Chinese tried to filter and it didn't work either."

The Cuban revolution promised economic equality, but if you have the right connections you can go to the beach resort of Varadero to play a $150 round of golf while others can't even get meat on a regular basis. As George Orwell wrote in the novel "Animal Farm," his satiric fable about communist revolution: "All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others."

Well before I start toward the door of his apartment and into the cacophony of the street, it's clear that Rodrigo fully understands that. That's probably why he doesn't show any overt remorse for subverting the government to make money. Quite the opposite: He believes his role as an access point for the black market Net will force a beneficial political shift. "The Internet is something that will not go away. It will only have to grow here," he says. "Eventually the culture here of limited information will have to change."

By David Lipschultz

David Lipschultz's writing on technology and international affairs has appeared in the New York Times, Forbes, Smart Money and Red Herring magazine.

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