Visit Cuba Cyberspace.2Day

Despite new economic sanctions and travel restrictions, castrolania is just a few computer clicks away.

In keeping with the absurdist temor of U.S.-Cuban relations over the past 35 years, at the very moment President Clinton was approving harsh trade sanctions against the island last week, Cuban technicians were putting the final touches on the national website of the Republic of Cuba. Their handiwork can now be inspected by anyone with a computer and a modem.

Oriented toward tourism and business, the home page (http://www.cubaweb.cu) touts joint ventures such as the manufacture of "biologic rodenticide BIORAT," stainless-steel containers, and hematocritic capillary tubes. Interested in Cuban merchandise but not ready to commit to a full partnership? The Cuban government is also using the Internet to shill for its scientific research facilities. Product lines include placental extract for shampoo, electro-acupuncture equipment, and an "injectable immunomodulator," as well as handy services such as the treatment of both radioactive waste and psoriasis, and something called "scalp autotransplants."

American citizens, of course, have for years been prohibited from conducting business with the island. Under the new Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (known informally as the Helms-Burton Bill), Cubans who now reside in the United States can sue foreign businesses that "traffic" in property they claim once belonged to them before being expropriated by Fidel Castro. Also foreign businessmen who are accused of benefiting from confiscated property can be denied entry into the United States.

However, neither the new law nor the older regulations apply directly, if at all, within the legal warp of cyberspace, where Cuban universities, think tanks, hotels, restaurants, and tour operators have set up user-friendly environments geared to attract everyone from hedonists interested in exploring tropical pleasures to corporate emissaries scouting for investment opportunities.

According to a spokesman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control in Washington, D.C., the Cuba home page is regarded as a form of information exchange, which is permitted under existing laws. Thus, while transactions related to traveling to Cuba generally require a special license, virtual visits via the information superhighway have the U.S. government's blessing.

A logical place to start is at the home page for the National Website of the Republic of Cuba, the equivalent of a table of contents. By clicking on signposts leading to tourist information, the Internet explorer is escorted past billboards of international airline schedules, through the lobby of the plush Hotel Nacional, past a message to foreign travel agents, and into a catalogue of excursions provided by Havanatur. Among the packages are day trips to famed Varadero beach, a tour of the Valley of Vi*ales in Pinar del Rio, opportunities for spelunking, bathing in underwater rivers, and a visit to a rum factory.

Although Cuba is not yet offering direct travel booking via the Internet, there are few technological obstacles to doing so. The site already lists an e-mail address to which queries may be directed for further information.

"I think [the Website] will help the Cubans out a lot if they can post up-to-date information as opposed to tourist pamphlets and a map of the island," opines Steve Cisler, a senior scientist at Apple Computer, Inc. "I think it really might be revolutionary in the capitalist sense." ("Our LAN in Havana," an article by Cisler about Cuban computing, can be found at ftp://ftp.apple.com/alug/travel/cuba.trip.)

The Cuban government was uncustomarily efficient in posting its explanation of the February 24 shootdown of two unarmed Brothers to the Rescue planes. Not only did the government provide English and Spanish versions of the statement prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs soon after it was issued, but the "News" section of the Cuba home page also carried a chronology of alleged violations of Cuban air space dating back to May 15, 1994. Visitors to the "News" section could also peruse a transcript of a television interview with Juan Pablo Roque, the Cuban double agent who had flown with the Brothers; an interview with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's national assembly; Cuba's response to Madeleine Albright's remarks at the United Nations; and a brief biography of Jose Basulto that described the head of Brothers to the Rescue as "a CIA agent since 1960."

This, naturally, is the world according to Fidel Castro. But those who don't like it are just a few key strokes away from hooking up to the home page of the Cuban American National Foundation (http://www.icanect.net/canfnet/index.htm), replete with its own interpretation of the Brothers's fateful flight, including snippets of conversation between one of the MiG pilots and his ground controller, a sound file containing Albright's now famous condemnation of the attack, a veritable encyclopedia of diplomatic declarations about the incident, press releases by the megabyte, and the full text of the new embargo law.

Yet another perspective is available on the home page of CubaPress, an independent news-gathering organization that is staffed by Cuban journalists in Havana (http://www.voicenetsl.com/cubapress). Headed by Raul Rivero, CubaPress is one of several groups of writers who have broken with the Cuban government media organization in order to try to report more objectively about conditions on the island.

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