One guess who'll control access to the Internet

Marshall's eyes narrow as he snaps, “That sort of shallow understanding of what's taking place here doesn't even merit a response.” His voice rises slightly as he continues: “There are far more people out there who are complimentary. I get a hundred e-mails a week from all corners of the world saying things like, “We're a school. Our students were working on Cuba and its past and found your pages to be immensely important to their studies. Thank you for the information.' That's the real joy. Then out of a hundred e-mails I get one e-mail from some guy in Miami who says, “Why are you supporting all this?' It's easily cancelled out by the people who are telling me why I should continue doing this.”

Hardly a stranger to controversy, Marshall first made headlines in May 1999 when RE/MAX International, one of the United States' largest real estate firms, sued him for operating a RE/MAX franchise in Cuba in apparent violation of the U.S. embargo. Once the presence of a RE/MAX agent buying and selling properties on the island hit the American press, the Denver-based company's president, Daryl Jesperson, righteously denounced Marshall's “illegal activities.” Jesperson, of course, had a harder time explaining why his signature was on RE/MAX sales-award plaques and training certificates in Marshall's Havana office. “[RE/MAX] thought their attorneys had found the magic agreement to get around U.S. laws,” Marshall told the Associated Press at the time. “They knew full well I was here. Now they've had some sort of memory loss.

Despite that chastening experience (should Marshall set foot on American soil today, he would be subject to a contempt-of-court arrest warrant), he remains bullish on foreign Net investment. “Cuba is a spectacular country to commence a venture within,” he declares. In fact he advises fellow Europeans to forget about Miami's much-vaunted Biscayne Corridor and instead head straight for Havana. “For example the restaurants here are all owned by a few chains, so unlike South Beach, you don't have to wander up and down the street and sign separate deals with every single restaurant, one on one: This guy's French, the next guy's German, then some guy from Japan who doesn't understand what you're saying. In Cuba you can sign them all up at one time.” He pauses, marveling in the concept's simplistic beauty. “That is a dream from a marketing standpoint.”

Fidel, you've got mail: Stephen Marshall brings the Internet to Cuba
Brett Sokol
Fidel, you've got mail: Stephen Marshall brings the Internet to Cuba
Think working for Bill Gates is tough? Try 
designing software for Fidel: Havana's Grupo Internet
Brett Sokol
Think working for Bill Gates is tough? Try designing software for Fidel: Havana's Grupo Internet

It's a five-minute ride to the building housing Grupo Internet, the Web design firm Marshall co-owns in a joint venture with the Cuban government. Gunning his car through the leafy streets of Siboney, a western suburb of Havana, Marshall assesses his online travel competition. Cubaweb.cu (founded by a Canadian businessman and recently sold to the Cuban state) may have certain attractive services such as a partnership with auto rental agency Cubacar, but Marshall dismisses their management team as old-school bureaucrats who lack Net savvy.

Another non-Cuban is currently making a play for online travel to Cuba: Philip Agee, the colorful ex-CIA agent who, in 1975, renounced his past with a vengeance, publishing Inside the Company: A CIA Diary, an exposé of CIA dirty tricks against leftists throughout Latin America. Subsequently vilified by the U.S. government (his passport was revoked in 1979; former President George Bush claimed Agee's book was directly responsible for the exposure and assassination of an undercover CIA operative in Greece), Agee has been only too happy to return the sentiment. On his Cubalinda.com he boasts that patronizing his travel Website is "another concrete way to support the revolution."

As trees whiz by, Marshall scoffs at Cubalinda.com: “You're telling me somebody in Tennessee is going to want to book a trip to Cuba with an ex-CIA agent that the U.S. government considers an enemy? Who wants to worry about that?” Pulling the car up to a low-slung, decrepit concrete building, he hops out and leads the way. There, inside one air-conditioned room, sit Grupo Internet's eight twentysomething Cuban employees, hunched in front of their computer screens. Busily coding away, their appearance isn't much different from Web designers back in the States: a nondescript geekish fellow works next to a guy in a flowing purple button-down shirt, earthy sandals, and past-his-shoulders black hair.

The firm's Cuban manager, 34-year-old Camilo Sanchez, steps into the lobby and takes a seat next to Marshall on a ratty-looking couch. Sanchez begins speaking of electricity shortages and the related slow pace of computerizing Cuban society, a point almost absurdly underscored by the stifling heat and buzzing flies. Talk soon turns to Grupo Internet's staff and Sanchez's efforts to assemble it. Though he studied computers for five years in the Ukraine, he tries to avoid hiring those who were trained in Soviet bloc countries. “They bring an excessively theoretical side to software development,” he explains. “But in Cuba the student curriculum is similar to that of the United States: Creativity comes before theory.”

Suddenly a jarring noise interrupts. The door to an adjoining workroom doesn't seem to fit its frame properly. As employees go in and out, dragging the door shut behind them to seal in the air conditioning, the jamb moans until the entire building seems on the verge of collapse. This process repeats itself several times, but neither Sanchez nor Marshall bat an eyelash. It seems a fitting metaphor: Not fifteen feet away from where Grupo Internet crafts of-the-moment Linux programs is a door that won't even close properly; Silicon Valley this ain't. Yet Cuba's Net pioneers refuse to wait for the rest of the island to catch up to them. With a little imagination (and a few less flies) you can almost imagine Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak sweating away in their Cupertino garage amid the bicycles and Volkswagen parts, hammering together the first Apples.

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