One guess who'll control access to the Internet

Certainly Cuba has a long way to go. According to government officials, only 33,000 of the island's 11 million people have been allowed Net connections by the government. (The actual number of Cubans online could be double that, because so many individuals share their accounts.) And Lucas Graves, senior analyst with the New York-based research firm Jupiter Communications, warns that the Net has been drastically overhyped when it comes to Latin America. His figures show all of Latin America spent only $194 million online in 1999. By way of contrast, Amazon.com racked up sales of $267.5 million alone during the same period. “You're talking about a region where only two or three percent of the people are using the Internet today,” Graves cautions. “That's going to rise to just twelve percent even by the year 2005, while in the U.S. today we're already approaching the halfway mark.”

Nonetheless Cuba has committed itself to bringing widespread Internet access to the island. At present that's still a largely theoretical concept, but the government envisions Net terminals in every neighborhood post office, similar to the growing ubiquity of free Internet availability in public libraries across the United States. To that end earlier this year the Cuban government took the step of establishing a new Ministry of Informatics and Communication dedicated to the Internet, as well as an E-Commerce Commission. Juan Fernandez Gonzalez, head of the commission, wisecracked to The Industry Standard about the acrimonious internal debate leading up to that move: “I'm a pioneer, and the definition of a pioneer is the guy lying in the middle of the road with the arrows sticking out of his back. But now we're not discussing whether the Internet is a good thing or not. The issues are: How? With what financing?”

The appeal of e-commerce for Cuba seems to revolve around many of the very factors that have created friction in the developed world. With virtually no retail infrastructure to speak of, Cuba doesn't have many traditional brick-and-mortar establishments to feel threatened by online shopping. Moreover faced with a populace hungry for consumer goods, eliminating the need for retail outlets with Internet kiosks must seem mighty appealing. Besides, hasn't Fidel always insisted on Cuba's ability to leapfrog over stages of (ahem) capitalist development?

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

Arnaldo Coro provides some insight into the resistance those Net boosters aligned with Fernandez encountered over the past few years. On paper Coro's résumé is impressive enough: a host of journalism professorial gigs at the University of Havana, appointments to U.S.-oriented government think tanks, and leadership of several radio news departments. He's been cited as an expert on technology issues, as well as the creator of Cuba's first rudimentary e-mail system in the early Nineties. If he were in Washington, D.C., Coro would be described as an insider with friends in high places. This being Cuba, however, identifying Coro's exact role is a bit more nebulous and, well, spookier.

Sitting inside his tidy Nuevo Vedado home, Coro elaborates with a mixture of pride and further mystery. “I'm 58,” he says with a smile. “I've trained two generations of university students, and now I'm into a third. When you teach for 30 years, your first students are now ministers and ambassadors. Many of these people in VIP positions like to come and sit there [he nods at the seat beneath Kulchur] because they know me, and they've learned many things from me that weren't in the syllabus.”

As for Cuba's leap onto the Internet, he opens with a hint of sarcasm: “We just don't have the money to provide every household with a computer and a DSL connection. But the nation does have the possibility of connecting to the wired world in the broader sense.” Although bandwidth is pitifully small (a condition Coro blames on the U.S. embargo), he says, “There's a lot of very valuable information that's already existing, so let's make it available. Whether it's been brought into the country by me getting on a plane with a set of CD-ROMs or downloaded off the Internet.”

As for the Net's dangers, Coro exhorts, “The Internet was the brainchild of the American defense industry. That arouses suspicion in even the most naive person on the planet.” From here he begins revving up. “We are not giving our enemies the slightest chance to use modern technology against us!” he cries. “Those who want to turn Cuba into another star on the U.S. flag, those who are allies of the Cuban American National Foundation and all that shit will not get an e-mail account!” Attempting to cut through the rhetoric, Kulchur asks just what in particular the Cuban government fears.

A twinkle forms in Coro's eyes and he leans in close, saying softly: “I'm going to be very open with you.” Pregnant pause. Kulchur resists the urge to look back over his shoulder. What lurks in Castro's darkest nightmares? Cuban-exile hackers? Anti-socialist chat rooms? No. It's porn sites. “The Cubans are so sex-motivated that they just don't need any more of that sort of thing,” Coro says, shaking his head. “Pornography is a terrible thing for any society. It's demoralizing, it's unethical, it's everything that's negative.”

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