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.
Lacking the means to publish their work on the island, the independent journalists have had to rely on the international press to transmit their dispatches. Within the past few weeks, however, their work has become available to tens of millions of Internet users worldwide, thanks largely to the efforts of Miami resident Omar Galloso and Reginaldo Blanco (a Cuban exile living in Spain), and a group of volunteers who constructed the CubaPress Website.
A marine biologist who left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, Galloso now works for a Coral Gables security firm. His particular cadre of Internet pioneers came together two years ago. "A few people got together and decided that we had to do something serious," he recalls, referring to their desire to create a place on the Inter-net for all things Cuban. They began building a Website that they call CubaNet (http://www.netpoint.net/~cubanet/), dedicated to cultural and political news about Cuba. Last year they incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Their site now contains a comprehensive guide to Cuban music produced both on the island and in exile, a collection of photos of contemporary Cuba, electronic art galleries that feature paintings by exiles as well as dissident artists living on the island, an archive of reports by CubaPress and other media outlets relating to Cuba, and dozens of hotlinks (automatic transfers to other sites on the Internet, including other home pages devoted to Santeria, Cuban music, Cuban cigars, and sites with more political content).
The CubaPress home page is the most recent cyber creation of the CubaNet volunteers, and Galloso is still refining it. Last week, for example, he added photos and the street addresses of four of CubaPress's journalists, hoping that such global publicity will immunize them from government reprisals.
The Cuban journalists, who, like most Cubans, lack access to the Internet within Cuba, file their dispatches by telephone. The articles are transcribed by CubaNet volunteers, who then post them on the Internet. New material is added every few days.
One such posting in Spanish A a March 2 article by Jose Rivero Garcia titled "The Naked Truth" A is a novelistic account of the mood in Havana following the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue planes. Rivero's essay begins: "Bored, sunken in the lethargy of dying, the inhabitants of Havana pay no attention to government communiques, which like other anti-American tirades seek to rekindle the flames of conflict. Everyone knows that on February 24 two civilian planes that were piloted by young people of Cuban origin were shot down by Cuban MiGs. They have heard the official harangue that the pilots were pirates who had come to kill who knows how many people. The same old story. The same sophisticated lie."
The main drawback to publishing on the Internet, as Galloso concedes, is that ordinary Cubans on the island have little or no access to the worldwide computer network. To date the island lacks its own direct connection to the Internet, though Cuban technicians predict that will change by November. The National Website of the Republic of Cuba is actually transmitted from Canada, where the bulk of Cuban e-mail is routed via a grassroots organization called "the Web."
Since 1990 the Web has been transferring messages between internal Cuban computer networks and the Internet and on-line services such as Compuserve or America Online, which do not exist on the island. Neither do Internet providers, companies that can link individual users to the Internet for a monthly fee.
Oscar Visiedo, former director of the Cuban Center for Electronic Information Exchange, which originally set up the island's internal computer networks and linked them to the outside world, attributes Cuba's reluctance to enter the information superhighway to the poor quality of the island's telephone infrastructure and to trepidation that unfettered access to information could undermine the government's stability. Visiedo, who left his job in 1993 and requested political asylum in the United States, now lives in Miami.
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He also speculates that the government feared the networks would be penetrated by foreign intelligence services. Although there are as yet no reports of electronic sabotage such as that suffered by the Pentagon in 1988, when a Cornell graduate student wrote a program that shut down 6000 terminals along a nationwide network, Cuba has suffered low-tech assaults by computer-savvy enemies.
In 1994, for example, someone bombarded Cuban e-mail addresses with anti-Castro messages. The missives originated from an address on America Online (firstname.lastname@example.org). According to a Cuban network administrator, the bothersome messages have since ceased.
The island lacks a direct connection to the Internet, though Cuban technicians predict that will change by November.