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.
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?
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.