Will the Internet Spoil Fidel Castro's Cuba?

by Cristina Venegas

4,192 words
posted:  october 31,  1999

[This is the text of a paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 9, 1999.]

On a trip to Havana in the summer of 1996, I found myself having a late night snack at the ostentatious Cohiba Hotel, aptly named after the cigar brand that Fidel Castro once smoked, which is still considered the finest cigar in the world. This glass, monolithic ocean front hotel, adding to Havana's architectural "style without a style," as Alejo Carpentier has called it, is part of the Melia Spanish hotel chain and home to an international flock of business people and tourists. A hotel room can cost US$200 a night and a cup of ice cream goes for US$6 dollars, clearly the terrain of the multinational visitor. A computer placed discreetly in the lobby has a touch-screen interface that gives you access to the virtual hotel via a hypertext document: services, shows, locations, restaurant guides, spa hours, etc. The virtual Cohiba is entertaining at best, but ultimately useless since the information found in the menu was fixed, static, while the actual information in real time and space was fluid and unpre dictable. While I could find out through the computer that there was an international newsstand, I had no way of knowing that the newspapers were a week old. The presence of the computer, with the virtual, graphic-rich information in this spacious lobby, is an index of the importance of high-end technologies for Cuba's accelerated entry into the global marketplace. The lack of newspapers is a reminder of the almost 40 year-old US embargo.

This anecdote illustrates some of the inherent contradictions of technological development in a restricted political space, and it elucidates the clash of this chaotic social landscape with high-end technologies in Cuba.

In this space, where the U.S. embargo remains in force, Cuba has found a way to circumvent some of its restricitons. Through its national web site, CubaWeb.cu, individuals can send cash from the U.S. to anyone in Cuba and charge it to a major credit card. The transaction, called AIS, is orchestrated through a bank in Canada which guarantees that the funds are received in Cuba. The ability to remit cash is not entirely new, in fact Clinton, under Track II provision of the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, allowed Cuban Americans to send money to their relatives. More recently Western Union has been approved to provide this service once again through CIMEX a commercial Cuban firm. The possibility of sending cash via the Internet using a credit card, is a year old, and is perceived by the webmaster at Cubaweb.cu as a way to break through the blockade. Obviously, this is an exaggeration, since they still must use a third party, which tells us more about the political value of being part of a global communica tions revolution. Nonetheless, overcoming the limitations of the embargo is an official priority.


Currently, through Cubaweb.cu, which is geared to tourism you may also plan your trip to Cuba, rent a car, a cell phone, and a reserve a hotel room. The double edge sword of the embargo and the Internet are plainly evident. While the embargo has blocked Cuba’s economic trade and development, it has not ignored communications issues. The Helms-Burton law of 1992 calls for the improvement of telecommunications connections and information exchanges with Cuba, in order to increase the potential for change. The Cuban government is using the Internet to bolster its tourism industry, and break through economic challenges.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a tightening of the US economic embargo through new legislation, which included a revision of policies towards communications. Previously, communications had been signaled as viable means for bringing about the end to the Castro regime. In 1983, The Radio Broadcasting to Cuba Act established Radio Marti, followed by Public Law 101-246 in 1990 which created TV Marti. Both Radio and TV Marti, ironically named after Jose Martí, Cuba’s greatest hero of independence, broadcast anti-Castro propaganda funded by the US government, with the goal of disrupting the social and political environment on the island. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Torricelli, the emboldened senator from New Jersey authored the Cuban Democracy Act (1992) which in addition to tightening the embargo, called for improving telecommunications connections with Cuba in order to force change. The Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996 amends the Cuban Democracy Act in restricting the investment in Cuba’s domestic communications infrastructure. [1] Interestingly enough, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the Office of the Inspector General ordered a review of journalistic practices and ethics of Radio Marti due to criticisms of its performance. The report called for the resignation of its president, and Florida International University has been given the mandate of improving the quality of the independent journalists reporting from Cuba.

There are varying opinions about the potential of the Internet to democratize communications in society. While some argue that this new media will amplify previous patterns of economic inequality, others are hopeful that proper guidance will allow users to benefit from the information bounty. Carlos Lage Davila, the Cuban Vice President of the State Council, observes that one fundamental advantage of this technology for Cuba is that it can level the playing field of mass media so that Cuba can represent itself to world. Nobel Laureate José Saramago remind us, in a special issue of Cine Cubano commemorating the anniversary of the Havana International Film Festival, that "information does not make us wiser or more sensible, unless it comes closer to human life." [2] He insists, that the key to culture is no longer based on experience or knowledge, but rather, in the aptitude for finding information on the Internet. He asks whether, more information is necessarily better, when we have not yet begun to consume all the material that existed prior to the emergence of this new media? The point, however, is not to overvalue the existence of more information without first constructing a critical perspective to a medium that has changed the way we know and communicate.


But the analysis of the Internet should not just look at access to more information. It is also about the ability of those who may be outside official channels of information to access (whether legally or not) a growing global audience of millions. The NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999 highlights this point, as Yugoslavian hackers were able to disrupt the flow of e-mail on the NATO web site after the bombing of Kosovo began. Instances of global conflict like this one converge the capabilities of people, and technology, to circumvent not only official media, but reports by official media, and in this instance cyberspace becomes another theater for the Yugoslavian war. Web sites and e-mails are providing information into the conflict but more importantly that information can be potentially disrupted, altered, erased. Thus, more information also invites more disruption of information official or otherwise.

It is easy to equate more access to information to the potential for democratic ideals to develop. But this teleology is as naive as are proclamations that assume that the functioning of the electoral process guarantees democracy. [3] History has proven this problem to be plainly evident in many countries in Latin America.

Enrique Gonzalez-Manet, a professor of Communication at the University of Havana, has been one of the country's leading exponents of the uses and possible repercussions of technology in developing nations. Confronting a globalized economy, and considering the inevitable steps that Cuba has taken in the late 1990's to enter into the challenge, Gonzalez-Manet regards the emergence of the Internet as a revolution that cannot be stopped. Granting its merits as a source and access to information, Manet also warns that views of this technology as a great equalizer and democratizer are misleading since we must take into consideration that in the Third World, "75% of the population barely has access to 10% of communications media, 6% of the telephones, 5% of the computers, and 2% of the satellites." [4]


His position is informed by the discourse of globalization and of development organizations. From this point of view, then, there is a need, at the level of government, to set in place coherent policies that take into consideration the vast cultural changes that occur as new economic structures coincide with a global information network. Manet worries about the vast inequality of access, both to resources and financing, that will accelerate and broaden the inequalities of the past. Despite the fact that for many years Cuba had taken a leadership role in the Movement of Non-Aligned Nations, and the fight for a New Information and Communication Order, it was also caught off guard in formulating a coherent position towards this technology. According to Manet, "There are isolated gains. Technocratic and sectarian perspectives," stand in the way of real advancement, but there are strategic achievements, which position Cuba favorably, if and when, these other internal dilemmas are reconciled. [5]

Manet's position is undoubtedly shared by other cultural critics, but we must go beyond its theoretical limitations, if we wish to examine the broader implications of an Internet culture in Cuba. If the focus of the inquiry is restricted to views of dependency, we run the risk of omitting the unpredictable aspects of culture and appropriations. While there exists a very real and unequal relationship between North and South, one that has a long historic lineage, there is also a need to look at the other aspect of this relationship, the unofficial, marginal responses to policies and governments, the disruptive potential of Caribbean rhythms.

It is also necessary to go beyond any technological determinist distortions, which, as proposed by Williams, amplify an accidental development of technology and equally assume accidental consequences. In this sense, Manet is right to highlight the imbricated economic relationships of media conglomerates, their potential to covet and manipulate the vast resources that are available on-line, and the predominance of commercial interests. Likewise, Armand Mattelart and Hector Schmucler illuminate the relations of information technologies in Latin America. They examine the global challenge of computerization of the Third World, by investigating how the distribution of information, of all kinds, redefines the organizational patterns of economic, cultural, political, apparatuses. It is imperative to look at how the control of information is based on national specificities, and how the multidimensional character of information reformulates a "planetary order." [6] The development of the Internet must be read i n the context of an intertextual link of influences that affect its development.


Cuba's social and economic crisis is an important consideration when interpreting the needs that arise for new uses of the Internet. The dwindling salaries of the highest level professionals makes it almost prohibitive to afford buying personal computers, making these available largely through donations or gifts from friends. Traditionally in Latin America, the high cost of peripherals, software, hardware, etc. determines an elite user profile. Cuban specialists, who have suffered an editorial crisis due to the scarcity of paper, and reduced access to other information mechanisms, will be, according to state planners, the principal users of the Internet. In other words we have to look to how Cubans resolve these limitations beyond the mandates of the state.

Currently, the constraints that are placed on access to the Internet in Cuba are in part viewed as restraints on democratic participation and freedom of expression. A medium that, on the one hand, is promoted for its potential to improve education, research, self expression, is also perceived as a danger in light of the constant threat to the Cuban government by outside forces. Cubans share with the rest of the world concerns about pornography and the implications for children. However, in Cuba, it becomes difficult to separate the emphasis on national security from censorship, when official government discourses highlight these dangers, and the extreme right wing exile community (aided by the US government) continues to flood Cuban networks with counterrevolutionary emails. Cuban computer experts are constantly blocking these activities, but the very existence of this aggression jeopardizes the potential for the opening of the Internet as a space for more democratic participation.

The island’s historical relationship with the United States has been decisive in promoting early technological developments in comparison with other Latin American countries. The economic embargo, a legacy of US/Cuba Cold War relations has contributed to a social, political and cultural isolation from which the Cuban nation is beginning to emerge. The information blockade is one of the motivations in some media, to fully use the Internet, and yet the government’s current push to decentralize production while maintaining a centralized political system suggests the potential difficulties that lie ahead for the development of the Internet. Their strategy appears contradictory to the nature of a network that is meant to be decentralized and open, but Cuba’s connection to the Internet is recent and we might remember that during the early years of development of ARPANET (eventually Internet) it was limited to a privileged community of scientific and academic users and was basically research oriented. It wasn’t until the Internet became a proven commercial outlet that its access became more widespread. Cuba’s experience can thus be helpful in exploring the limits of centralized planning, the nature of democracy in communication, and the need to construct viable social demands for new technological developments.


When Did Cuba get Connected?

The current structure of connectivity in Cuba was achieved by the reorganization of the informatics communication sector in 1993, and it represents a centralized structure. The restructuring pooled together scarce resources to maximize access, and controls access to the Internet by private individuals. The CENIAI (Center for Automated Interchange of Information) of the Academy of Sciences, became the hub for organization, and in 1996, the official connection to the Internet for Cuba.[7] The NIC (Network Information Center) manages the .cu domain under which most accounts are registered in Cuba.[8] Prior to this reorganization, however, there was already a considerable computer user community (in the various scientific and academic institutions) that operated various networks which connected with networks in the former Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe.

Electronic mail connection had been established with the USSR since 1981, but information technologies had not been prioritized as part of a central mechanism for economic development until the dissolution of the soviet bloc a decade later. Even in the US, the commercial possibilities of the Internet were not salient until the mid-1990’s, and thus there is a convergence of necessity and technological innovation that allowed Cuba to apply this technology to deal with some of their short term and long term problems. The notion of prioritizing within the central command economy must be understood as the means through which the government, adhering to a central plan, directs its investments and therefore its support. Priorities do not hide interests per se, but rather they are a scheme that belie conditions of underdevelopment where the scarcity of economic resources focuses development strategies. In the late 80’s and 90’s, amid the government’s worst crisis, a connection to the Inter net posed a threat and required a substantial technological investment, but it also offered ways of moving out of isolation, and the information embargo. Indeed, it was and is the dictator’s digital dilemma. [9]

In 1989, as the situation in the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Cuba made its first email contact with Peacenet in Canada. According to Larry Press, "twice a week WEB/NIRV, an Association for Progressive Computing (APC) an affiliate in Toronto, Canada, called CENIAI and exchanged international traffic." [10] This connection although inefficient was often times the best way to communicate with people on the island. By 1990 the United Nations, through its Development Program (UNDP), began fomenting connectivity throughout the third world, and funded the start-up costs for various networks like CENIAI, and the medical network InfoMed.


The role of the United Nations through UNESCO (United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization) and UNDP has been significant, and in part guides Cuba’s Internet policy. Given Cuba’s political isolation, the United Nations has served as a supportive forum for voting against the restrictions of the embargo, and as a platform for Cuba to air its complaints. In 1997 UNESCO’s Executive Council drafted a decision regarding the problems that face developing nations with respect to information technologies. The platform approves funding initiatives and supports policies that help provide access, resources, and training of personnel who will explore and maintain new economic markets made viable through information technologies. The magnitude of the investment in developing nations, and the task of carrying out such a plan (particularly in Africa, which is the least connected continent), if one considers just the laying of telephonic cable, influences UNESCO’S policy to "fo cus on community programs and the strengthening of development sectors like education, prior to wiring each individual home." [11] Cuba’s focus on access to the Internet through institutions in the sciences, tourism and education is in line with this proposal.

Cuba’s connectivity is also orchestrated in line with the strategies of other Latin American countries, in an effort to share insights on successes, and to establish common bonds for future networking. Early on, prior to having full Internet connectivity, Cuba maintained a gopher in Uruguay with generic information , and in 1991 a Cuban representative attended the international forum on the Internet in Brazil, where plans were discussed to create a Latin American backbone. CENIAI’s director has also established personal links with network leaders in Peru and Venezuela, and indeed panamerican cooperation will be key in fortifying commercial domestic markets as well as in expanding trade possibilities. For example, Cuba maintains distributors in Mexico for the biomedical products it advertises on the CIGBnet Web site, since the restrictions of the embargo prevent it from shipping or selling to many of its customers.

By 1992 Cuba had established email networks within the country connecting medical, scientific and cultural institutions, and by the end of 1993 the number of UUCP (Unix to Unix) nodes had increased in one year from 3 to 20. There were four networks with dial-up international Internet connections, CENIAI, TINORED, CIGBnet, and InfoMed. All of these networks now connect through CENIAI. The reorganization presented a challenging economic situation for CENIAI, since it had to prove to be an efficient and profitable service provider, or be closed down. The inability of the government to fully fund the needed technology translates to CENIAI operating in a dollarized global economy, and this influences the focus of its services. The reorganization, which sought to give a structure to the unorganized email networks, established service contracts with other institutions, rates for connecting, technical support, training, web design and other types of assistance for its customers. In addition to being an e fficient and profitable enterprise, CENIAI is also mandated with benefiting the sciences.


In 1994, after receiving government approval, CENIAI took the first steps to secure a license for connecting to the Internet, and held a working conference in 1995 to continue discussions about the viable means and strategies available to them. In 1996, the Ministries of Science, Technology and the Environment, Communications, Justice, and the Interior agreed on the legal and constitutional ramifications under which Cuba would make the Internet available to Cubans. This ministerial committee will continue to oversee development and policy implementation. Decree 209, does not establish a new information policy, but rather it sets forth the laws governing all connectivity in Cuba. The ruling expresses "the need for the country to establish laws for connecting, and regulations that guarantee a harmonious development as well as the interests of national security and defense." [12] In 1997 Cuba connected directly to the Internet via CENIAI. This institution is thus the official link, which is handled through international communications channels under a contract with Sprint and Telecom Italy. In the future, there are plans to lay down fiber optic cable and to digitize all telephone service. Full Internet connectivity foments research, business and tourism, and improves communications. According to Cuba’s daily Granma, the connection must " focus on national priorities."[13]

One of the priorities is to make Cuba a software development site, and various steps have been taken towards this end. There has been a commitment to educating engineers and computer experts, and younger generations with the creation of the Youth Computing Clubs. The Informatica conferences, held bi-annually since 1988, are also part of this plan, and are a way to converge the interests of international academics, engineers, developers, and distributors. It also gives the government the opportunity to show off its support for this sector. To create a national software industry Cuba must find areas where its software products can compete without the interference of software giants. They believe that their own domestic market is one place where they could find some maneuvering room by developing native software for specific national uses, not programs that recreate leading commercial software applications. The obvious areas that can capitalize on this are tourism and science where new systems c an help solve problems generic to Cuba’s situation. In the late 90’s the different software applications that are developed, are geared towards making systems more efficient, thereby saving money and time, and educational assistance applications for all ages.

In 1993, Cuba was designated by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Program on Informatics, as a regional coordinating center in the fight against computer viruses. The Latin American Laboratory for the Protection Against Information Viruses was established with the mandate of detecting new viruses in member countries, and putting at their disposal the appropriate information to counteract their damages.[14] It is in the area of anti-virus software development that Cuba has been most successful in exporting its products. This means that any violations that may have existed with copyright laws must be attended to, if Cuba wants to be taken seriously as a software developing nation. The production of software is also facilitated, by the exchange between domestic users.


There are various motives that lead to the centralized infrastructure of the Internet, beyond the fact that the state continues to adhere to this logic. One of the stated arguments is financial, the other infrastructural. Connectivity is still very expensive and must be paid in dollars, and use of the Internet for generating hard currency is immature, in large measure due to the embargo. Domestic telephone infrastructure is still a problem even though the telephone company was one of the first to be privatized. The projected investments should alleviate this problem, but it will take some time for this to happen. In the meantime, people figure out ways of dealing with uncertainty, like having several e-mail accounts, if that is an option.

Centralization is also a way of directing the uses of the Internet. In a country where there has been limited freedom of the press, and information has been controlled by the state, we can expect the policy towards the Internet to follow some form of constraint. There will be a limit to these restrictions, as the user community becomes more adept, and the Internet more pervasive. At the moment, on-line access is available through work sites, although this often means a single computer with access, and a designated person that handles it for you. E-mail is available through several ISP’s (Internet Service Providers), but tariff’s for access are high in comparison with the average Cuban salary, and again, accounts are paid in dollars. Often times there are structural installations that have to be made which are handled by different agencies, and thus the whole project can become ensnared in a bureaucratic tangle. But, there is an exception to every situation, and there are those who have Inte rnet access through pirated connections from home.

Despite the fact that Cuba has made significant changes in the past few years with regards to economic policy, tax laws, employment, etc., the Party reiterates that these changes are in line with a socialist agenda. Cuba rejects wholeheartedly, under the rubric of an anti-imperialist political stance, the potential of neoliberal reforms taking place in the rest of Latin America, emphasizing that these have only worsened the already devastating disparity between wealth and poverty. The Internet and any other communications medium that is adopted in Cuba, is welcomed (at least for the moment) within the parameters of the socialist agenda. This agenda, however, is not monolithic, even though in moments of crisis orthodox views still possess a great deal of power. There is an opening to alternative theoretical positions, religious practice, and global markets, which redefines the cultural landscape of Cuba at the end of the 1990’s. This doesn’t mean that Cuba’s structure of the Internet, and the information it provides, question the socialist agenda in significant ways. The Communist party is still the only political party listed under the government heading of the CENIAI portal, and although some Cuban NGO’s have access to email networks, they do not have a power base from which to operate.

Nonetheless, there is an increasing number of institutional websites from Cuba, a sign that the Internet is becoming more accepted, even if access to it is still limited.



[1] Larry Press, "Cuban Telecommunication Infrastructure and Investment." Paper presented at the Conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, Miami, Fl. August 1996. http://som.csudh.edu/fac/lpress/devnat/nations/cuba/asce.htm

[2] Jose Saramago, "La Comunicaci-n de los Angeles," Cine Cubano, No. 142 Special Issue. ̉La informaci-n no nos hace m's sabios, ni sensatos a menos que se acerque a los hombres." My translation.

[3] The US government requires, in order to begin to normalize relations with Cuba, that the government hold free elections. The Institute for Democracy in Cuba, "Support for a Democratic transition in Cuba," January 1997.

[4] Enrique Gonzalez-Manet, "Internet: Espejismos y promesas de la cultura electronica," 1998. unpublished manuscript.

[5] Julio Garc'a Luis, "Cuba en la era de Internet y las autopistas electronicas: an interview with Enrique Gonzalez-Manet," (Havana: Pablo de la Torriente Editorial, 1997) 6.

[6] Mattelart, Armand and Hector Schmucler. Communication and Information Technologies: Freedom or Choice for Latin America? trans. David Buxton. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1985:5.

[7] Cuba has a class B license which means that CENIAI can distribute 256 IP real numbers to a sub-network, and in turn they can create another 256 class C providers. See Naghim Vezquez, "Cuba in the Internet Window," Masters Thesis, University of Havana,1998.

[8] There are several .com domain names registered to companies that are the most likely to do effective e-commerce once this becomes a viable business option. This is further evidence of the way in which Cuba is preparing a more secure business environment for Cuban firms. Some of the current registered domains are for companies doing business in the following areas: Music (discuba.caribbeansources.com), cash remittances (Quickcash, careebecons.com), mobile phone provider (cubacel.com), export promotion (ifmaster.com), medical & sugar industry suppliers (cambiomed.com), genetic engineering (weweb.com)

[9] Larry Press, "Cuban Computer Networks and their Impact." 1996:344. http://www.lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/asce/cuba6/43press2.fm.pdf

[10] Larry Press, "Cuban Networking Update,:" OnTheInternet, Internet Society, Jan/Feb., 1996:46-49. Also can be found at online. http://som.csudh.edu/fac/lpress/devnat/nations/cuba/update.htm

[11] UNESCO, Consejo Ejecutivo, 151 reunion, 151EX/16Add. Paris, 20 May, 1997:4. My translation.

[12] Susana Lee, "Aprueban decreto sobre acceso a redes informaticas de alcance global," Granma, 20 June, 1996. My translation.

[13] Granma Internet, 19 June, 1995. http://www.cubaweb.cu/granma/

[14] Julio Garcia Luis, Cuba en la era de Internet y las Autopistas Electronicas, An Interview with Enrique Gonzalez-Manet, Pablo de la Torriente Editorial, Habana, Cuba, 1997:6-7.


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