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In Castro's Cuba, Internet Hookups Are Few and Far Between

A handful of hotels offer e-mail service. Surfing is limited to one hotel and a government 'press room.'


HAVANA — In its eagerness to appease tourists and prospective investors, the Cuban government is making it increasingly easy for visiting foreigners to "phone home" from the nation's capital. But long-distance communications from Cuba remain far from ideal.

Internet cafes are a case in point. Although they've sprouted up like mushrooms in most other Latin American nations in recent years, Cuba's one-party system does not tolerate them and it does not appear that any will be allowed to open in Havana any time soon.

In Cuba, the sole Internet service provider is controlled by the government of Fidel Castro. Only those few Cubans who have been given passwords by the state to access the Internet--scientists and professors, for example--are permitted to do so.

Curbing contact with the outside world--keeping the luxuries others enjoy hidden from the Cuban people, most of whom live on less than $10 a week--is one way Castro has managed to remain in power for 41 years.

Indeed, although tourists can watch CNN, HBO and at least one south Florida television station in their hotel rooms, the average Cuban is not allowed to own a satellite dish or an antenna that could receive foreign programs. As a result, Cubans are able to watch only two state-run stations, one of which seems to broadcast Castro's every move.

Foreign visitors--including the nearly 200,000 Americans, both legal and illegal travelers, who came to Cuba last year--are given greater access to the outside world during their time in Havana. But it is a deep retreat from the trappings of the Information Age to which they have grown accustomed.

(Since last May, U.S. academics, scientists and other professionals have been allowed to apply for licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department to visit Cuba on business, but pleasure travel is not permitted. Many American tourists travel to Cuba illegally via flights originating in Mexico, the Bahamas and Costa Rica.)

Except for guests staying at the ritzy Melia Havana Hotel, non-Cubans are able to access the Internet from only one site in Havana--a so-called press room inside the Capitolio Nacional, the mural-filled marble building that served as the seat of the Cuban Congress from 1929 until the revolution 30 years later.

Any foreigner wanting to surf the Internet or check e-mail must reserve a time to use one of the two sluggish computers in the press room. A day's notice is generally sufficient. The rental cost is $5 an hour, and the machines share a printer (50 cents a page). The state-run service is available from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays.

To reach the press room free of charge, tell the ticket-taker at the entrance of the centrally located capital building that you're there for the Internet. (Just say, "Internet, por favor.") Otherwise, you'll be charged a $3 admission fee. If you ask, "Donde esta la sala de prensa?" you'll be directed to the "press room," which is seldom used by members of the press.

The Cuban government permits only five of the dozens of hotels in Havana to offer e-mail service to their guests, and in most cases it is tightly restricted. Only at the Melia Havana, for example, can guests access the Internet and send and receive e-mail using their own e-mail addresses. The cost is $10 an hour and the service is available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.

At the four other hotels--the Golden Tulip, the Havana Libre, the Nacional and the Melia Cohiba--guests are allowed to send and receive e-mail using only the hotels' e-mail addresses. In all instances, incoming e-mail to guests at these hotels needs to include the guest's name and room number. The system does not prevent hotel workers from reading and possibly copying guests' e-mail.

Former FBI Special Agent David Cook, who now heads the San Francisco office of Noesis, an investigative consulting firm specializing in high-tech crimes, warns users of the state-run Internet service as well as the e-mail services provided by the hotels to assume that their e-mail is indeed being read by government agents.

"They've got either people trying to keep track [of the e-mail traffic] on a real-time basis or they've got software programs that capture key words and phrases," the former counterintelligence officer said.

If you bring a laptop to Cuba, it is possible to call your Internet service provider from your hotel room. And the Cuban phone jack is the same as the American phone jack; no adapter is needed.

However, there are no local access numbers for non-Cuban ISPs, such as AOL and CompuServe; connecting costs as much as making an overseas telephone call. And in Havana, overseas calls are very expensive.

Though the rates vary among hotels, the following per-minute rates usually apply: Canada and the U.S. ($2.90); Spain, France, Italy and Germany ($5.90); South America ($5.20); Central America ($4); the rest of the world ($6.80).

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