Cuban connections

Dialing direct into Havana's bustling Internet underground

Rating: NNNNN

Havana ­– much of cuba mightlook like it’s decaying right in front of your eyes, but if you have money, you can get just about anything on the island. Food and clothing are obvious priorities, but these days those black-market goods can also range from a dubbed VHS copy of Gladiator to Internet access.Yes, Havana might be the only major city on the planet without a Starbucks or an Irish pub ­– though there is a bar inexplicably called O’Grady’s that doesn’t pour Guinness ­– but Cuba’s tightly policed capital city is online. Well, sort of.

The Internet was launched in Cuba in 1998 (the country’s Canada-based homepage is, and billboards in Havana celebrating Victories Of The New Millennium include a picture of a computer alongside drawings of medical technology and education.

Officially, though, there are just three Internet access points in Havana. Two of them are major five-star resorts, and the third is the Capitolo building in Old Havana. Access is unrestricted and even open to Cuban citizens, providing they can get through the front door. It is not cheap, though.

Plugging into your Hotmail or Yahoo account will cost you upwards of $10 per half-hour of access ­– U.S. funds, of course. That might not seem like much, but when the Cuban state salary for all citizens is just $12.50 U.S. per month, dialing in regularly to check up on what’s happening in the outside world clearly isn’t an option.

Businesses in Cuba, mostly hotels and car rental firms, are allowed unrestricted access to Cuba’s Web hookup for $250 U.S. per month ­– also well beyond the means of most Cubans.

In the great tradition of Cuban renegade survival tactics, though, there is another way. Havana now boasts a bustling trade in underground Internet access, giving those who can afford it unfettered online privileges.

It works like this. Ask the right people, in the right way, and you can buy the user ID, password and dial-up number of a legitimate Internet user, usually someone based in the tourist industry.

The IDs sell for between $25 and $50 and, according to one regular user, are easily available. Sounds easy, but it’s not.

Many Cubans don’t have phone lines at home, and even fewer have personal computers, so even if access were free, most couldn’t use it. Still, trade in bootlegged Internet access is apparently booming. For those who do manage to dial in, though, there are risks.

The black-market IDs are traceable, and they’re also increasingly popular. Most people trade their access information with others, and since only one person can log in at a time, that can mean endless delays trying to get online.

Fidel wouldn’t be pleased, and it’s hardly high-speed access, but in a country where you can regularly wait 90 minutes for a bus to show up, holding out for a few hours for some information is

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