By Julia Scheeres
Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,51270,00.html
02:00 AM Mar. 25, 2002 PT
The Cuban government has quietly banned the sale of computers and computer accessories to the public, except in cases where the items are "indispensable" and the purchase is authorized by the Ministry of Internal Commerce.
News of the ban was first reported by CubaNet, an anti-Castro site based in Miami. According to the organization's correspondent in Havana, the merchandise -- which had been sold freely in the capital since mid-2001-- was yanked off store shelves in January.
The computer departments of the retail stores were divided into two zones: a well-stocked area for government buyers, and a smaller area where the public could buy diskettes, CDs and other such items. A store employee told the correspondent she was forbidden from discussing the move, which was also referred to briefly in a newsletter published by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Early attempts to confirm the information independently were unsuccessful. Dozens of messages to Cuban retailers and government officials in Cuba went unanswered. Cuba's spokesman in Washington, Luis Fernandez, was consistently evasive.
"If we didn't have an embargo, there could be computers for everybody," Fernandez replied when asked this question: Are computer sales to the public banned in Cuba?
Several weeks later, a government employee in Cuba sent Wired News, through a Web-based e-mail account, a copy of a resolution mandating the ban. In an interview using an instant-messaging service, the source -- who asked to remain anonymous -- criticized the decree and said it had generated a great deal of controversy within government circles after it was unilaterally mandated by the Minister of Internal Commerce, Bárbara Castillo.
According to Article 19, Chapter II, Section 3 of the ministry's Resolution No. 383/2001: "The sale of computers, offset printer equipment, mimeographs, photocopiers, and any other mass printing medium, as well as their parts, pieces and accessories, is prohibited to associations, foundations, civic and nonprofit societies, and natural born citizens. In cases where the acquisition of this equipment or parts, pieces and accessories is indispensable, the authorization of the Ministry of Internal Commerce must be solicited."
The source's decision to send the information was especially daring in light of a gag law that mandates a 3- to 10-year prison term for anyone who collaborates with "enemy news media."
Because government officials refused to comment on the ban, the reason for the move is a matter of speculation.
The rise of independent journalists in Cuba, who published articles on the Internet criticizing the Castro regime, may have something to do with it. The correspondents, who risk jail time for their "subversive" reports, send their stories by fax, e-mail or phone dictation to supporters in Miami.
"We believe our website had something to do with it," said Manrique Iriarte Sr., who helps run the website for the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, which launched a few weeks before the ban was passed in late December.
The economists' site offers a sharp contrast to the rosy Marxist dream proffered by Castro, including news of opposition arrests and detailed reports on the decrepit state of the island economy. The site is blocked in Cuba.
Iriarte said a colleague visited several Havana stores in January where employees said computer equipment was only available for "accredited state entities."
The move didn't surprise Cuba-watchers in the United States.
"This just reflects a further restriction on communications with the outside world," said Eugene Pons, of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
The government already requires Cubans who can afford Internet accounts -- which cost $260 a month, while the average Cuban salary is $240 a year -- to register with National Center for Automated Data Exchange (CENAI), Pons said. For those who do manage to log on, the Internet experience is limited: The government-controlled ISPs block links to certain foreign media, anti-Castro sites and pornography.
The government has also admitted to monitoring e-mail. To circumvent such spying, residents use Web-based e-mail accounts and chat services to make their communication harder to trace. Indeed, the Cuban source used a Web-based account to reply to a message sent to the person's government account.
"If I disappear from cyberspace one day, it's because they found out I was talking to you," the source said.
Colaboración de Michael Periu, Jr.