O'Reilly Books and the Cuban Internet

Folks are often interested when they learn I work for O’Reilly Media. But few people have expressed as much enthusiasm as Julio, a new friend I met recently at a party in Occidental, a tiny redwood studded town a few miles west of O’Reilly Media’s headquarters in Sebastopol.

“I told my wife that I wanted to drive through Sebastopol so I could see where Mr. O’Reilly worked,” Julio told me. A Cuban by birth and now a Canadian citizen by choice, Julio told me he was among the handful of computer pioneers who constructed the Cuban Internet. And they did it with the help of O’Reilly’s animal books.

Over the course of Cuba’s Internet revolution, Julio dramatically changed his life, leaving his native land as a political refugee and heading for Canada. Today he works as an independent software consultant.

I asked Julio to tell me more about how O’Reilly helped him and others develop the Internet in Cuba and this is what he emailed me:

The history of the build out of the Cuban Internet is curiously intertwined with O’Reilly Books. Surprised? Read on.

Let’s go back in time to the beginning of the ’90s. The Internet (in Cuba) was not mainstream yet, still the realm of academic institutions and Internet Services Providers (ISPs) in developed countries.

In developing ones, the Internet was for many a dream and obtaining resources to build the Net in those places was a giant task. I don’t know how many of you have heard of The Internet Society (www.isoc.org).

In 1993, ISOC organized a training workshop “to assist countries to connect to the Internet and to extend the Internet in these countries, to learn how to obtain and supply services on the net, and to manage their own national networks to ensure growth and sustainability.”

The Internet fever in Cuba started among young engineers who despite the lack of resources were intent on ‘connecting’ in whichever possible ways. With limited resources and a lot of imagination they made the best out of the computing resources they had and started to build isolated “intranets” (the term was to be coined years later) in scientific institutions, and then figuring out how to connect them later.

Although a few of those engineers applied for the first ISOC training in 1993 (Stanford U.), they were not able to obtain the required visas. They managed though to attend the 1994 training workshop held in Prague, Czech Republic.

O’Reilly had been an active sponsor of the training workshop, donating books to ISOC which students received and brought back to their countries. Access to information resources had always been an impediment (surprised?) for the Cuban engineers. A few of the O’Reilly books made it back to the country, more than the quota of books they received from ISOC, since many students who already had copies of them generously donated their quota to the fellow Cubans. (Imagine the load of books the folks brought back!)

O’Reilly books such as “TCP/IP Network Administration” (better known as “the crab book” or “libro del cangrejo”) and “DNS and BIND” became the reference point for learning TCP/IP, DNS services, and many other Internet-based services.

From the start, the books were treasured. Folks would beg to borrow them. Over time, after ISOC workshops held in different countries in 1995, and 1996, many more O’Reilly books made it to the country facilitating the spread of the knowledge and information.

The Cuban Internet growth, despite crackdown and opposition, got to the point that the government could not ignore any more, resulting in the country establishing its first connection to the Internet in early 1997.

Today the Cuban Internet remains highly censored and the “Internet police” zealously guards access to the outside world. A sad chapter after such a wonderful beginning.

However, without ISOC workshops and those wonderful O’Reilly books the Internet would have possibly never made it there as a grassroots, bottom-up movement, and those who lived the process are really grateful for the help they got at the time.