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.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com Sara Winge

    Back when I was staffing the O’Reilly booth at tradeshows, we regularly had customers from outside the US who would travel here with an empty suitcase to fill with our books. They’d often come by near closing time, so they only had to schlepp their huge stack of books out the door and back to their hotel.

  • Bo Kristensen

    “Today the Cuban Internet remains highly censored and the “Internet police” zealously guards access to the outside world.”
    It would be interesting if you could give further information on that and point to your sources.

  • sean

    Bo, here you go (from reporters without borders):

    http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=19335

    Google “cuban internet censorship” and you will find much more.

    s

  • http://www.bedrick.org Steven Bedrick

    I was actually in Cuba a year ago for the medical track of an IT conference, and while there I tried to learn as much as I could about the state of the Cuban Internet experience.

    First, a caveat: I had the opportunity to meet many tech-savvy Cubans from many different sectors of Cuban society, all of whom were friendly and knowledgeable, and none of whom *seemed* to be pulling any wool over my eyes…. however, in Cuba, as an outsider, it is very difficult to know what’s true and what isn’t. Conversations between locals and foreigners are generally assumed to be under surveillance, and the locals know it and tend to choose their words carefully. There wasn’t any reason for anybody to be BSing me- it’s not like we were directly talking politics, or anything like that- and people were generally quite open about certain negative aspects to Internet use in Cuba… but I certainly take what I learned with a very large grain of salt, and suggest that you do the same.

    From what I was able to find out, one’s ability to use the Internet depends heavily on one’s position in Cuban society. The nicer tourist hotels in Havana have (very, very expensive) Internet facilities for their guests to use, but I never saw any actual Cubans using them- not sure if that’s because of the price, or because most Cubans aren’t really allowed in the tourist hotels in downtown Havana.

    Everybody I talked to was quite open about the impossibility of average Cubans having computers and Internet access in their homes– I don’t know one way or the other if that impossibility is “de jure” or “de facto”, but either way, most people have no legitimate way to get online and this was common knowledge among Cuban digerati. Nearly everybody attributed this impossibility to “El Bloquero” (the Embargo). This is not surprising: in Cuba, *everything* is blamed on the embargo… and, to be completely fair, the embargo does indeed affect Cuban society in many ways (some obvious, some not). Without getting into what is an enormously complex subject, I’ll just say that it seems plausible to me that some the limits on Cuban Internet access might indeed be caused by the embargo; however, that simply can’t be the whole story. It suits two goals of the regime to limit the Internet’s penetration in Cuban society: first it allows them to control the potentially disruptive effects of the Internet; second, it gives the government one more thing to blame on the embargo.

    However, many of the doctors and medical researchers I talked to reported having at least some dial-up Internet access in their homes and offices, theoretically for professional use- Cuba has done some really impressive things in terms of using computer networks for medical communication and training, and the dedication on the part of the (ludicrously underpaid and undersupplied) doctors towards their patients was impressive. Being a doctor in Cuba really isn’t a 9-to-5 at all, and having access to the national medical intranet (called Infomed) from home is crucial. People being people, however, it is almost a guaranteed thing that many Cubans with legitimate Internet access in their homes are finding ways to share that access with their neighbors in some fashion.

    Another way that the Cubans I met were using the Internet was via their schools. Medical students have Internet access through their universities, but only (from what I was told) via public computer labs. I was able to meet on several occasions with students from the local university’s IT/CS departments. They all reported having unfettered internet access, though they said it was slow and flaky at times. They all had gmail accounts, and I saw them using various instant messaging clients just as obsessively as college students here in the US do- I don’t think they were “Potemkin Email Accounts”. Most of them used Linux in some form or another, and reported being able to access message boards without issue. I asked specifically about news sources such as the BBC– from the conference center and from various hotels, I had been able to access it without issue. The students I talked to reported being able to access it without restriction from their school labs, but who knows if that was really the case or not- furthermore, even if it was the case, who knows what sort of logging or monitoring was being carried out by their schools!

    Incidentally, I got the distinct impression that Cuban Internet users I talked to were well aware of the fact that their online activities were almost certainly being monitored and logged, at least to some extent. Nobody came out and said it, but after a week or two in Cuba I began to be able to pick up on certain hints and cues- the Cuban people are far from stupid, and know perfectly well when they’re being watched in real life… it’s hard to explain, but they seemed to know the score regarding their online activities. Alternatively, I could have imagined all of it- after a little while, I began to absorb some of the the paranoia that comes naturally from being in what is fundamentally a police state. A very warm and welcoming police state, with many wonderful people and many fine attributes- but a police state nonetheless. One of my traveling companions grew up in an Eastern Bloc country in the 1940s and 1950s, and said that in many ways being in Cuba felt like “being back home,” so to speak, and that, in some ways, the Cubans we met had many of the same mannerisms that he remembered from his youth- always looking over their shoulder, being aware of who was around them while they were talking, etc.

    I talked to several people involved in the design and operation of Infomed, and according to what they told me, there is plenty of network bandwidth *within* Cuba. There is, however, a severe bottleneck on traffic *leaving* Cuba- partially due to the sketchy nature of their connection (a couple of fiber lines to Venezuela, according to one engineer I talked to) and, presumably, partially due to whatever traffic monitoring system the Cuban government has put in place. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that the Cuban telecom authorities were using some sort of traffic shaping to prioritize tourism-related network traffic (e.g., from hotels and resorts) over Cuban traffic.

    Interestingly, several engineers told me that one problem facing Cuban Internet access was that the American government was actively trying to interfere with their traffic, and that every couple of months the telecom engineers who maintained the external connection had to make some sort of routing change to get around whatever blocks the Americans had put in place. I have *absolutely* no way of knowing if this is true or not- I wouldn’t be surprised either way. On the one hand, it sounds pretty far-fetched, and as near as I can tell Cuba’s national pastime is to find a way to blame everything, up to and including the weather, on the embargo. On the other hand, that’s *exactly* the sort of crazy and time-wasting stunt that our government would try and pull. The history of US-Cuban relations is littered with dozens of crazier and further-fetched attempts by both governments to get on each other’s nerves, so who knows?

    In spite of the embargo, I saw a fair amount of American tech being used- Cisco routers, HP servers, a couple of Epson scanners, and so on. According to one person I talked to, there are various Latin American resellers who sell Cuba American electronics at a significant markup. I also saw several Chinese telecom companies exhibiting their wares- apparently, much of the Cuban telecom infrastructure is built on Chinese equipment. Interestingly, I saw a surprising number of Apple machines in use, mostly by the team developing Cuba’s homebrew radiology imaging system. I hadn’t been expecting to see *any* Macs besides my own, so seeing five or six set up demoing a PACS application was a pleasant surprise.

    Wow, this really ended up being a lot longer than I’d intended it to be. There’s all kinds of stuff that I’m probably leaving out, so shoot me an email if you want to hear more. Basically, the bottom line is that Internet use in Cuba is growing, but in a very controlled and directed fashion. At some point, the floodgates will *have* to open, just as they have everywhere else in the world, and I think the government knows it… but they’re delaying for as long as possible. Their reasons presumably have less to do with keeping Cubans from getting information from the outside world- there is plenty of foreign media available in Cuba, especially to people who are connected in some way to the tourism industry (which is an awful lot of people these days…). I suspect that the government’s reasons for not wanting the general population to have Internet access have more to do with restricting the sorts of communications Cubans can have with one another- I don’t imagine that they’d want Cubans to be able to set up Google Groups to complain about the government, or for underground groups to be able to communicate securely. To my mind, this is probably why they have restricted Internet access to individuals with at least some stake in the status quo.

    However, I think the history of the Internet has taught us that betting against the free flow of information is generally a losing bet. People have a way of getting around whatever barriers are put in their way when it comes to accessing and using the Internet, and the sooner governments everywhere learn this and adapt accordingly, the happier we’ll all be.