November 24, 1999

Cuba's Baby Steps into the Wired World

By Geri Smith in Havana. Business Week Online, Nov 22

There are a zillion obstacles to doing e-commerce in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Just ask Anibal Quevedo, director of Internet Cubaweb Communication Corp., or Cubaweb, Cuba's official government Web site ( He has to speak loudly to be heard over the hum of an emergency power generator that provides a steady flow of electricity to Cubaweb's modest, third-floor walkup offices in Central Havana: Without that generator, the frequent blackouts that hit Havana would shut his operation down.

And that's not the only obstacle. Try doing business in a Communist country where there are no private companies, just state-run firms that may not understand the need to advertise or offer customer service over the Net. When Cubaweb started up in 1995, there were many doubters. But now, the Web site -- which offers everything from the (lengthy) texts of Castro's speeches to links to car rental agencies -- is holding its own. It currently boasts $8,500 a month in banner ad sales, though these are mostly to the government-controlled Cubanacan tourism agency. That income allows Quevedo to cover costs, which include salaries of just $16 a month for his staffers, most of whom are university-trained computer programmers and engineers. Unlike Internet startups in the U.S., Cubaweb isn't under pressure to turn a profit. "Our goal isn't to make money," says Quevedo. "Obviously, we aren't supposed to lose money, but the point is to create the proper conditions to develop this Internet technology for the country."

WITH A TWIST. It has taken awhile for Quevedo and his 15-person team to hit their stride, but the site, which now gets 8 million hits a month, offers several e-commerce options. In addition to car and cellular phone rental links, visitors can buy CDs of Cuban music. Because of the 40-year U.S. embargo against Cuba, however, it's e-commerce with a twist: The Cubans have to ship the CDs to Canada, where they're mailed to customers, and clients are charged in Canadian dollars since U.S. credit cards cannot be used to purchase goods or services directly from Cuba. "Our first CD customer was from New Jersey," recalls Quevedo, smiling. The site also allows Cuban exiles to make electronic money transfers from banks in any country but the U.S., to Cuban banks, where the money is delivered to the relatives who stayed behind. Since one of Cubaweb's objectives is to improve Cuba's international image, it offers a free service to Cuban exiles who want to keep in touch with families in Cuba: Cubaweb employees will relay e-mail messages by telephone to relatives in the country.

The site is a bit slow at peak midday hours, so Quevedo advises visitors to check out Cubaweb in the evening. And one recent afternoon, the Quick Cash money-transfer option was "temporarily unavailable." But all in all, the site works pretty well.

Hector M. Perez, president of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, says his group's new Web site (, created over the summer, already is getting 6,000 hits a week. Foreign investors seeking information on Cuban state-run companies, especially the ones that supply goods or services to foreign-run hotels, are probably the biggest visitors to the site, says Perez. Some companies, such as construction-supply firms, already have started posting their catalogs on the site. "It's difficult to live in today's world without the Internet," says Perez. "We hope to make the Chamber the pivotal point for e-commerce in Cuba."

SWISS CONNECTION. Some Cuban Web sites are there mainly for informational purposes. Such is the case of the only private Web site in Cuba, created in January by a nongovernmental organization that runs the Frank Vazquez art gallery in Old Havana. The attractive site showcases photographs of work by 31 leading Cuban painters and sculptors, as well as biographical information on the artists. The site was created by Abel Ponce, 27, who studied physics and mathematics in college but had never worked with computers. He still has never seen a Web-design manual or taken a course on how to design one, but the site recently won a Soho Monarch Webmasters' Award and a Soho Midnight Butterfly award for artistic excellence. "Doing anything here in Cuba is very difficult," says Ponce. "Just one or two years ago, it was very difficult to get on the Internet, but now it's a little easier."

The gallery has a year-old Pentium 200-MHz computer but relies on international friends to bring up-to-date Web-design software to them, since it's not available in Cuba. The gallery would like to eventually sell artwork online, but it may take several years, Ponce says. In the meantime, Swiss art dealer Ernst Helbling, a friend of gallery owner Frank Vazquez, is already offering the artists' work for sale on his Switzerland-based Web site, Helbling periodically visits Cuba and buys numerous works of art and takes them back to Switzerland. Visitors to his site can order online and have the paintings shipped anywhere in the world. Helbling says he has sold more than 100 works of art, worth anywhere from $80 to $15,000 apiece, to U.S. art collectors, who by law are barred from visiting Cuba.

For now, Cuba's experiment with e-commerce will focus mainly on tourism, the country's most important industry. It's possible for tourists to plan their entire trip to Cuba through the Cubanacan tourist agency's site,, making reservations for hotels, diving excursions, rental cars, and even cellular telephones over the Internet. If the U.S. embargo against Cuba is ever lifted, allowing Americans to vacation on the Caribbean island once again, tourism -- and Internet traffic -- could pick up considerably.



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