Cuba, Communism, and Computing

in Comm of the ACM, Vol. 35, No. 11, November 1992, pp. 27-29,112.
by: G.M. Mesher
R.O. Briggs
S.E. Goodman
L.I. Press
J.M. Snyder

"The disease has passed, but we are still waiting for the recovery to begin," we are told by a friend as we drive down Havana's elegant Fifth Avenue. The tower of the former Soviet embassy stands above us as a gigantic monument to the three decades when Cuba was the only Soviet ally in the New World. In many ways, the Cold War has not yet ended here, though it has been scaled back into what the Castro government calls the "Special Period in Time of Peace." Contact with foreigners, especially in and around the hotels, may be watched by "chillatos" (squealers), while a conversation which touches upon a politically sensitive issue can turn into a lecture on building socialism in Cuba.

The disbanding of the Soviet-led Council for Economic Mutual Assistance (CMEA), made up of the former Warsaw Pact countries and some of their allies, has produced a desperate economic situation in Cuba. In the past, the CMEA allies provided large subsidies to the Cuban economy and accounted for roughly 80% of Cuba's international trade; with sugar, cigars and agricultural products exchanged at distorted rates for Soviet petroleum, East German condensed milk, Hungarian buses, Czech and Romanian tires, and many other products including food and medical supplies. After the collapse of communism in Europe, none of the new governments has seen fit to compound its own serious economic problems by continuing to prop up the Cuban economy. Furthermore, the U.S. embargo is still in place, and its effects are now especially acute.

Though basic commodities have been rationed in Cuba since the 1960s, current conditions have made rationing significantly more austere. Shortages of fuel, medicine, food, and many services are common. Some people, in confidence, state their desires to become "balseros" (rafters), Cuba's boat people, and make their way to that "other Cuba," in Florida, where anti-Castro feeling runs high. Cuba seems besieged. Nearly everyone agrees that changes, big changes, will be occurring here in the near future.

Against this backdrop, we came to study the state of Cuban computing and to attend Informatica '92, the third of a series of biannual international showcases for Cuba's informatics industry, with an accompanying exhibition where nearly 80 organizations, about 75% Cuban, presented their products and services.

Early Cuban Informatics

Computing in Cuba dates back to the late 1950s when two first generation U.S. computers were installed. Shortly after the 1959 revolution, however, trade with the U.S. ceased. Next came machines from France, followed by Soviet and East European systems as Cuba became more integrated into the Soviet trading bloc. During the 1970s Cuba embarked on a program to develop its own second generation minicomputers (based on Digital's PDP-11) at the Central Institute for Digital Research (ICID).

Most of Cuba's early computer specialists were trained in East Germany and the Soviet Union. Programs in computer science and related disciplines were later established at several universities including the University of Havana, the ISPJAE (Instituto Superior Politecnico Jose Antonio Echeverria, Havana's technical university) and the University of Las Villas in Santa Clara.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the Cuban hardware industry produced a variety of products that were used domestically and exported to CMEA countries. About 300 of the minicomputers were made, as well as thousands of asynchronous terminals. Cuba also has a modest microcomputer industry, assembling a few thousand Intel-based PCs from imported components. Other electronic devices, including simple semiconductors, were also produced.

The Cuban economy was neither large nor sophisticated enough to justify an indigenous hardware industry. To supplement its small domestic market, the Cuban industry became an outlier of the partially integrated CMEA computer industries[2], building subsystems from imported components and with guaranteed exports to the CMEA countries. This centrally managed arrangement provided Cuba with some high tech factories and captive customers, and the CMEA countries obtained products of reasonably good quality to help balance the goods they sent to Cuba to keep its economy afloat.

Hardware Industry on the Ropes

Most of Cuba's hardware industry is located in less than a dozen plants and institutes under the National Institute for Automated Systems and Computer Technology (INSAC), in essence Cuba's Ministry of Informatics. With the near evaporation of its CMEA relations, this industry is in deep trouble.

These problems were apparent from our visits to two plants near Havana. The first was a printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturing facility that made unsophisticated, but good quality, boards. The second was an electronics assembly plant that made, among other things, the asynchronous terminals. (Our attempt to visit a third plant, an electronic components factory in Pinar del Rio, brought back not-so-fond memories of the former Soviet Union. After travelling about 100 miles for our scheduled visit, we were told that it had been cancelled because our "irreplaceable" guide had suddenly developed a case of laryngitis.)

The collapse of European communism caught the Cuban industrial planners by surprise. Both plants had been in the process of expanding capacity. The PCB factory had purchased manufacturing equipment from several European and Asian suppliers. The electronics assembly plant had started construction of a new manufacturing facility that was to be the tallest building in the plant compound. Now the PCB plant was reduced to small domestic runs that did little more than keep the machinery running and maintain a reduced operations staff. The incomplete and deteriorating shell of the new building at the electronics assembly plant was an omnipresent reminder of an industry with many problems. Empty slots for employee time cards abounded. The absent workers were still being paid, and encouraged to "volunteer" their labor on the farms of the hard-pressed agricultural sector.

Efforts are under way to find customers for these plants. Greatly increased internal demand is unlikely to be forthcoming any time soon. The hope is to find hard currency customers for exports or foreign investors to develop joint ventures. But Cuban marketing and financing capabilities are weak and the management people we met had few ideas on how to pursue either. The main selling point is cheap, reasonably well educated labor (Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the Western Hemisphere). Current economic conditions make the government and communist party desperate for convertible currency and hard pressed to keep people employed. The only competitive advantage Cuba's factories have is to steeply discount the value of its labor, no small ideological sin for a Marxist country. Prices can be made low by charging enough hard currency to cover the costs of materials and payments on imported machinery, with some "profit" for the state, and to almost completely discount the cost of labor by paying workers in nearly worthless Cuban pesos.

Although prospective foreign investors and customers come to see the plants (we were accompanied by two from Mexico and Taiwan), so far there has been no great rush to buy. Cuba's hardware industry seems doomed unless it can find foreign partners to retool both technology and management.

"Nouvelle Communism"

In the short run, the Castro government is dealing with the end of Soviet power and Cuba's increased international isolation by cuts and austerity. For example, large numbers of Chinese bicycles are being used as part of the solution to the fuel shortages. To increase foreign trade with hard currency paying customers, the Cuban government has prioritized key sectors with earning potential. These include tourism, biotechnology, and informatics.

Some new organizational forms are now permitted to try to nurture such sectors, including joint ventures with foreign capital[7]. One can even "work on one's own account," but larger private businesses with employees outside of one immediate family are still prohibited[4].

Although these are significant decontrols, the institutional framework of the Cuban economy remains very restrictive, even in comparison with reforms in other communist countries. The Cuban bureaucracy can frustrate efforts to develop new national income sources. Links between quality of service and labor productivity to incentives like profit are poorly understood and almost nonexistent. High quality work is not preferentially rewarded within a given organization, and entrepreneurial activity has little outlet within the formal economy. For example, while visiting a research facility, we asked if the author of a successful program would see an increase in his salary as a result. The answer was that he would not, even if that software was sold abroad and earned foreign exchange. Ordinary workers and business people are forbidden from using hard currency. While some recent efforts are being made to link productivity with pay, they are by no means widespread[5].

Within the prioritized informatics sector, the national industrial policy is to make Cuba a center for software engineering and development. A government program is being put into place to accomplish this, with Informatica '92 one of its manifestations. Officials are at least giving lip service to the educational, research, and business activities required for an internationally competitive software industry.

Software to the Rescue?

To Cuba's industrial planners, a software industry glows with potential: hard currency income, employment for an oversupply of university graduates, technology transfer into Cuba, international visibility, applications to other sectors of the economy, and modest requirements for initial capital investment. To these ends, they hope to develop a large cadre of programmers, analysts and informatics workers at all levels, and to market the skills of these workers in two ways: 1) by "body shopping" people to foreign firms to use for their own software projects; and 2) by building a number of Cuban software products in the hope that at least one would be capable of generating large amounts of foreign currency.

The people in this labor pool would be trained in the university programs, and have their skills honed with development groups in the universities and at R&D centers such as the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence and the Institute of Cybernetics, Mathematics, and Physics. A broader base of informatics talent and literacy is being developed through the Communist Youth Union (UJC), which has opened dozens of computer clubs intended to serve Cubans of all ages across the 600-mile island.

INSAC has set up a division, Centersoft, to market Cuban software products abroad. At Informatica '92, Centersoft sponsored an announcement for some PC-based multimedia software products as part of a joint venture with an Italian firm. As is common in such undertakings, the partner from the more developed country supplies capital, equipment and marketing skills, while the less developed partner supplies cheap labor. Entry-level Cuban programmers make about 150 pesos per month (officially the Cuban government equates one peso to one U.S. dollar, over twenty times the more realistic black market rate).

Cuba is also seeking to host official international centers. It recently won UNESCO approval for an R&D facility for data protection against computer viruses[1].

In spite of these aspirations and plans, Cuba's embryonic software industry has problems that undermine its short term prospects for doing more than writing code for foreign companies; and even there it faces stiff competition from many other developing countries trying to do the same thing. Perhaps the least of these problems, but by no means an insignificant problem for Cuba, is a poor technological infrastructure. Telecommunications is an important example. We found, for instance, that making phone calls from one side of Havana to the other often required several attempts, taking the better part of an hour simply to complete a call. International telecommunications is even more problematic. Many telephone exchanges are of prerevolutionary age and poorly sealed cables result in interference, crosstalk and poor signal quality[6]. As in most developing countries, infrastructure drops off sharply outside of the capital.

Cuban domestic organizations are neither as information intensive nor as flexible as those in many more developed non-communist economies. Consequently there is no user community with the size, sophistication, and quality of demand to drive an internationally competitive software industry. This problem is severely compounded by the extreme isolation of the Cuban computing community from the rest of the commercial world. "Body shopping" aside, what is there to generate the new products and other characteristics of a world class software industry? Under these conditions, even if a Cuban institute should come up with a good idea for a software product, what pushes it beyond version 1.0? Foreign customers would be understandably wary of buying products that do not have a strong domestic user base.

The Cuban government's ideological opposition to capitalism creates another obstacle to the development of a software export industry by not recognizing software copyrights. Cuba maintains a National Software Interchange Center, where copies of all kinds of foreign software are made available to any Cuban citizen free of charge. Ignoring foreign copyrights does solve the immediate problem of meeting software needs under conditions of capital scarcity. But it will make it more difficult for Cuba to export software products into markets which depend on the respect of those same intellectual property rights.

Beyond the piracy issue, by not directly recognizing the intrinsic value of software, an important feedback link is removed from a system which is supposed to produce high quality products capable of competing on the international market. The denial of property rights to software applies to domestic as well as foreign products. In Cuba, a successful piece of software creates a problem for its authors, since they must furnish copies of the program, documentation and support free of charge: all of the headaches, but none of the benefits.

Whither Cuban Informatics?

As is the case with the former Soviet Union, there are now two parts to the Cuban computing community: the state-run sector that is rapidly falling apart; and a fledgling "mixed sector" of private, state, foreign, and black market activities[3]. Both Cuban sectors are in even worse shape than their problem-plagued ex-Soviet counterparts because the Cuban domestic market is incomparably smaller, Cuban government control on individual and organizational activities is more restrictive, and the Cubans are much more isolated internationally. But the potential exists for faster change in Cuba than has been possible in the ex-USSR, since: 1) tremendous authority rests in the hands of Castro and, for better or worse, the entire nation will move or not depending on the decisions and fate of this one man; 2) the Cuban population is much smaller and homogeneous, and likely to obtain relatively more effective foreign aid, investments, and markets; and 3) much of the potential for such aid, investment, and market exists in a sizeable and fairly well-to-do (and sometimes resented) expatriate community 90 miles away.

Acknowledgments and Pointers

The Center for Automated Interchange of Information (CENIAI) of the Cuban Academy of Sciences has been linked to the Internet for roughly a year. At least twice a week, they receive a dial-up call from Toronto for two-way UUCP-based data transmission of files. Their Canadian partner is Web, part of the Association for Progressive Communications. In addition to its own use, CENIAI acts as a hub, receiving UUCP traffic from the University of Havana, the Ministry of Higher Education, and a unix-based PC belonging to the main UJC computing club in Havana, which is supposed to become a collection point for traffic from other clubs. Unfortunately, the poor international telephone lines make this a fragile, slow, and expensive process. However, the e-mail link through CENIAI ( has been by far the most effective means we have had of communicating with the island.

CENIAI is also Cuba's connection to IASnet. IASnet is a joint network for (in many cases, now former) socialist countries operated by VNIIPAS (The All Union Scientific Research Institute for Applied Computerized Systems) in Moscow. VNIIPAS has multiple links to Western data networks using X.75. A link to Sprint (previously known as Telenet) has existed since at least 1988, and when we visited CENIAI we were able to dial into one of our computers in Arizona via Moscow and Sprint.

CENIAI also provides electronic access to business, biomedical and other databases. A more detailed discussion of CENIAI's activities may be obtained by anonymous ftp from the global_net directory at[8].

Our trip would not have been possible without the help and hospitality of many Cubans who graciously accommodated our requests during Informatica '92 and during our visits to the Cuban informatics community at large. To all of those whose kindness and friendship made for an informative and memorable visit to Cuba, we extend our grateful thanks.


  1. Cuba, sede de laboratorio contra virus informaticos. Granma (May 6, 1992), 16.
  2. Geipel, G. L., A. T. Jarmoszko and S. E. Goodman. The information technologies and East European societies. East European Politics and Societies (Fall, 1991), 394-438.
  3. Goodman, S. E. and W. K. McHenry. The Soviet computer industry: A tale of two sectors. Communications of the ACM (June, 1991), 25- 29.
  4. Gunn, G. CubaUs search for alternatives. Current History (February, 1992), 59-64.
  5. Luxner, L. Cuban workers will be paid -- if they produce. Journal of Commerce and Commercial (June 15, 1990), 1A.
  6. Luxner, L. Out of order -- indefinitely. Telephony (January 7, 1991), 17-18.
  7. Pearson, J. and G. DeGeorge. Mr. Castro goes to market. Business Week (April 20, 1992), 46-47.
  8. Press, L. and J. Snyder. A look at Cuban networks. Matrix News (June 1992) 2(6), Matrix Information and Directory Services, Austin.
Readers are encouraged to send comments, suggestions, anecdotes, insightful speculation, raw data, and submissions for guest columns on any subject relating to international aspects of the information technologies. All correspondence should be addressed to:

Sy Goodman
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721   or   or
fax: (602) 621-2433

A Look at Cuban Networks

by: Larry Press
Joel Snyder

We attended INFORMATICA '92, a computer science conference in Havana, Cuba, in February, 1992. There were sessions and subconferences dealing with artificial intelligence, CAD, informatics, automatic control, education, computer viruses, computers in tourism, and many other topics. During the same week, there was a trade show, the Third International Fair of Informatics, featuring commercial and government exhibits. The conference and trade show were within walking distance, so we were able to visit both easily. We also visited some factories, research institutes, and the beach.

One of our primary purposes was to learn about Cuban networking. The primary Cuban networking institute is CENIAI, the National Center of Automated Data Exchange. CENIAI has 62 staff members, and it is part of the Cuban Academy of Sciences. In addition to networking, they teach classes, consult, develop applications software, market a database format conversion package, do database searches, maintain and market an international biotechnology research database, etc. A nation the size of Cuba cannot support highly specialized computing institutes.

In reading CENIAI's brochures and interviewing staff members, we discovered three primary classes of communication service, the international gateway service, IASnet, and uucp/Usenet.

International Gateway Service

This is an X.25 service offering electronic mail and database access. Electronic mail gateways include DataMail in Switzerland, MCI-mail in the USA, and ALTERNEX in Brazil. The monthly fee for this service is $20 with an additional $20 for a dedicated computer port. The charge for connect time is $.53 per minute, and traffic costs $.53 per kilobyte.

Global bibliographic databases are also available. These are located in Switzerland, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, and other nations. The databases fall into three general areas: biotechnology, science and technology, and business. The searches are quite expensive ranging from $42 to $60 for a search of up to 15 references, with a charge ranging from $3.30 to $4.45 for each additional reference.

To use this service you need a microcomputer, modem, and telephone line. The maximum data rate is 1200 bps using a modem or 5 cps Telex,


CENIAI is also Cuba's connection to IASnet. IASnet is a joint network for socialist countries operated by VNIIPAS (The All Union Scientific Research Institute for Applied Computerized Systems) in Moscow. IASnet is an X.25 packet switched network centered around an X.25 switch at VNIIPAS. The switch at VNIIPAS is the RPOA (Recognized Private Operating Authority) for the Soviet Union. As such, it has multiple external X.75/X.25 links to Western data networks. The two most often mentioned are the Austrian (RADAUS) and Finnish (Datapak) public data networks; however, a link to Sprint (previously known as Telenet) has existed since at least 1988, and is now probably the dominant method of data transfer into and out of the VNIIPAS switch.

IASnet connects (or connected, the current status of each connection being unknown) the national data centers of the Socialist countries in Czechoslovakia (Prague), Poland (Warsaw), Hungary (Budapest), Bulgaria (Sofia), Cuba (Havana), Vietnam (city unknown), East Germany (city unknown, but known to connect via Prague), and Mongolia (city unknown). Its primary uses are electronic mail and database access.

The Cuban connection to IASnet is through an X.25 PAD board located in one of the two CENIAI Unix microcomputers. These systems handle approximately 485 users, and are connected to each over via an Ethernet. The connection from Cuba to Moscow is via a satellite at 4800 bps. This line was installed in 1983. Until 1990, they paid no charges for use of the line. Now, they pay dollars or other hard (convertible) currency to VNIIPAS for packet traffic over the IASnet circuit. In 1984, it was reported that Cuba was the most prolific user of the IASnet services, with a total of 360 hours of connect time.

One of the authors (Snyder) was able to make a direct connection from the CENIAI Unix system to a VAX/VMS system in his apartment using a single X.121 address at the Havana end. To get to the Login prompt, his connection ran from the PAD program on the CENIAI Unix microcomputer over the X.25 satellite link to Moscow. VNIIPAS received the call and routed it to the international Sprint network. It was routed to Reston, Virginia where it entered the domestic US network. Sprint conveyed the call to Columbus, Ohio, and passed it to the CompuServe X.25 gateway. CompuServe carried it to University of Arizona's Telecommunications Group where it was translated from X.25 to DECnet format, and routed through Ethernet, fiber optics, a 56K line, and an asynch 9.6K DECnet line to Snyder's apartment. The gateway VAX in his apartment passed the call to his workstation VAX, which displayed ``Username:''!


In 1992, CENIAI began uucp data transmission. About twice a week, they receive a dial-up call from Toronto for two-way transfer of mail and news. Their Canadian partner is Web, a part of the Association for Progressive Communications, a non-profit, global organization linking peace, social change, and environmental activists. This was the path the authors used to establish contact with CENIAI, INFORMATICA organizers and others prior to (and since) our trip.

In addition to servicing their own accounts, CENIAI acts as a hub, receiving uucp traffic from the University of Havana, Redingen, a network connecting institutions involved in the biotechnology industry, and a unix-based PC belonging to the Cuban Youth Computing Clubs (YCCs).

The YCCs are interesting and typically Cuban in their stress on grass roots participation. They are part of the Union of Young Communists (the equivalent of Komsomol in the former Soviet Union), and they have centers in over 130 cities. The centers are reminiscent of Bob Albrecht's People's Computer Company (PCC) and similar experiments dating back to the 1960s in the United States. Like the PCC, they have computers running games, drawing programs, and other software, which the children may use in a relatively unstructured manner. Additionally, the YCCs offer classes on using professional application packages and programming. Advanced classes cover sophisticated topics such as C++.

To date, over thirty of the YCCs have modems on their computers, so they can send mail to the central YCC machine in Havana, which in turn transfers it to CENIAI and through Web to the rest of the world. It is ironic that some Cuban children have email connectivity, while children in many inner-city schools in the U. S. do without computers altogether.

The YCCs were begun in July, 1987, and clearly enjoy strong support by Cuban standards. We were told that Fidel Castro was personally responsible for their funding, and that they have an annual budget of $500,000 (very high by Cuban standards). Their headquarters was well equipped and located in a well maintained building that had been the Sears store in Havana.


CENIAI is the most active organization in Cuban networking. Although the Cuban economy is centralized, the staff are certainly not stuffy bureaucrats. They are highly motivated professionals, with a distinct "entrepreneurial" bent. The slogan on their brochure reads "Our Offer: Competitiveness!!" They also enjoy freedom from regulation or control by the Cuban Ministry of Communications (PTT).

As in other lesser developed nations, Cuba's PC-based, appropriate technology network can have a significant marginal impact. Sending a fax or making a phone call to Cuba from the US is nearly impossible, but email is as easy as to anywhere in the world. To succeed, networks in Cuba and other nations require telephone or radio communication infrastructure, hardware, software and trained people (users and service providers). CENIAI and the YCCs have begun to pull these elements together.



by: Fernando Martinez and Haymee Perez CENIAI, Havana, Cuba

Cuban Center for Electronic Information Exchange (CENIAI) network is pleased to promote its services: toll free information search through electronic service with CUBACIENCIA database for promotional purposes. The service provided is basically in Spanish.

CUBACIENCIA is concerned with the processing of scientific and technological literature in

This database contains over 6300 references from Cuban Journal articles covering as back as from 1987. It wile soon include scientific dissertations, Cuban software, non published documents, standards, patents, books, and brochures and other documents.

To use our service please send your information request, from whatever network you are linked to, to the electronic address:, and in a real short lapse of time you will find in your own mail box your request and the result of the search.

Every record includes the bibliographic description of the document and the author's abstract. The information search may be performed by author, title, topic, source, etc.

Besides, CUBACIENCIA may also offer all those interested in information concerning the

             * Social Sciences world
CUBACIENCIA lets you know the topics processed in Cuba, which institution are involved, the authors and the sources for publication. Other additional information is the authors' afiliations and if you so desire, we may arrange the contacts with any institution of your interest.

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Prado y San Jose, Aptdo. 2069,
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Fernando Martinez                            Haymee Perez