Sunday, February 27, 2011

Cuba's first Internet connection

Jesus Martinez (l) and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf
Cuba's first Internet connection was made in September 1996. CENIAI, the National Center of Automated Data Exchange, installed and managed the link. As was the custom in those days, CENIAI Director Jesus Martinez sent an email to his colleagues in the networking community announcing the connection. It read:
From: Director CENIAI/ Jesus Martinez/IDICT
Date: Mon, 9 Sep 1996 20:22:41 -0300 (EDT)

Dear friends,

After so many days, years of sacrifice and vigilance, I have great satisfaction to announce that our beloved Cuba, our "Cayman of the Indies," has been connected to the Internet as we had desired. We have a 64 Kbps link to Sprint in the U.S.

Many friends helped us and it would be unfair to mention some because of the risk of overlooking others. To be honest, major recognition goes to the Forum of Latin American and Caribbean Networks, first convened in Rio and most recently held in Lima. The Forum gave us the opportunity to meet, share strategies and estimate the size of our tasks to better plan our work. The Forum helped us achieve our connection to the Internet through technical teaching and solidarity.

Our greatest thanks go to my young colleagues at CENIAI, who had full confidence in our ability to make this historic connection.

A new era has just begun for us. We will soon announce our Web site and value-added services to do as much as we can to help develop our region and our culture.

A good Caribbean greeting,

(The Forum Martinez refers to was a group of network leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean who held annual meetings sponsored by the Organization of American States and the US National Science Foundation).

I'm posting Martinez' announcement because it conveys the spirit of the small, international networking community he belonged to. He thanks The Forum for their assistance and solidarity. They did more than meet annually -- they collaborated year around using their new tools like email, threaded discussion, file transfer, Gopher (a limited, text-based precursor to the Web), remote login and eventually the Web. They were among the first to form what networking visionary J. C. R. Licklider had predicted thirty years earlier -- a community "not of common location, but of common interest."

Martinez was clearly proud of Cuba, but he also shared the values and enthusiasm of the international networking community, who believed, correctly, that the Internet would profoundly impact individuals, organizations and society. Cuba (CENIAI) had been among the leaders in pre-Internet networking. They came to the Internet a little late, but were confident of their ability to help develop the region and culture.

That ambition has been achieved to varying degrees around the world, but Cuba has fallen far behind. That's the bad news. The good news is that times are changing, and Cuba has a well educated population ready to use, shape and be shaped by the Internet. When the time comes, they will bring a Cuban perspective to the task, and will develop and use it in Cuban ways.

For example, Cuba has invested in medical education and health care for years and they are poor -- might that prepare them to invent new applications and devices for low-cost, decentralized medicine? Or, might they show us ways to fund the development of the Internet without heavy reliance on advertising and consumer sales?

Yes, I know I am being a Pollyanna, but humor me -- Martinez' vision will eventually be realized.

Much of the early history of Latin American networking is captured at the Network Pioneer site. You can browse the site or focus on The Forum or on Martinez' contribution. Links to reports of the seven annual Forum meetings are here.

For a short article on CENIAI written four years before their Internet connection, see Press, L. and Snyder, J., A Look at Cuban Networks.

Here is Martinez' email in Spanish.
From: Director CENIAI/ Jesus Martinez/IDICT 
Date: Mon, 9 Sep 1996 20:22:41 -0300 (EDT)

Queridos amigos;

Despues de tantos dias, annos, de sacrificio y desvelo, tengo la gran
satisfacion de comunicarles que nuestra querida Cuba, nuestro caiman
antillano ha podido ser conectada a INTERNET como habiamos deseado.
La conexion a 64 Kbps por el momento, se realiza a Sprint en E.U.

Muchos son los amigos que nos han ayudado, apoyado y seria injusto el
mencionar a alguien sin correr el riesgo de olvidar algun nombre, creo que
para ser honesto mi mayor reconocimiento lo voy a dirigir al FORO DE REDES
LATINOAMERICANAS Y DEL CARIBE,desde Rio hasta Lima. El FORO que nos dio la
oportunidad de conocernos, de compartir estrategias, de dimensionar
nuestras tareas, de proyectar mejor nuestras misiones y nos ensenno que
lograr conectarse a Internet no se hace solo con la tecnica, tambien se
hace con solidaridad.

Nuestro mayor agradecimiento a mi joven colectivo de CENIAI, que ha
confiado plenamente en nosotros y que ha sabido concretar este hecho.

Una nueva etapa acaba de comenzar para nosotros, pronto comenzaran ha
conocer de nuestros WWW y de nuestros servicios de valor agregado, de
nuestra realidad y de lo mucho que podemos ayudar al desarrollo de
nuestra region y de nuestra cultura.

Un saludo bien Caribenno.


Update 4/4/2016

In a chat with some friends last week, Jesus described events surrounding that first Internet connection. Their goal was to connect on his birthday, July 22, but finalizing the agreement with Sprint and testing took longer than expected. The actual connection was made on the afternoon of August 22. Jesus was out of the office in the morning and when he returned the workers were waiting with the news that they were online -- it was a "great thing that one can never forget."

Update 4/7/2016

My friend Luis Germán Rodríguez found a Wired Magazine article on the Cuban Internet, published about a year and a half after their connection was established. It includes a visit to CENIAI and an interview with Jesus Martinez (below) in which he says that "The problem of the Internet in Cuba has never been technical or economic. As in any country, it's 70 percent political."

Update 8/23/2016

Jesus Martinez has sent a note commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Cuba's connection to the Internet. In it he notes a number of achievements during that time, but he acknowledges the connectivity gap between Cuba and other nations in the region and calls for the use of technology by and for the benefit of all -- "the last mile is not the business, home or individual, these are the very first mile".

You can download a copy of Jesus' 20th anniversary note (shown above) and his original Internet connection announcement twenty years ago, here.

Update 8/25/2016

Jesus sent me a couple more dates leading up to the 20th anniversary.

In November 1994 He and a colleague spent a month in Montevideo, where, among other things, they set up a Gopher server with Cuban information -- they were "on the Internet" without being on the Internet.

Jesus requested a class B address block in late December, 1994.

On January 12, 1995 Internic assigned Cuba the block, with CENIAI as the administrator.

One more point -- ETECSA, not the US National Science Foundation (NSF), paid Sprint for the initial satellite connection. As I recall, NSF solicited bids for their international connection program and Sprint won. I would not be surprised if NSF subsidized the program, reducing the cost for ETECSA and all others. Regardless, there was no charge for peering with the NSF backbone.

Finally, Jesus sent me a copy of the October 4, 1996 letter he sent to Sprint saying that they had been awarded their IP address block.


  1. Hi Larry,

    Nice article, it brings back many memories.

    It happens that at that time the gouverment was completelly ingorant about the "damage" that internet could make on the well washed brains of cubans. But at some point they realized that all the hard work of teaching how good cuban leaders are, all the money they have always spent in propaganda (tv, radio, newspapers etc) could get ruined because of this new thing called Internet.

    The solution they found was to put a cold hearted but well trusted bastard as Minister of Communication and Informatics: Ramiro Valdez.

    For example, during the period 1999-2004, access to internet in universities was gradually spreading, but right after this guy took power, students' access to internet was gradually cut down, and it began to be more controlled and supervised.

    A few months after he took power, he tried to pass a law that would effectivelly prevent illegal access to internet. It would be difficult to explain this law here, but I will say that this law had many "side effects", one of them was that some important writers, journalist and artists in general (pro-goverment of course) would also lose their priviledged access to internet at home, so he faced a strong opposition from these guys inside the cuban parlament (specially from the cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez who was in the parlament at the time) and he had to postpone his law indefinitelly. Eventually he forgot about it, but just the fact that he attempted something like this says a lot about him.

    Later on, in July 2007, this son of his mother passed an "internal rule" for all cuban companies, forbiding any kind of access to free internet email and chat services like gmail or yahoo, arguing that they could be used for industrial spying.

    This was a low blow against 90% of cuban internauts, who could only access these services at their work places. Eventully cubans found "work-arounds" for the technical restrictions, but they can lose their jobs if they are caught violating this rule.

    My conclusion: as long as this guy is in power, we will not see ANY improvement on internet access in Cuba. Luckilly, he is kind of old now, around 75 years old, so let's hope he retires very soon, or Gods sends him to hell where he belongs.

  2. Muchas Gracias wrote:

    > it brings back many memories

    Were you at CENIAI? Do you know where Jesus is now?

    > Luckilly, he is kind of old now, around 75 years old, so let's hope he retires very soon

    I discussed him (Ramiro Valdez) and MIC in the report I just wrote (

    He has been promoted to VP, and there is a new minister. They unblocked the dissident blogs -- might it be that policies are changing? (See the post at

  3. >Were you at CENIAI?
    Sorry, but no, not exaclty. I was a student at that time and I have always been involved in computers, so I remember the news about my country being connected to internet for the first time; and my first encounter with it some time later. It was great news at the time, it brought great expectations.

    >He has been promoted to VP, and there is a new minister.

    Yes, I know that, but he is still direclty supervising the MIC, so I think everything will still remain the same for a while. I believe the dissident blogs were unblocked because of the event "Informatica 2011". Many foraingers were expected to participate, and probably the goverment wanted to give a good impression.
    They have done this before, they will probably block them again later on.

    It's like when they "collect" homeless people from Havana and put them in prisons for a few days, during the "Latinamerican Movies Festival" every december.

  4. By the way, I took a quick look at your report, and it is very accurate consedering that you are not cuban. I found however one tiny mistake.
    Education in Cuba is absolutely free up to secundary school, (9th grade), however technical high-school education and university education is not exacly "free". When you finish your studies, you have to work for 2 years (males) or 3 years (females) wherever the goverment "needs you", for a salary that goes from 10 dolars per month up to 20 dolars per month.
    If you are lucky, you may be assigned to a nice working environment where you can learn a lot and even stay with a higher salary later on, but if you are unlucky (which is VERY common) you may end up in the middle of nowhere, 300km from your home, or even worse, dressing a uniform in the army or the police force. This is called "Social Service" and it is mandatory if you want to use your brand new degree either inside or outside the country.
    So, I would prefer paying if you ask me, or at least having the choice to pay (which we do not have).
    For UCI students in particular is a bit more hard, in some cases their Social Services last 5 years, since their studies are supposed to be more expensive for the goverment.

    1. This comment was accidentally marked as "spam" last year! Sorry for the late posting.

  5. Is it possible to correspond with Cuban citizens? I live in San Francisco,California and have always wanted to visit Cuba for cultural reasons,and I thought it would be great to correspond with the people of Cuba before making such a visit?


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