Impressions of Cuba: an educated and cultured people, but a feeble economy HAVANA — We’ll call her Elena, to protect her from retribution from her government. I don’t know if we really need to protect her, but every time we asked her a question about her life in Cuba, she looked around to make sure no one was in earshot before answering.

Elena teaches mathematics to engineering students at the University of Havana. In most poor countries, this would make her a member of the economic elite. But this is Cuba, where for the most part the people are educated, cultured, healthy, and poor.

Elena has to moonlight as a tour guide at one of Havana’s oft-visited sites so she can earn enough to pay for food and clothing. We gave her a tip of about 10 American dollars, which is the equivalent of almost a month’s pay for a Cuban worker, even a well-educated professional.

She said she lives in a very small house, where she grew up with her grandmother. It is “her house” now, in a way — she doesn’t even have to pay any rent — but she can’t rent it out or sell it. “In Cuba,” she joked, “the only place where private property is respected is in the cemetery.”

Her daughter is studying archaeology at the university, but Elena says there is no future for the young woman in Cuba. She fears her daughter will find a way to leave, and she will be alone. Other relatives of hers have gone to the United States and Europe, “but they have forgotten me.”

One story of many
We heard so many variations of her story. Angela, a 90-year-old woman, sings and plays guitar in one of Havana’s relatively few privately owned restaurants. Her face lit up when we told her we were from the United States. While we ate another of our monotonous meals, she sang ballads from Cuba and Mexico, tossed in a heavily accented “It’s a long long way to Tipperary” and ended with “Guantanamera.” She told us that because she was from an era when women didn’t work outside the home, she never worked for the government and therefore had no pension. So, at 90, she plays and sings seven nights a week, for the tips.

Angela was pregnant when Fidel Castro took power, she said. Her son studied to be an industrial engineer, and got a job in a factory. But he found he could make as much in one night playing the guitar for tourists as he did in a month doing “his boring factory job.” So he, too, plays.

It was not like this during the first three decades of the Cuban revolution, the era when Cuba — despite its fierce desire for independence — was essentially a Soviet satellite state, selling its sugar in exchange for enough economic subsidy to provide most Cubans with a decent standard of living. This gave Cuba the space to build a socialist society based on universal access to education, health care, and a vigorous arts community, with freedom defined as the opportunity to do anything that supported the revolution and nothing that didn’t. Tourism, which had been mob-dominated under Batista, was virtually non-existent. Cubans were not allowed to own dollars.

Concessions after Soviet Union’s collapse
But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Castro had to make some concessions to keep his people from starving in the face of the relentless American economic embargo. He re-introduced tourism, using foreign joint-venture capital to begin renovating and rebuilding infrastructure (Old Havana is now an exciting area to explore), allowed some private entrepreneurship in certain categories of small business, and permitted Cubans living abroad to start remitting hard currency to their relatives on the island. It was all done reluctantly and in a very limited way, because Castro was so ideologically opposed to capitalism. Even today, nearly two decades later — with an ailing Fidel replaced by his more pragmatic younger brother Raul — “almost everyone works for the government here,” as one security guard in a hotel told us.

Even the trickle of capitalism is setting back the revolution’s commitment to equality. Revolutionary Cuba abolished de jure racial discrimination, and blacks are certainly far better off than before the revolution. But the Cubans who are fortunate enough to be getting remittances from foreign relatives are overwhelmingly white, and they are becoming a new elite. (Some, we were told, choose not to work at all, simply living off the remittances.)

“In Miramar (a higher-class suburb), all the people you see in the nice houses and the stores are white,” said a dark-skinned cab driver. “On the other hand, I could take you to an eastern suburb where the apartments are small and ugly and the people are black.”

Baseball and dominoes
In Havana, there is none of the rushing-around-of-suits-with-cellphones that you see in more financially oriented world cities, like New York or Shanghai. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., large numbers of men stand in a corner of the Parque Central and argue about baseball. During a rainstorm, we dropped into a recreation center in the Centro neighborhood, and saw half a dozen men playing dominoes — a Canadian in the game, in Cuba to study Spanish, told us they play all day, every day: “Before work, after work, during work.”

Though things are better than right after the collapse of the Soviet support system, getting enough to eat is a challenge for Cubans. Some foods, like rice, are rationed, and, as the same cab driver told us, “what they call a month’s ration lasts for 10 days.” You can buy more at the market, but a pound of pork, he said, costs 28 Cuban pesos, almost 10 percent of a typical Cuban’s monthly government salary.

But poverty in Cuba is different from poverty in so many underdeveloped countries.  Every few blocks, it seems, we saw schools filled with what appeared to be healthy, energetic children, and community health clinics dotted the neighborhoods. According to World Health Organization data, Cuba has lower infant mortality and a lower incidence of AIDS than the United States, and about the same life expectancy. Cuba has trained so many doctors that it exports them for humanitarian missions and trades their services to Venezuela for petroleum.

You see almost no advertising for commercial products in Cuba, but (along with billboards with political/ideological messages) you see many public-health messages, such as warnings to girls about the risks associated with teenage pregnancy. We never saw a child begging. (There were some adult panhandlers, mostly elderly people, but not as many as we see in Minneapolis.) There is a lot of prostitution, involving Cuban women with foreign men, and one way the government appears to try to limit it is by not allowing Cubans above the lobby level in major hotels.

A vibrant, sophisticated arts scene
One of the most striking ways that Cuba is not like other poor countries is its vibrant arts scene. Both artists and audiences are highly sophisticated. We were in Cuba during the Havana Film Festival, and at every theater, long lines of locals waited to get into the movies on their inexpensive passes.

Teresa Eyring, former managing director of the Children’s Theatre Company of Minneapolis and now director of the Theatre Communications Group in New York, was on our trip, and she spent the week meeting with many local artists and seeing their work.

“The place is infused with art, music, dance, painting, sculpture and theater,” Teresa told me after she made her rounds. “A distinguishing factor is the high level of sophistication of the people of Cuba. People of all ages and walks of life attend arts events. The prices are low, the work is good, and there is not so much else competing for people’s time.”

Aleigh Lewis, the filmmaker who with her husband, Sage, produced the theater/film piece that led us to Cuba for its premiere, described Cuba to us as a “meritocracy.” If you are good at what you do in the arts, you will be supported in a big way throughout your career. Some of Cuba’s best artists live in some of Cuba’s best housing, Eyring told me. “The building where Sage, Aleigh and company were staying is an artists’ high rise with sweeping views of the sea. The conductor of the orchestra lives there, and the penthouse is the home of the poet Cintio Vitier.”

Democracy seems a remote concept
So what lies ahead for this nation of highly educated, healthy, sophisticated, politically repressed, proud but poor people? Based on what we saw, it’s hard to guess how fast Cuba will change. Democracy seems like a remote concept; the Castro revolution has been very effective at applying just the needed level of repression to maintain tight control. More likely is something like the Chinese model, in which an ostensibly Communist state commits to improving its people’s standard of living, and employs foreign capital and know-how flowing through joint ventures to make it happen.

So far, of course, the capital flowing into Cuba is limited because of the decades-long U.S. economic embargo, which can make finding the simplest products a headache. Even though Castro always played up anti-Americanism to cement his position domestically, Cubans we spoke to are eager to see relations improve between their country and ours. “We are socialist and you are capitalist,” a woman bookseller in Plaza de Armas in Old Havana told me. “But we are all people, we should be friends, and we should trade.”

The dramaturg for the Lewis’ film/theater premiere, Esther Hernandez, who left Cuba for California in 2001, put it this way: “ It’s time for the old guard in both our countries to get out of the way, and let the young people create something new.”

On one level — Americans’ ability to travel to Cuba — the relaxation seems already to have begun. Under the ominously named “Trading With the Enemy Act,” it is in theory difficult for Americans to travel legally to Cuba. (Cuba is the only country currently covered by the act — North Korea was recently removed.)

You need to jump through a lot of hoops, and say different things to the authorities in the two countries (for example, the United States will approve “humanitarian” missions, but you are advised to tell the Cuban authorities that you are there for tourism). Americans must use only cash while in Cuba (American credit cards and bank cards don’t work), and not bring home any cigars or rum or anything else but artwork and publications.

This can prove to be a real burden. But the Obama administration seems to take a more relaxed view of the matter than its predecessor. When we told U.S. Customs in Miami that we had traveled to Cuba as journalists, and brought nothing home but a CD and a DVD, the official asked for no evidence of our professional work, did not check our luggage, and simply said, “Welcome home.” – Luxury vacation rental in Cuba


Bills to open U.S.-Cuba travel pick up steam — but face uncertain future

El Nuevo Herald:

Bills in Congress to allow all travel to Cuba are increasingly drawing support among U.S. lawmakers and the public — but they still face an uncertain future.

WASHINGTON — A powerful campaign to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba is rumbling through Congress, with both backers and opponents predicting eventual victory and a Cuban-American Senator holding a key vote.

Approval of the measures would have a profound impact on U.S.-Cuba relations, unleashing an estimated one million American tourists to visit the island and undermining White House control of policy toward Havana.

“There would be an explosion of contacts between Americans and Cubans . . . that would almost overshadow what the two governments are doing,” said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute think thank in suburban Washington.

Proponents say the measures still have not received active support from the White House and the Democratic leadership in both chambers.

Cuban officials have told recent U.S. visitors that while President Barack Obama’s policy changes so far have been too timid to require a Havana reply, ending the U.S. travel ban would be significant enough to require some sort of Havana concession.

Even opponents of the free-travel bills in the House and Senate admit the campaign for approval is powerful. “I have never seen a stronger effort,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee.

Backing the change has been the U.S. travel industry — Orbitz says it has 100,000 signatures on a petition — and dozens of newspaper editorials, large agricultural companies, former Secretary of State George Shultz, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and groups that traditionally oppose U.S. sanctions on the island.

“Our goals should be to get rid of the travel ban in the next six months,” Richardson said Friday during a speech to the National Democratic Network in Washington. “This is a step in the right direction,” Shultz declared last month.

Polls show 60-70 percent of all Americans favor lifting the travel restrictions, and one House bill championed by Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt has gathered 180 sponsors — 38 short of the 218 votes required for passage.

Obama ended all restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel to the island on Sept. 3. But other U.S. citizens and residents can travel only under special permits for groups such as churches, academics and business — not for tourism. That was allowed, however, from 1977 to 1982 under former President Jimmy Carter’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

Most of the public attention has been focused on the House bill backed by Delahunt and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. Farr, noting that U.S agricultural sales to Cuba are allowed but not tourism, has repeated several variations of the line that “We can send American potatoes to Cuba, but not American people.”

But a lesser-known version has a better chance of passing because it also eases restrictions on U.S. agricultural and medical sales to Cuba, in hopes of gathering support from those lobbies, said a Senate Republican staffer monitoring the progress of the travel bills.

The main Senate version of the measure — with 25 co-sponsors from both parties at last count — is being championed by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Michael Enzi, R-Wyo. and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

But backers of the changes say the bills have not moved forward through the congressional maze so far because of the lack of active support from the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in both chambers.

“The Obama people are showing timidity. They are sitting on their hands,” said a Senate aide whose Democratic boss favors lifting all travel restrictions. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.

Administration officials say lifting all travel restrictions would be too drastic and perhaps chaotic, and the the president prefers a more measured warming of relations. They stop short of saying whether Obama would sign or veto the bill if passed by Congress.

“At the end of the day this is a leadership issue,” said the Senate Republican aide, who also asked for anonymity. “Do the Democrats have the will to bring this up [for a vote] with all the other issues — healthcare, Afghanistan, etc.”

Most of Washington’s Cuba watchers agree the full Congress is probably going to pass some bills easing Cuba sanctions, most likely one re-defining the requirement that Havana pay “cash in advance” for U.S. food purchases. The change would allow Cuba to pay when the shipments reach Havana, not before they leave U.S. ports as now required.

But the future of the “Free Travel to Cuba” initiatives is far more uncertain, with most of those monitoring the struggle saying that some version will likely pass the House, but all will almost certainly die in the Senate.

Delahunt “has a pretty impressive list of sponsors. That bill looks good in the House,” said a former Bush administration Cuba expert. “Delahunt will pass the House,” added an Obama administration official. Both asked for anonymity so they could speak frankly about the topic.

But most supporters as well as opponents say the travel measures are unlikely to pass the Senate, where the Democrats have a smaller majority and the bills face stiff opposition from Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey and Florida’s Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and George LeMieux, a Republican.

Menendez and Nelson have strongly opposed easing the ban on U.S. tourism. LeMieux, who replaced Sen. Mel Martinez, is expected to also oppose easing the travel restrictions.

“This is a battle of perceptions. The pro-travel groups are claiming they will win, in the hope of creating the sense of movement and victory,” said Claver-Carone. “But in the end, the Senate will be tough, if not impossible.” – Luxury vacation rental in Cuba

Cuba Pins Hopes On New Farms Run for Profit

Washington Post:

CEIBA DEL AGUA, Cuba — Faced with the smothering inefficiencies of a state-run economy and unable to feed his people without massive imports of food, Cuban leader Raúl Castro has put his faith in compatriots like Esther Fuentes and his little farm out in the sticks.

Cuba farm distribution

Cuba farm distribution

If Cuba is searching for its New New Man, then Fuentes might be him. The Cuban government, in its most dramatic reform since Castro took over for his ailing older brother Fidel three years ago, is offering private farmers such as Fuentes the use of fallow state lands to grow crops — for a profit.

Capitalism comes to the communist isle? Not quite, but close. Raúl Castro prefers to call it “a new socialist model.” But Fuentes gets to pocket some extra cash.

“The harder you work, the better you do,” said Fuentes, who immediately understood the concept.

Castro’s government says it has lent 1.7 million acres of unused state land in the past year to 82,000 Cubans in an effort to cut imports, which currently make up 60 percent of the country’s food supply.

The United States, which has maintained a diplomatic deep freeze and a punishing economic blockade against the island for almost 50 years, is the island nation’s largest supplier of food and agricultural products, selling it an average of $350 million worth of beans, rice and frozen chickens each year since 2001, when Congress created exceptions to the trade ban.

At a major speech honoring the revolution in July, Castro smacked his hand on the podium and announced: “The land is there, and here are the Cubans! Let’s see if we can get to work or not, if we produce or not, if we keep our word. It is not a question of yelling ‘Fatherland or Death!’ or ‘Down with imperialism!’ or ‘The blockade hurts us!’ The land is there waiting for our sweat.”

In an August speech, Castro said that the Cuban economy, walloped by three hurricanes last year as well as global recession, grew just 0.8 percent in the first half of 2009. The hurricanes decimated crops and caused $10 billion in damage.

Critics of Cuba’s communist-style collectivist agriculture system say that the country should be a virtual Eden, given its rich soil and abundant rain, and should not have to import tons of dried peas from the imperialist aggressor to the north.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of subsidies from Moscow and Eastern Europe, Cuba abandoned its huge farms devoted to sugar cane — and that land was quickly taken over by marabu, a tenacious, thorny weed that now covers vast tracts of Cuba the way kudzu blankets the American South.

“If they really wanted to solve their problem, they could solve it in a minute, with the stroke of a pen,” by allowing private ownership and free markets, said José Alvarez, a professor emeritus and authority on Cuban agriculture at the University of Florida.

Although he has stepped out of his brother’s shadow since taking office, Raúl Castro told the Cuban National Assembly in August: “I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not destroy it. We are ready to talk about everything, but not to negotiate our political and social system.” Those who hope that Cuba will crumble after “the death of Fidel and all of us,” Castro said, “are doomed to failure.”

Brian Latell, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami and author of “After Fidel,” said: “This farm reform is one of Raúl’s highest priorities. He talks about it constantly. But the steps have been more reluctant, slower, more tentative than many Cubans would probably like.”

The 78-year-old former brigadier general has signaled that the paternalistic Cuban system may include a little more tough love and a bit more free enterprise. The government is in the process of eliminating subsidized beer for weddings, holidays for exemplary workers, hotel rooms for newlyweds and free chocolate cakes for Mother’s Day. In one of the most watched pilot programs, Cuba is beginning to shutter state-run cafeterias and instead give workers 15 pesos, or about 65 cents, to buy lunch from state-run cafes or private food stalls. The average monthly salary in Cuba is about $20.

Out in the countryside, Castro’s farm reform has set the villages buzzing. Chewing on an unlit cigar, Fuentes took a visitor on a tour of his new domain. Last year, he worked nine acres of land, mostly for self-consumption, “plus a little left over to sell.” This year he applied for and was quickly granted another 20 acres. The plot is his to farm for 10 years, and the only requirement is that he plant crops.

Fuentes pointed to his new fields of sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, cassava and beans. He’s also growing flowers to sell. Chickens were running around, and trees bore monster avocados. The future looks better.

“This is big change,” he said. “Everyone wants in.”

His adult daughter Marta works for the local farm cooperative, where Fuentes and other private farmers sell their crops. The state still sets the price — but the more the farmers produce, the more they sell. They also try to grow better-quality produce, which fetches a higher price. They are paid in cash, which Fuentes appreciates, and they are not told what to plant.

“Right now, there are shortages of everything,” Fuentes said, “so there is no risk of overproduction.”

Marta Fuentes said the local cooperative now has 44 farms as members, up from 31 a year ago. “And not only are there more farmers, the farms themselves, like ours, are bigger,” she said. There are more fresh fruits and vegetables available in local markets, she said, and a recent report from the Associated Press said that some commodities appear more abundant in Havana these days.

So depressed is the Cuban economy that the government is pushing farmers to use oxen to plow the fields. “Let’s forget about tractors and fuels for this program, even if we had them,” Castro said.

The Fuentes family uses a couple of oxen. “Not having any machinery might seem backward, but in some ways the oxen are better,” Fuentes said. He can borrow a tractor from the cooperative if he needs one. But the fuel costs are prohibitive.

One of the challenges facing private farmers is the lack of credit and investment. They can work their new farms, but they often don’t have enough fertilizer, seed or fuel. There’s not enough electricity to run water pumps, Fuentes said, and no one has pesticides.

“This a big problem,” said Alvarez, the University of Florida professor. “The government gives the farmers some land, which is good, but they don’t give them any inputs. So they tell them, ‘Take your old machete and go and fight the sun and weather and save us.’ ”

“It’s not much extra money, but believe me, every little bit helps us,” said Marta Bobadilla, a retired shop clerk who was given the use of 1.5 acres behind her house on the outskirts of Havana, which she has transformed into an urban garden filled with bananas, okra, sweet potatoes and leafy vegetables to feed her rabbits.

Asked if the cute little white bunnies might be sold as pets, Bobadilla thought that funny. This is Cuba. “These are to eat,” she said. – Villa rental in Havana, Cuba

Cuba: Castro Considers “Brave” on Global Warming

Reuters: Mr Castro described President Obama’s admission that the US had been too slow to act on climate change as a brave gesture. But he added that the American capitalist system was incompatible with a clean planet.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro praised President Barack Obama on Wednesday for making a “brave gesture” by speaking out against global warming and saying developed nations had caused much of the damage.

But Castro added, in a column published in Cuba’s state-run media, that Obama was part of a capitalist system that was “incompatible” with economic growth and a clean environment.

He was referring to Obama’s speech at a U.N. summit on global warming on Tuesday in which the U.S. president warned that failure to act on climate change, said to be caused by the emission of greenhouse gases, could create a catastrophe.

“Yes, the developed nations that caused much of the damage to our climate over the last century still have a responsibility to lead,” Obama said. But he said developing nations that will produce nearly all the growth in global carbon emissions in coming decades must do their part as well.

Castro wrote in his column that “the President of the United States admitted the developed nations have caused most of the damage and must assume responsibility.”

“It was, without doubt, a brave gesture,” he said.

“No other (U.S. president) would have had the courage to say what he said,” said Castro, 83, who ruled Cuba for 49 years before ceding power last year to his brother Raul Castro, 78.

Castro added: “The problem now is that everything he (Obama) affirms is in contradiction with what the United States has done for 150 years.”

“The societies of consumption and squandering of material resources are incompatible with the idea of economic growth and a clean planet,” he said.

Castro, a fierce critic of U.S. presidents and western capitalism, has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in 2006, but he writes columns for state media and plays a behind-the-scenes role in government.

Promising a “new beginning” in U.S.-Cuban ties, Obama has slightly relaxed the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, but has called on Cuban leaders to respond by embracing democracy and freeing detained dissidents.

Raul Castro has said his government is ready to talk to Washington, but has ruled out any shift to capitalism. – apartment with swimming pool to rent in Havana, Cuba

Cuba: U.S. Officials Visit to Discuss Mail Service

HAVANA (AP): Cuba and the United States sat down in Havana on Thursday for rare talks aimed at re-establishing direct mail service, which was suspended in 1963. The United States delegation was led by Bisa Williams, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. It was the first time that State Department officials had traveled to Cuba for talks since late 2002, said Gloria Berbena, a spokeswoman for the United States Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Cuba instead of an embassy. Representatives of the United States Postal Service were also present. Ms. Berbena said the talks would be limited to mail service. Cuba’s government had no immediate comment. – Luxury condo rental in Havana, Cuba

Cuba revolution commander Juan Almeida dies at 82

HAVANA (Reuters) – One of the original leaders of the Cuban revolution and current vice president Juan Almeida has died of heart failure at the age of 82, state-run press reported on Saturday.

Almeida was at the side of Fidel and Raul Castro from the earliest days of the revolution and was the only black commander in the leadership.

Fidel Castro took power after the rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, and ruled until Raul Castro succeeded him as president last year.

Almeida, who had been in ill health in recent years, died late on Friday, Communist Party newspaper Granma said.

Many of Cuba’s top leaders are about the same age as Almeida, which has raised questions about who will succeed the Castros. Raul Castro is 78, while Fidel Castro is 83.

Almeida served in top positions from the beginning of the revolutionary government and at his death was one of several vice presidents in the Council of State under Raul Castro and a member of the powerful political bureau of the ruling Communist Party.

The construction worker from a humble Havana neighborhood participated in the ill-fated July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada military barracks in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba that began the uprising.

He and the Castros were imprisoned after the attack. Following a pardon by Batista in 1955, they were released and went to Mexico to regroup and train.

He was on the yacht Granma when it carried the small rebel fighting force from Mexico to Cuba in late 1956 and he fought in the Sierra Maestra mountains that were the rebel base. Fidel Castro named him a commander, in charge of the third rebel front.

During an early encounter with government troops, he gained fame for running to the front of the outnumbered rebels and shouting, “Here, nobody surrenders.”

A black and white photo from those days, published alongside the story of his death, showed a bearded and smiling Almeida, wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

“Commander Almeida was always in the first line of combat with the Head of the Revolution, valiant, decisive and loyal to the ultimate consequences,” the political bureau said in a note published in Granma.

He met Fidel Castro in 1952 and became an enduring admirer.

“I’m honored to have met him personally in 1952 and since then to have shared with him all these years where I have seen him grow as the unchallenged leader,” Almeida wrote in his book “Absolved by History,” dedicated to Fidel.

Fidel Castro named him a “Hero of the Republic of Cuba” in 1998.

Apart from his military and political accomplishments, Almeida was a writer of songs and books. His “Dame un traguito” (Give me a Sip) or “La Lupe” was for years a popular song on the island.

The government declared Sunday a day of national mourning for Almeida. He was to be buried in the Sierra Maestra, the political bureau said.

“The name of Commander of the Revolution Juan Almeida Bosque will remain always in the hearts and minds of his compatriots,” it said. – Luxury apartment rental in Havana, Cuba

Cuban post offices OK’d for Internet access

HAVANA — Cuba has authorized public Internet access at post offices across the country, though it has yet to apply what would be a landmark loosening of cyberspace rules in a nation where information is strictly controlled.

A decree posted on the Web site of the government’s official gazette this week authorizes Empresa Correos de Cuba to “provide access to public Internet to all naturalized persons.”

Many post offices already offer public computers, but they are linked to a national intranet — an extremely limited list of Cuba-only Web sites.

Cubans there can send and receive international e-mail, but direct access to the rest of the Web is blocked, limits far stricter than those imposed even in China or Saudi Arabia.

Internet supervisors at two Havana post offices said Wednesday that while authorities are preparing to apply the law and have even installed new, faster PCs in some locations, they did not know when the new rules will go into effect.

A spokesperson for the Cuban government was not immediately available for comment.

Even use of the national intranet is costly for locals: $1.62 per hour in a country where state workers are paid about $20 a month. It’s not clear if full Internet access would cost more.

Few Cubans are able to pay the roughly $6.50 that an hour of Internet time costs at hotels meant for foreign tourists.

More common — but still rare — are those with access to Internet-enabled computers owned by government officials, academics, Communist Party leaders and foreigners who work on the island. Even there, the government often blocks sites it considers hostile — especially those of Cuban bloggers who criticize the communist system.

Sitting on a curb across from a post office amid the gracefully decaying colonial buildings of Havana’s historic district, Fidel Danilo Gomez said he expected to wait two hours for chance to use a computer linked to the intranet.

“We Cubans are crazy for waiting. If there’s no line in Cuba it’s because the place is closed,” said the 21-year-old university student majoring in French.

But he said the idea of logging into the real Internet was appealing: “If I am going to wait for hours, checking a Hotmail or Yahoo account sounds better than using a Cuban account that’s good for nothing.”

Gomez said that though expensive, Cuba’s internal Web is simple and runs quickly, helping to limit the time users have to be connected. The full Internet would run slowly and be even more costly, he said.

“It is very expensive even now, and most people can’t afford it,” said salsa singer Alexi Perez, who was chomping on an unlit cigar as he waited near Gomez to crowd inside the dimly lit post office and e-mail a friend in Croatia.

Perez said he’d love to surf the Internet for information about music, but isn’t sure how to do that.

“All I know how to do is sit down, write my letter and leave,” he said. “And I’m a very slow typist.”

Another potential problem is bandwidth. Cuban officials say they limit Internet access largely because the U.S. embargo forces them to rely on expensive satellite link to the Web rather than tapping into nearby American fiber-optic lines.

The government of Venezuela says it is nearing completion of a fiber-optic link that will greatly increase Cuba’s Cyberspace capabilities. And the U.S. government recently relaxed restrictions on telecommunications cooperation with the island.

Gomez said e-mailing his friend in Croatia provides a peak at an outside world he’s never seen.

“Everybody in Cuba wants to go somewhere and see something of the world,” he said, “even if it were Guantanamo Bay.” – Villa with swimming pool in Havana, Cuba