Date: Mon, 1 Feb 1999 18:03:13 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <email@example.com>
Subject: Cyberspace is striving in Haiti (fwd)
To: Bob Corbett <firstname.lastname@example.org>
From: Guy Antoine <email@example.com>
PETIONVILLE, Haiti-Soft jazz is wafting through the air as several well-heeled people surf the Internet and send e-mail while sipping coffee at computers in a second-floor room tastefully wallpapered in an old-world map motif.
At the bar downstairs, where the walls are lined with colorful drawings of the planets, the menu includes cappuccino, espresso, mocha, rum punches and an assortment of American-style snacks.
This trendy, high-tech ambiance evokes images of cyber cafes in Seattle, San Francisco or New York. But this one is in Haiti, and it is a striking anomaly in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population of 7 million is impoverished and illiterate and most people have no electricity, telephones or running water.
Haiti's only such cafe, Computer World, opened in June 1997 in the heart of Petionville, a somewhat upscale town that is home to many among Haiti's small class of moneyed elite a short drive into the highlands from the grinding poverty of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The cafe has found a solid niche among the nation's wealthy but more so among the relatively large number of foreigners who reside here, most of whom work for nongovernmental organizations and the U.N. mission in Haiti.
By using a satellite link, Computer World does not have to rely on Haiti's unreliable state telephone service, which is often in disrepair, for Internet access, and can avoid other frustrating delays caused by backed-up calls to the country's four local servers.
"When customers come here, they get connected fast; when they walk in, they are on line," said Jonas Guillaume, 32, a Haitian who started Computer World with $80,000 he and his two brothers had saved and financial help from their father.
"I could not have a cyber cafe if I had to count on phone lines," he said. "After a big rain, for example, you could be without a phone for a month." Furthermore, it can take years to obtain phone service from Haiti's monopoly, Teleco.
On a recent afternoon, Reuben Summerlin, 28, an American who recently moved to Haiti and works for a nongovernmental organization, said that the cafe has allowed him to access his America Online account regularly and thus do his job better and stay in touch with relatives more easily.
"I would not be as effective at work or have as much contact with my family if it were not for this place," said Summerlin, adding that he generally comes to Computer World every two days for about 90 minutes.
Others had less pressing reasons for frequenting the cafe. "If you are not home and you want to check your e-mail, you can just drop by," said Jean Bouchereau, 18, a high school student who was born in the United States. "I also like it," he added, "because it reminds me of the States. It is the environment; it is kind of cool. It is different than anything else around Port-au-Prince."
But the cafe is still vulnerable to some of the problems that plague this Caribbean country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. Electricity, for instance, routinely fails, a problem that has forced Guillaume to buy a generator and an inverter for the cafe so that incoming e-mail does not get lost. Furthermore, some clients have complained that the computer system can be slow.
Computer World has 150 members, mostly foreigners, who pay dues of $45 a month, which entitles them to 20 hours of computer use. Nonmembers pay $4 per hour to use the cafe, which is open every day. The operation has eight IBM terminals, purchased in Miami, but Guillaume said the business is in the midst of adding eight more.
The cafe also sells computers and other hardware, some software, such as dictionaries and anti-virus programs, as well as modems, digital cameras and video games. Additionally, it offers executive computer-training classes. Its six-member staff speaks English, French and Creole.
Guillaume, who studied computer science at a university in Montreal, said he decided to open the cafe after returning to Haiti in 1996 from West Palm Beach, where for 2 1/2 years he was unable to find suitable work in the computer field.
"When I came back, everybody among the Haitian elites was talking Internet, Internet, Internet," he recalled. "And so I am starting to ask them how they are getting on line."
It is estimated that fewer than 5,000 Haitians have access to the Internet via the country's servers; still, limited efforts to expand computer and Internet use in Haiti have gotten off the ground. The government is trying to develop an "intranet" network that would link all of its ministries, and a growing number of courses are available to teach people how to use computer systems and on-line services.