By James C. Mckinley Jr.

March 06, International Herald Tribune

HAVANA: A growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups has been mounting some challenges to the Cuban government in recent months, spreading news that the official state media try to suppress.

Last month, students at a prestigious computer science university videotaped an ugly confrontation they had with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly.

Alarcón seemed flummoxed when students grilled him on why they could not travel abroad, stay at hotels, earn better wages or use search engines like Google. The video spread like wildfire through Havana, passed from person to person, and seriously damaged Alarcón's reputation in some circles.

Something similar happened in late January when officials tried to impose a tax on the tips and wages of employees of foreign companies. Workers erupted in jeers and shouts when told about the new tax, a moment caught on a cellphone camera and passed along by memory sticks.

"It passes from flash drive to flash drive," said Ariel, 33, a computer programmer, who, like almost everyone else interviewed for this article, asked that his last name not be used for fear of political persecution. "This is going to get out of the government's hands because the technology is moving so rapidly."

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photo: At an e-mail center in Havana, customers work under an employee's watchful eye. Old Havana has only one true Internet cafe, down from three a few years ago (Jose Goitia for The New York Times)