By Sharon Mandell
It is an exciting time for Cuba, with its doors opening, and the positive impact this will have on commerce, IT, and global cultural integration.
Obama recently issued a presidential directive that seeks to institutionalize and cement his policy changes toward Cuba and encourage further engagement even after he leaves office. Obama called the presidential policy directive “another major step forward in our efforts to normalize relations with Cuba” and said it “takes a comprehensive and whole-of-government approach to promote engagement with the Cuban government and people and make our opening to Cuba irreversible.”
The landscape of technology and IT in Cuba, where it is currently, and how it will evolve is also of great interest. I have been fortunate to be one of the earlier travelers to a newly opened Cuba and have witnessed first-hand where IT can go, in light of present challenges. I am going to delve into these challenges and sketch possible scenarios in a couple of posts.
Business didn’t take me first to Cuba; it was my daughter’s university research and my love of ballet. As a person whose business and technology career largely started overseas, however, I was eager to see what was true and what wasn’t about technology usage there. Whenever I travel to a new country, I’m eager to see what the environment looks like – visiting the tech marketplaces of Tokyo or Hong Kong, for example. Or participating in my company’s recruiting efforts at an international university campus.
My daughter was struggling on her first visit, adjusting to a new language and, more surprisingly, finding people who would engage with her openly. Our communications were largely limited to 30 minute WhatsApp sessions, given the ongoing embargo and still closed telephone networks to US companies. With the limited time (wifi remained very expensive, even for an American, at the time) and narrow bandwidth we had for our daily “conversations,” it was hard for me to understand her struggles, and I decided to make an unplanned trip to support her efforts in person.
Before leaving, I went online to see what I could learn about Cuban technology – I quickly found some published computer research and attempted to reach out to a few University of Havana professors in Computer Science. It was late June 2016, however, and most folks I could communicate with were unavailable for the summer.
Cuban culture, remnants of the past, steps towards the future
The contradictions began before I even arrived on the island. First, I was somehow upgraded to first class on my flight – always a welcome event. Still, it felt strange, as I was flying Cubana, the national carrier of a communist nation. As we drove through Havana to our “casa particular” in our restored Chevy, I could recognize the long term relationship with the Soviet Union in the Ladas, and the present day trading partners in the Kias. Despite the embargo, it wasn’t long before a motorbike appeared with an HP printer strapped on the back of it. While I didn’t see all that much computer technology that first trip (it was often a Dell) cell phones were oppositely abundant. However, many were of the pre-smartphone generation, and my iPhone couldn’t connect, so for the first time in a long time, I was on a forced digital holiday.
Cell phones weren’t the only thing that didn’t work for an American — neither did your credit or debit card, despite the recent announcements about financial openings. Commerce was, and I suspect is still, almost entirely conducted through cash. The first cadeca my daughter brought me to was even closed early, because it had run out of cash.
During that first trip, wifi was still available in limited locations (mostly upscale hotels) and if you didn’t want to lose your shirt paying for it, it meant standing in long lines at ETESCA offices to buy the access cards with the codes approximately $4/hour. While I was there, however, 11 new public hotspots (based on Chinese technology) were lit up and the price dropped by half. The buying process shifted, where most of the $2 cards were sold out early in the AM. Now, as a tourist, one buys them on the street from the guys who woke up earlier than you – with a 50% markup and risk of getting arrested, but still easier and cheaper than before. Recently it was announced the entire Malecon would be lit up, and I’m sure that will change the economics and process again.