Silicon Havana? Young Cubans dream of a hi-tech era

Secretary of State John Kerry to raise flag at US embassy in Havana Friday, Cubans hope tech revolution will follow.

Cuba Wifi
Raul Perera, 20, and Gabriel Garcia, 16, are the first Cuban interns at Grand Central Tech, a start-up hub in New York [Grand Central Tech]

New York, United States – As United States and Cuba relations are improving, so too have Raul Perera’s prospects.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry will raise the American flag at the US embassy on Havana’s Malecon seaside promenade – a climax in the rapprochement between two Cold War-era foes that still have big issues to resolve.

Up to last year, 20-year-old Perera’s internship at a technology start-up firm in New York would have been almost impossible to arrange. But now, with a new set of skills, he is hoping for success back home as Cuba’s technology sector opens up.


“We are trying to make big steps in technology in Havana, but it’s not easy,” Perera told Al Jazeera. He is an engineering student, and when back home, Perera only manages to get about four hours of web access a week, connecting in hotel lobbies and at public hotspots.

Cuba currently has one of the world’s lowest rates of internet connectivity.

Yet, thanks to restored diplomatic ties between Washington and Havana, US firms are jockeying for a new market as many Cubans yearn for better web access.

“We don’t have web connections in our homes. First, we need a free environment where everyone can access the internet. That’s what I hope for these next two years, but I cannot say. It’s not my call,” Perera added.

Resources for the resourceful

After 56 years of communist rule and a US trade embargo, Cuba has one of the worst connectivity rates in the Americas, with just 3 percent of households with web access, according to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.

Miles Spencer, an investor in start-ups who arranged the internship for Perera, said web access would be a game-changer for Cuba, which remains a technology backwater, despite adopting some market reforms in recent years.

“Cubans are resourceful, but they don’t always have resources. The sky’s the limit for how they could help the Cuban people,” he told Al Jazeera. 

“I’ve got a list as long as my arm of problems that can be solved with technology and phones,” Spencer, who is a former co-host of MoneyHunt – a reality television show where entrepreneurs pitch ideas – explained.

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Expatriates could send money home to their families through mobile phone transfers, he said.

A basic application could connect commuters with drivers of Havana’s iconic 1950s and 1960s taxi-cars. “Like a very low, low-end Uber”, Spencer added, referring to the popular car service application.

Stumbling blocks to innovation

Perera and two other interns will return to Havana this month and help Spencer launch an “innovation club” for entrepreneurs to study Java and C programing codes and other computer language systems, while devising phone applications for use by the 18 percent of Cubans who own mobile phones.

But, in the short term, web access will be a stumbling block for innovators.

Cuba effectively has two internets: One is run by the communist government and the other with unrestricted access common in much of the world.

The country uses satellite hook-ups and an undersea cable from Venezuela for the web.

The government of Cuban leader Raul Castro is committed to providing web access to 50 percent of households by 2020. It is starting to beam wi-fi signals to 35 public spaces to boost access and reduce the high prices Cubans pay to surf the web.

Cuban officials blame the 1961 US trade embargo for limiting the island’s web connections. 

RELATED: Can Cuba’s internet come out of the cold?

Nevertheless, US technology firms have already begun visiting Cuba in a bid to win in an untapped market and take advantage of US President Barack Obama’s loosening of restrictions on exporting technology gear to the island in December 2014.

Untapped market

Google, now part of Alphabet Inc, held talks with Cuban officials in June. Software firm Infor struck a “preliminary deal with a university in Cuba” to modernise the country’s old-fashioned healthcare system, spokesman Dan Barnhardt told Al Jazeera.

However, according to Sanja Kelly, project director of Freedom on the Net, a division of Freedom House, a US government-funded advocacy group, Cuban officials are loathe to grant unfettered web access to their people.

While the Cuban government says that close to 26 percent of Cubans access the internet now, most use the state-run intranet, with its national email system, pro-government blogs and educational sources, Kelly said.

Only about 5 percent of Cubans access the unrestricted web.

“If the Cuban government decides to expand international connectivity and move away from the current national intranet, they are likely to invest heavily in technology that will enable them to filter politically sensitive material and surveil dissidents,” Kelly told Al Jazeera.

“Consequently, the internet in Cuba is more likely to resemble the heavily censored Chinese model than the network found in developed democracies,” said Kelly.

No free internet

Cuban authorities have launched public wi-fi hotspots along a main avenue as a first step in government promise to gradually roll out such connectivity options [Desmond Boylan/AP]
Cuban authorities have launched public wi-fi hotspots along a main avenue as a first step in government promise to gradually roll out such connectivity options [Desmond Boylan/AP]

Others say that Cuba is wise to be wary.

In 2010, USAID, a US government charity wing, secretly created a Twitter-like mobile phone text messaging service in the hope that Cubans would use it to organise mobs and anti-government rallies.

“The internet is not totally free anywhere. It is always monitored in some way,” Netfa Freeman, from the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-leaning think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

“Cuba is trying to provide web access on its own terms, against the backdrop of being off the coast of an imperial superpower that has a track record of using the internet to stir up troublemakers and undermine the sovereignty of foreign governments,” Freeman said.

Kerry’s flag-raising ceremony in Havana follows the formal re-establishment of US-Cuba diplomatic relations last month and Washington’s decision last May to drop Cuba from its list of terrorism-backing countries.

RELATED: Capitalism meets communism head on in Cuba

But diplomats still have plenty to talk about, including telecoms, airline slots, shuttering the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the property rights of Cuban Americans who fled the island after Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959.

“When governments re-establish diplomatic relations, they normally do trade and business for a few years first before they raise the flag,” Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates, which negotiates US-Cuba business deals, told Al Jazeera. 

“With the US and Cuba, it’s in reverse. Kerry’s visit shows there is a new relationship, but now both countries have to make it work.”

Follow James Reinl on Twitter at: @jamesreinl

Source: Al Jazeera