ICT in Cuba: Economic Driver or Casualty of Complicated Political Realities?

ICT in Cuba

In December 2014, United States President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced an agreement to restore diplomatic ties between the two historically adversarial countries. As Cuba becomes a more open country, especially in relation to the United States, how will they welcome NGOs, businesses, or government activities in the formerly cloistered country? And what role will ICT play?

Participants at the April 27 Technology Salon in Washington, D.C. discussed the future of ICT in Cuba from the perspectives of development, technology, and business. Lead discussants included:

One of the most striking sentiments that came out of the Salon is that in the last 10 years in the world economy, economic development has become inextricably linked with technology. Basic technology such as a simple landline or mobile phone can allow entrepreneurs to access information and markets. Entrepreneurs and micro-entrepreneurs require a stable ICT infrastructure to function. With such low rates of ICT penetration and high levels of wealth disparity, Cuba could benefit from monetizing Internet activities. Luckily, Cuba has a few advantages:

  • Cubans have a strong desire for access, as evidenced by Facebook’s popularity, especially among young Cubans
  • Cubans are generally well-educated and entrepreneurial, and have already embraced Airbnb in Cuba
  • Many Cubans are already monetizing Internet use via roving internet hotspots to support their home-rental businesses

However, there are still government controls on private enterprise and there is minimal room for growth. One participant said IT professionals earn about $400 USD per month in Cuba. According to PayScale, comparable positions in India earn a median of $1,000 USD per month, and in Brazil $4,000 USD per month. This could mean a great opportunity for outsourcing, if private companies are legalized, or a continued exodus of skilled workers to other countries. Many Cubans are going to Ecuador, Spain, or the USA to find work. Participants cited brain drain as a legitimate concern due to the poor economic conditions in Cuba.

How can international development be involved in ICT for Cuba?

In 2014 Cuba’s public sector shrank 1.4% and the private sector grew 6%. The government has clearly made changes in policies to attract outside business, this has created space for ICTs to gain a foothold in the country. However the issue isn’t just about ICTs potential for economic impact, but about the impact on politics and culture that open information would have on Cuba.

We all know the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Internet. While the Internet can be an accelerator of business, education, and access to information, the Internet is also used to facilitate sex trafficking and other illegal and inhumane activities. While it is my belief that it is better to allow people to access information, it’s also understandable why a government that has historically been closed off is reluctant to open Pandora’s box too hastily.

One participant said the greatest opportunity for improved access to and use of ICT will come from the involvement of diverse parties. With a history of kerfuffles leading to distrust of American government activities, and of course the 2010 Cuban Twitter debacle, Cubans have reason to be wary of Americans wanting “to help”. Participants expressed that positive impact will require a diversity of groups, including development workers, U.S. Government, and private businesses.

Any of these parties that want to want to work in Cuba will need to listen and adapt services and programs based on feedback from Cubans. A basic tenet of international development, more successful products, and services should be to create “with” and never “for” anyone.

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