By Clive Thompson | Wired Magazine
Back in the ‘80s, Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Western Europe, with unemployment as high as 17 percent. But the scrappy nation had one advantage: It always invested in education, so while the Irish were poor, they were smart.
American tech companies like Dell and Intel eventually realized the island was full of underemployed brainiacs and opened up offices there. The Irish were soon performing tasks such as developing software and working in pharmaceutical manufacturing and research. By the late ‘90s, the influx of jobs turned the country around: Ireland was filled with people who were smart and also wealthy, among the richest in Europe. The Celtic Tiger was born.
Is there another country today with the same potential, one that could erupt in an intelligence-driven boom? Yep, though it’s probably not one you’d expect: Cuba.
I visited Cuba a few years ago and was surprised at how much it reminded me of Ireland. Everyone was smart, skilled, and seemed hungry for opportunities to improve their lives—perhaps even more so than the Irish had been back in the ‘80s, because they’d spent decades under Fidel Castro’s human-rights-crushing thumb. Now that President Obama is talking about opening up trade, Cuba experts predict that the country could explode with creativity and entrepreneurial innovation. “There’s tremendous potential,” says Gustav Ranis, an economic-development expert at Yale.
Like the ‘80s Irish, Cubans are eerily well educated, particularly for such an impoverished people. Education is one thing Castro has done right: 99.8 percent of adults are literate, and nearly a third have graduated from high school, many with the sort of vocational training in mechanics and farming the US foolishly let slip a generation ago. Based on UN statistics, one out of five young adults in Cuba graduates college.
Cubans also have a hacker mindset. They’ve needed it to handle the constant privation. They keep 50-year-old cars running with cobbled-together parts. They cadge gray-market Internet access by making friends with local officials—among the anointed few the government allows online. When Soviet food supplies vanished, Cubans turned to urban gardening.
If the US embargo ends, Cuba could become an Ireland-like high tech outsourcing resource. “They’ve got all the skills you need for software programming,” says Kenneth Flamm, professor of international affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. Cubans, many of whom study English in school, would be particularly good at “localizing” US software for Latin American markets, Flamm says. Plus, Havana is only an hour’s flight from Miami, making it convenient for offshoring.
Medicine would be another potential area of growth. Cuban health care, particularly preventive care, has been amazingly good; Cuban life expectancy is on a par with that of the US. The country has poured millions into biotech, creating vaccines for meningitis B and hepatitis B. “Biotech and health tourism have really serious potential,” says Vicki Huddleston, a Brookings Institute expert on Cuba.
Mind you, white-collar jobs aren’t enough. Cuba has more than 11 million people, and gainfully employing that many requires tons of jobs in textiles, light industry, and agriculture. Organic farming, interestingly, could be big: Because the embargo has made it hard to get pesticides, Cuba has used comparatively little of them, which means much of the island is organic-ready, so long as it avoids the “resource curse” and stays away from too much mining and oil drilling. Retaining the social welfare net would also be crucial.
Obviously, this is blue-sky thinking. To really open up trade, the Castros will have to liberalize their repressive regime. (An independent journalist I met while visiting in January 2003 was arrested two months later.) There’s no telling if or when that will happen. But let’s hope it does. In sheer human potential, Cuba is an economic and technological miracle waiting to happen.