By SHEILA RILEY | FOR INVESTOR’S BUSINESS DAILY
Cuba, land of beaches, salsa clubs, aging U.S. cars and .. . high-tech?
The communist island nation can become a tech success story, says Mark Entwistle, Canada’s former ambassador to Cuba.
With a population of just 11.4 million, Cuba already does high-level medical care and research, particularly in the areas of cancer, meningitis and AIDS, Entwistle says.
Cuba also has a developing biotech industry, and the government is working to develop the information technology field as well, he says.
The former ambassador says the island has a large number of highly educated and tech-minded people.
“The real story of Cuba is how to deploy all of this brainpower,” Entwistle said.
Ambassador from 1993 to 1997, Entwistle runs Ottawa-based Chibas Consulting. He advises companies on doing business in Cuba. His clients include U.S. firms hoping to do business in Cuba, if and when the U.S. lifts an embargo on it. He’s on the board of a Canadian pharmaceutical company that works in Cuba, YM Biosciences.
Basic technology is in place in Cuba
“It’s not an isolated country where there is no infrastructure,” he said. “Cuba is a functioning modern nation with all the basic stuff — a national telephone system, Internet, a power generation industry.”
On the other hand, parts of the phone and electrical systems haven’t been upgraded since the 1940s.
“The reality is that the national infrastructure across all technologies is older and under strain,” Entwistle said.
Cubans are part of the tech mainstream in at least one area, use of cell phones.
“When you walk down the street in Havana, you see 30% to 40% of the population talking into their cell phones,” said Tom Becker, who visited Cuba in spring.
Becker is president of Chautauqua Institution, a nonprofit upstate New York organization that hosts week-long programs on current topics. Cuba was one of this year’s subjects.
Cell phones are one thing, but Internet access is another.
Touring the Latin American School of Medicine near Havana, Becker saw students using laptops and computers in labs and classrooms. And his hotel in Old Havana offered computer services so that guests could get e-mail and more.
But overall, Internet access was limited, he says.
“We were in enough offices, both informal and formal settings,” Becker said. “If there was a free flow of that kind of access, we would have seen it.”
Internet access in Cuba generally exists only through government offices, libraries, colleges, a few other institutions and some workplaces, says Cristina Venegas, associate professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Venegas is the author of an upcoming book, “Digital Dilemmas: The State, the Individual and Digital Media in Cuba.”
Foreign companies doing business in Cuba can get Internet access, and individual Cubans in certain professions can apply to get home access, she says.
The Cuban government claims that 1.4 million residents, 10% of the population, have legal Internet access. That’s rising, Venegas says.
Plenty of unofficial Internet access also exists through borrowed and stolen connections. Cuba has a big underground market for Internet protocol addresses. It also has its own equivalent of a Craigslist, where hardware and software are sold.
“They’re very inventive,” Venegas said. “The Cuban government knows that this happens.”
“I get e-mails and information from all over the world, including information that is entirely anti-Cuban government,” Hernandez said.
He reads the Miami Herald and The New York Times online, along with Spain’s largest-circulation newspaper, El Pais.
Cuba’s Internet problem is not access as much as bandwidth, he says. The country’s Internet connections are entirely via satellite, and not always reliable, Hernandez says. “It can take a lot of time and a lot of attempts” to connect, he said.
The longtime U.S. trade embargo hinders Cuba from getting the fiber-optic cable connectivity that would increase bandwidth, he says.
Cuba is willing to take diplomatic steps to change this situation, Hernandez says.
“Cuba is ready to sit down and negotiate, and expand the very narrow trade relations we have now,” Hernandez said.
Should that happen, Cuban tech brainpower would have a much larger stage.
“How Cuba uses its human capital, and how North America can cooperate with it in the future, is one of the big international business and technology stories,” Entwistle said.