Starting up in Cuba, but not connected
Starting up in Cuba, but not connected
By Nick Miroff April 14 at 3:30 AM
HAVANA — Great technology companies are born in garages, of course, and
that is where 31-year-old Bernardo Romero has launched his Cuban
And like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in the 1930s, and Steve Jobs and
Steve Wozniak in the 1970s, Romero doesn’t have Internet access, either.
“At least,” he said, “we have a garage.”
It is no small feat, by Cuban business standards. Romero also has five
employees, a sign, printed advertising and a government license to
operate his company — almost none of which was allowed by Communist
authorities a few years ago.
What keeps Romero and other similarly aspiring entrepreneurs crippled is
a near-total lack of Web access. Raúl Castro’s limited opening for
private business has been good for Cubans in physical trades such as
shoe repair and plumbing, but the country’s digital laborers are still
When one of the engineers at Ingenius needs to upload work for a client,
he travels by bus or bicycle to a cybercafe run by the state telecom
monopoly, ETECSA, paying $5 an hour for mediocre WiFi. The converted
garage, like most of Cuba, isn’t plugged in.
“If we had Internet, we could really take off,” said Romero, who will
design and build an entire Web site from scratch for $150.
That is a wisp of what it would cost in the United States. And as a
result of President Obama’s recent moves to ease 1960s-era trade
sanctions, American companies and clients can now hire private Cuban
businesses like Ingenius for services such as translation work, software
development and accounting.
The potential bonanza is not lost on Cuba’s highly educated, lowly paid
professionals, now more eager than ever to hire out their services to
U.S. clients. Romero estimates there are at least another 20 small,
licensed, tax-paying technology start-ups like his in Havana. Far more
Cuban programmers and software engineers are said to be freelancing for
foreign customers off the books.
Nearly all are stuck with the same problem: They can’t reliably and
affordably get online. That deprives them of the tools essential to work
with customers remotely, such as video conferencing, access to software
updates and the ability to send and receive large files.
At a business conference in Panama last week before the Summit of the
Americas, Cuban trade officials insisted to an audience of global
corporate leaders — including Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg —
that there were no political or ideological obstacles to expanding Web
access, only financial and technological ones.
“Cuba today is comparable to India when their software export industry
was starting — both had a lot of smart, trained programmers, but they
were working with old technology and had poor Internet connectivity,”
said Larry Press, a professor at California State University at
Dominguez Hills, who writes about the island’s Web infrastructure on his
blog, The Internet in Cuba.
Almost anywhere else, a government that has invested so much in quality
education would be alarmed that its skilled engineering graduates lack
the basic building blocks to drive development and spur growth. Cuban
authorities have begun to acknowledge as much, but they show little
detectable urgency to broaden Web access if it means ceding tight
control over the country’s data networks.
Their reluctance stems partly from fears, not unfounded, about U.S.
schemes to digitally undermine Cuba’s one-party state, including a
now-defunct “fake Cuban Twitter” service, Zunzuneo, whose unwitting
users didn’t know they were getting messages sponsored by Washington.
Alan Gross, the U.S. subcontractor freed in the Dec. 17 prisoner
exchange announced by Obama and Castro, was arrested in 2009 for trying
to set up illegal satellite networks on the island.
The Castro government seems especially apprehensive about Arab
Spring-style unrest enabled by smartphones, so mobile data plans simply
aren’t available. Flashy Cubans walk around with dumbed-down iPhones
that don’t connect to the Web.
The bandwidth deficit may reflect an enduring ideological ambivalence
about private business as well. Cuban authorities continue to treat the
entrepreneurial zeal of their countrymen as a natural phenomenon that
needs to be contained, rather than encouraged, like a wild river. It’s
an Army Corps of Engineers approach to economic development, not a
chamber of commerce one.
Cuba has fallen so far behind in technology that even its problems are
obsolete. When manufacturers of laptop computers phased out the 56k
modem about 10 years ago as a standard accessory for connecting to the
Internet through a phone line, most of the world had gone wireless by
then and barely noticed. But for Cubans, it was a hardware crisis.
A generation after Americans dialed into AOL accounts through a series
of beeps, squawks and static, many Cuban Web users still connect that
way. On a good day, they can achieve download speeds of 4 or 5 kilobytes
per second, approximately 10,000 times slower than the U.S. residential
service offered by Verizon or Comcast.
“I would not be surprised if Cuba had the highest rate of dial-up among
Internet users of any nation in the world,” Press said.
Online classified sites such as Revolico — Cuba’s versions of Craigslist
— offer $20 external USB modems for connecting a modern laptop to a
It might sound like the Web-browsing equivalent of driving around Havana
in a 1950s Chevy. But it is much worse than that, as Cuban dial-up users
will attest. At least the Chevy gets you to your destination.
“The other day, someone sent me a simple PDF file, and it took an hour
and a half to download,” said Georgina Gómez, an English-language
interpreter who specializes in medical translations.
Gómez has a 7-year-old daughter and can’t easily get to a government
computer lab, so she must rely on an achingly slow dial-up link from
home. Her Cuban e-mail service has an account size limit of only 10 MB;
if a client tries to send her a large file, it crashes her inbox.
“Books with illustrations are the worst,” she said.
Gómez charges a nickel a word, which she said is one-quarter the going
rate in the United States for technical translation work. And even
though she’s had a lot of new inquiries in the past few months, she’s
had to turn down offers because she can’t download video files from
documentary filmmakers or big PowerPoint slides.
“It’s just too complicated,” she said.
Cuba’s main link to the global Internet is a single undersea fiber-optic
cable that runs across the Caribbean to Venezuela. The state is the lone
service provider. But broadband accounts are restricted to government
ministries, state businesses and a limited number of foreign residents
and diplomats. Ordinary Cubans can’t sign up for residential dial-up
accounts even if they can afford to pay for it.
Some Cuban engineering graduates take low-paid jobs at state companies
to secure high-speed Internet access at work, then moonlight for private
customers on the side.
Cubans with the money can purchase prepaid WiFi cards for use in the
lobbies of major tourist hotels, or log on at state computer labs, but
users must register their names and ID cards with Big Browser.
Cuba’s obstacles are not all self-imposed. One of the more contradictory
elements of U.S. policy toward Cuba is a stated goal of expanding Web
use while U.S. economic sanctions and other measures continue to block
Cubans’ access to sites and Web tools needed most by entrepreneurs such
Google Code, for example, and Google AdWords — both of which are
critical for programming work and Web design — are blocked on the
island. The company says it must comply with U.S. trade sanctions and
the U.S. State Department’s designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of
When a delegation from Google Ideas visited Havana last month, Cuban
technology students asked them if their Cuban-made apps could be made
available through the Google Play Store. The company executives said no.
The two countries recently met for first-ever talks on Internet and
technology issues, and U.S. officials said Cuba has set a goal of
50 percent household connectivity by 2020. Currently, only about
5 percent of the island’s homes are thought to have online access — by
dial-up — making Cuba one of the least-connected countries in the world.
Romero said he is not discouraged. Like a lot of young Cubans, he sees
Obama’s opening as the beginning of the end of such frustrations.
He has close relatives in Florida and could have left the island years
ago. “But I chose to stay and make my company here,” he said. “Over
there, I’d just be another low-level worker. Here, it’s a wide-open field.”
Source: Starting up in Cuba, but not connected – The Washington Post –