cuba
Infrastructure Management

Tech in Cuba: Ready To Go Super-Nova?

Sat in our office, the Director of Lewisham Tech City tells me he is looking to be an entrepreneur in Cuba. Aside for a general dislike of oppression and a lack of Spanish skills, I point out another potential problem; is Cuba even ready for a tech hub?

While Cuba isn’t the kind of clean slate that Iraq or Myanmar present, the country is still playing catch up compared to many of its Latin American counterparts. It has the lowest mobile and internet penetration rates in the region; private mobile phone ownership was only granted by the government in 2008, hence why mobile penetration stands at only 14%, and PCs only went on sale a few months later. You won’t find any Macbook Pros though; aside from being over-expensive, the hardware on offer is generally horribly outdated compared to what’s on offer elsewhere. Before then, computer ownership levels were around 3.3 per 100 people – the same as Togo.

Much like North Korea, Cuba doesn’t generally endorse your normal Windows or OSX Operating Systems either. Instead the government created its own Linux distro called 'Nova'. Officially Nova was developed to reduce U.S. hegemony through reliance on Windows, and either way open source software is more in line with the Communist ethos.  As well as a range of Office-like applications called Nova Escritorio, there’s Nova Servidores for servers, and Nova Ligero for mini laptops along with  EcuRed, Cuba’s version of Wikipedia, and Red Social, the Cuban Facebook.  There are also rumours of Avila Link software, which is to monitor citizens use of the internet, assuming you’re lucky enough to connect.

According to the ITU, internet penetration is around 25%. But it’s not that simple. There are two internets in Cuba; the national intranet, and the global internet you’re reading this post on. Internet cafes are scattered throughout the country, and accessing the .Cu domain intranet will only cost you 70 cents an hour, but the global web will cost you almost $5, well beyond the means of most people. Internet access at home is banned for most – professionals such as Doctors & Journalist are rare exceptions – leading to a number of pirated or sub-letted connections, along with a healthy sneakernet of pirated hard and software. In Cuba, an app store is literally a store where you download apps from a computer. There is a growing IT business sector with the country, but a lack of opportunities and infrastructure is holding back both business and the growing number of IT professionals.

Censorship & Embargoes

Speaking at a lecture in Miami, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez said technology will help bring democracy to Cuba. For that precise reason, it’s no wonder the state keeps a close eye and heavy hand on the web. Freedom House rates Cuba in the definitively ‘Not Free’ section – the country gained a score of 86/100 (where 100 is the lowest/least free score), explaining that “Cuba remains one of the world’s most repressive environments for the internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs).” While the government does not block large swathes of the internet a la China’s Great Firewall – with the exception of certain sites - the poor connection speeds & high costs limit accessibility, and monitoring is rife. 

On the other hand, the US embargo has also held Cuba back from joining the digital party. The embargo was why the country had to deploy slow satellite internet, has overpriced and underpowered computers and is blocked off from certain services such as Google & MSN. Things don’t necessarily improve even when embargoes are lifted; when Obama lifted the telecoms ban in 2009, no US companies moved in.

Promises of Change

Despite all this, there are slow signs of change. According to official reports, computer ownership is up to 834 per 1,000 (up from 3.3 when computers were banned), two new undersea cables have been laid and are live (even after a period of darkness), and promises have been made about reducing the high cost of connecting. There’s also an increasing presence of Chinese technology companies with Cuba; Huawei and ZTE have both invested in helping develop the internet infrastructure.

Possibly even more important however, is the promise of in-home internet connections by the end of next year. Perhaps the government is starting to see that it can’t stop the spread of technology and the internet, and is slowly coming round to embracing it even despite the continuing embargo problems.

After reviewing the facts, the Director of Lewisham Tech City decides maybe it isn’t the right time to move across the channel, and instead puts on a Cuban Jazz CD. 

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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