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Cuba works to join the global economy, and IT sees a golden opportunity

Rebecca Gatesman | June 3, 2016
More than just a tourist destination, the country has a growing population of IT-savvy workers and potential customers for tech gadgets.

"Things like Internet access have an immediate, dramatic impact. The pent-up demand for anything having to do with Web applications, the use of the Internet, communication, sharing and the shared economy — any of that — the demand is monumental," says Pedro Freyre, a lecturer of law at Columbia University and chairman of International Practice at the law firm of Akerman LLP in Miami.

"It's a balancing act between liberty and control. The Cuban government is very concerned with security and keeping control of the political process, but at the same time I think there's a clear realization that if Cuba is going to move forward, it needs to join the 21st century," says Freyre, who is a Cuban expat and frequent visitor to the island. "[Cuba] needs to have a robust Web, it needs to have access to the world, it needs to respond to business instantly, [and] you need to have the ability while you're in Cuba to communicate quickly."

Highly educated, highly censored

While Internet access is readily available to only about 5% of the population, Cuban citizens enjoy a high level of education — completely state-funded — that has equipped them with the ability to create their own technological workarounds to the massive restrictions that very same government has placed on them, according to Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University and author of Cuba's Academic Advantage.

Literacy is at 99%, higher than almost every other nation, and college enrollment across Cuba's 47 universities is at a steady 400,000 students, according to Alan Saidi, senior vice president and chief operating officer at Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute Inc. And according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Global Education Digest, as of 2009, an estimated 22% of Cuban adults hold or are pursuing a higher education degree in a technical field.

Currently, Cubans with technical knowledge are often employed remotely or trade their skills with neighbors; non-technical Cubans can become entrepreneurs, often unofficially, by running private restaurants or renting their homes to tourists. "This growing number of middle-income people who have their own small businesses or work for tourism companies means that an increasing amount have been able to travel abroad or save money," says Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami.

The flash drive revolution

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"The Cubans working in the tech field are having to find really innovative ways to get around the system," says Alana Tummino, director of policy and head of the Cuba Working Group. "They're creating these not-so-legal Internet connections or workarounds for homes, or circulating El Paquete, so they have to be very enterprising and innovative right now if they want to try to be more connected."

 

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