Trapped in its history, beautiful Havana recalls the faded grandeur of Argentina and a Dick Tracy movie of automobiles.  With the goal of promoting a free and open Internet, Jared Cohen and I and two others traveled to Havana on a business visa (more on that later.)  Landing at Havana airport, the first airplane you see is a jet from Angola Airlines.  The Cuban people, modern and very well educated define the experience with a warmth that only Latin cultures express: tremendous music, food and entertainment (most of which we were not able to sample, more about that visa in a minute.)  Under Fidel Castro’s younger brother, Raoul, difficult economic conditions have brought many small liberalizing steps in the last few years.  There are now 187 professions where private employment is allowed (otherwise private jobs are not permitted), and cars and apartments are beginning to be tradeable with restrictions.

The two most successful parts of the Revolution, as they call it, is the universal health care free for all citizens with very good doctors, and the clear majority of women in the executive and managerial ranks in the country.  Almost all the leaders we met with were female, and one joked with us that the Revolution promised equality, the macho men didn’t like it but “they got used to it”, with a broad smile.  The least successful part of the Revolution has been economic development (not surprisingly) and it appeared to us a drop off in tourism and recent farm issues have made things somewhat worse in Cuba.  The broad topic of conversation in the country is the constant speculation of what the government will do next and what the course and path of liberalization will be.  We were told that there is a fight between more liberal and conservative leaders under Castro, and someone said that the military was becoming more involved in economic development.  A number of people said the eventual model of Cuba would be more like China or Vietnam than of Venezuela or Mexico.

The embargo now codified in the 1996 Helms Burton act defines everything for the US and Cuba (Cubans call this a “blockade” and a billboard described it as genocide).  The US govermnent classifies Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in the same class as North Korea, Syria, Iran and North Sudan.  Travel to the country is controlled by an US office called OFAC and under our license we were not permitted to do anything except business meetings where our hotel room had to be less than $100 per night and total expenses per diem of $188.00.  Not surprisingly there are many $99 hotel rooms in Havana.  These policies defy reason:  there are dozens of countries we call our allies and we are free to travel to that present much worse threats and concerns to the US than Cuba does in this decade.  Cubans believe this is largely a Florida domestic political issue, and that the Cuban-American youth all support normalization of relations along with the US business community.

If Cuba is trapped in the 1950’s, the Internet of Cuba is trapped in the 1990s.  About 20-25% of Cubans have phone lines but mostly subsidized land lines, and the cell phone infrastructure is very thin.  Approximately 3-4% of Cubans have access to the Internet in internet cafes and in certain universities.  The Internet is heavily censored and the infrastructure, which we toured, is made out of Chinese components.   The “blockade” makes absolutely no sense to US interests:  if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.  The result of the “blockade” is that Asian infrastructure will become much harder to displace.  The technical community uses unlicensed versions of Windows (the US does not allow licenses to be purchased) and GNU Debian Linux on Asian hardware and using Firefox.  A small technical community exists around free Android and expect it to eventually spread.  As US firms cannot operate in Cuba, their Internet is more shaped by Cuban narrow interests than by global and open platforms.

We heard that Cuban youth are assembling informal mesh networks of wifi-routers, and thousands connect to these networks for file sharing and private messaging.  USB sticks form a type of “sneakernet”, where people hand hard to get information to each other and keep everyone up to date without any real access to the Internet.

The information restrictions make even less sense when you find out that Cuba imports a great deal of food from the US as compassionate trade.  The food imports to Cuba are important but so is importation of tools to Cuba for the development of a knowledge economy.

When you walk around Old Havana, you see beautifully restored facades that evoke the central role of Havana and the 1940s and 1950s.  The bright colored American cars from the 1950’s, converted to diesel and repaired by Cuban mechanics, give a sense of what Cuba must have been like before the revolution.  Walking around its possible to imagine a new Cuba, perhaps a leader of Latin America education, culture, and business.  Cuba will have to open its political and business economy, and the US will have to overcome our history and open the embargo.  Both countries have to do something that is hard to do politically, but it will be worth it.
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