When the president of the student engineering association at the Cuban polytechnic institute (CUJAE), was asked why he chose to go into engineering, I don’t think I was fully prepared for his answer: “Me permite soñar,” he said. “It allows me to dream.”
Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba as part of a delegation, led by the U.S. Ambassador and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Communications and Information Policy Daniel Sepulveda, which included representatives from the private sector, NGOs, and academia, which focused on the role of the Internet in economic development. We met with members of the Cuban government, the Cuban telecommunications company ETECSA, independent tech entrepreneurs, and engineering students. The sentiments of this engineering student perfectly summed up our goals and aspirations for this visit: bringing technology to Cuba is the key to advancing opportunity and allowing dreams to be realized in Cuba today.
During our meetings, we heard about the Cuban government’s plans for updating its economic model and achieving its commitments for increased connectivity and access to technology throughout the country. I was encouraged by the Cuban government’s eleven priority sectors for development, which included agriculture, tourism, energy and mining, healthcare, and construction. Growth in these particular sectors is intrinsically dependent on technology and connectivity, which will be the difference between successful development and stagnation.
There is an exciting vibe in Cuba today, and it is not just because of the music and the rum. The energy from the entrepreneurial community is palpable, and their creativity in overcoming current technology limitations is inspiring. Additionally, Cuba’s culture of optimism and commitment to gender diversity places it in a position to continue growing.
The open question is whether the pace of change in the policy arena will keep up with the speed desired by society. In the tech sector, we can clearly see the pathways to enable and accelerate success from our experiences in hundreds of markets and economies. With the adoption of proven policy frameworks, Cuba can avoid the pain, cost, and ineffectiveness of outdated models, and leapfrog forward toward achieving its economic and social goals.
Getting there will not be a linear path, and it will be challenging. After decades of disengagement, there is the need to build trust between both the Cuban and U.S. governments and their respective private sectors. It is important for both countries to continue to take positive confidence-building steps to move forward in achieving our shared goals. For example, it is worth congratulating the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on its recent announcement to remove Cuba from its exclusions list and open the door further for U.S. Information Communications Technology firms to do business in Cuba. ITI also commends the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Treasury for further expanding amendments to the Cuba Sanctions regulations, including the removal of existing restrictions on payment and financing terms for authorized exports and re-exports to Cuba. Similarly, Cuba is to be commended for its efforts to rapidly deploy new WIFI hotspots throughout Havana and to move quickly to cement roaming agreements with a number of global carriers. It is impossible to scale progress without progress, and these accomplishments will be the basis for success.
More can be done in the near term to make headway. For example, the creation of a U.S.-Cuba technology and economic development working group and dialogue would help to institutionalize our relationship, create a rhythm for direct engagement, and ensure that progress is being achieved on shared priorities. Both countries should take steps to establish such a dialogue.
I am excited to continue this exchange on both sides with both the public and private sectors in order to promote further opportunity and development in Cuba’s nascent tech sector. ITI and our member companies are not only a bridge to technology, but we are uniquely positioned to share model policies of how to regulate and leverage technology for economic development, to improve capacity issues in Cuba, and to demonstrate the solutions that increased access to technology and greater connectivity can provide the Cuban people.
There is a unique window of opportunity in Cuba right now. It’s an opportunity to achieve real progress that can be scaled to bring about further change. It’s an opportunity for ITI to be at the forefront of this conversation and use our expertise to help Cuba realize its potential. It’s an opportunity for ruthless creativity, not only by Cuban entrepreneurs, but also by both governments. It’s an opportunity to turn dreams, like those of that Cuban engineering student, into reality.