SAN MATEO, CALIF. — Another revolution is sweeping through Cuba.
Today, Fidel Castro seems as determined to create a world-class information- technology sector as he was to overthrow the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s. Anticipating an end to the United States trade embargo, Cuba is preparing to become the Caribbean's digital hub.
Largest of the Caribbean island states, with a land area of 43,000 square miles and 11 million people, Cuba has been economically and politically isolated from its giant neighbor 90 miles to the north for more than 40 years.
Despite what one may think about Fidel Castro, none of the profound economic changes taking place in Cuba today would be possible without his direct guidance. Mr. Castro and his still officially Communist government have undertaken Cuba's economic transformation by following a policy based on technology, markets, and new capital.
The aging revolutionaries who followed Moscow's model have been replaced by a new generation of well-educated, pragmatic officials. Among members of the Cuban National Assembly, the average age is 40; the foreign minister is 35, and the minister of foreign investment is a 49-year-old woman. They read The Wall Street Journal and George Gilder's "Telecosm," a US bestseller on the revolution in broadband, and shake their heads when foreign leftists spout Marxist dialectic at them.
In January 2000, the Cuban government established a Ministry of Information Technology (MINIT) with a mandate to make Cuba an "information society" and quickly develop an information-technology industry and e-business. MINIT has various subsidiaries operating as profitmaking businesses focusing on telecommunications, software, hardware, wireless, e-commerce, and training.
Eight Cuban universities offer degrees in information technology, and the Institute for Science operates 40 branches around the island providing adult education in computer science. Several Internet service providers are available, owned by government ministries but functioning like competing dotcoms.
Cuba has an established electronics manufacturing industry. Semiconductors, radios, televisions, and Cuban-designed computers are assembled with foreign parts. There are 30 software-development companies; none existed three years ago. Total software exports for 2000 may seem paltry at $14 million, but they have grown 650 percent since 1999.
Computer youth clubs are springing up everywhere. A club in Havana has work stations with modern Pentium computers on the ground floor, used by young Web designers looking like dotcommies from a Silicon Valley start-up. The walls are emblazoned with slogans and posters - but not quite the ones expected in a club owned and operated by the Cuban Communist Party. The predominant slogan is "Creemos en el Futuro" ("We Believe in the Future"). Posters advertise courses in software programming, multimedia, computer repair, and e-commerce. Classes upstairs are packed with serious teenagers learning HTML and Microsoft Office.
Students swap copies of Giga, a slick Cuban computer magazine. Recent topics include Internet security and a review of new hotel-reservations software developed by the Cuban firm Softur. Despite the embargo, Giga carries ads for US brands such as Microsoft, IBM, Macintosh, and Oracle.
Cuba is ideally positioned to be a digital hub. The telephone system is being upgraded after a $1 billion investment by Mexican investors. Full digitalization of the telecommunications network is expected in 2004, and more than 2,000 post offices offer Internet access to the local population. Cuba has a cellular telephone system, satellite earth stations are being built, and a new fiber-optic cable connects the island to Florida.
Global information-technology companies plan to make Cuba a premier location for Internet data centers, providing Web-hosting services for businesses throughout the Western Hemisphere. As a likely future member of the North American Free Trade Area, Cuba will offer tax advantages to US firms investing in electronics manufacturing for export. The island has more college graduates per capita than any other Latin American country, and skilled workers earn the equivalent of $30 a month.
Cuba's government has extended an invitation to foreign businesses interested in helping to develop the information-technology industry. Although Cuba would prefer to obtain US expertise and products directly, other nations are currently providing American technology.
"Trading with the US is an American problem, not a Cuban one," says Daniel Fernandez Lopez, vice president of Grupo de la Electronica, a division of MINIT responsible for telecommunications. "We welcome American business, but we can't wait."
Americans who are frustrated by the embargo can begin rebuilding business bridges now by providing charitable IT training, used computer equipment, and exchanges between US and Cuban IT executives, a legal practice under the current embargo. By doing so, we can generate cultural goodwill while laying foundations for future business.
Timothy Ashby, CEO of the Sonrisa Foundation, is the former senior Latin American trade official with the Reagan and Bush administrations. Elizabeth Bourget is president of A Way With Words, a Silicon Valley marketing and communications agency.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society