HAVANA — Cuban President Raul Castro made history two weeks ago when he attended the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City. The event marked the first time in its 20 year-long history that all of the Americas were present. This connectivity is a precursor to what many hope is Cuba’s long-awaited shift into the 21st century.
Far removed from the Kennedy generation, the U.S. has two conflicting narratives of Cuba. The first exists in a time capsule with classic cars and the type of cuisine worthy of a visit from Anthony Bourdain. The second is a less romanticized view, and for good reason. Behind an embargo-imposed veil, 15 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty.
The lack of technology in Cuba plays a significant role in the stifled growth of its poorest citizens. If Congress lifts the embargo, an opportunity for new markets and economic growth are on the horizon for the island that sits just 90 miles from U.S. shores.
At the recent summit, President Barack Obama spoke about the transformative nature of technology. “We have to give our people the capacity to continue to learn throughout their lives because the economy is changing and workers have to adapt,” he said.
In order to tap into a growing global economy, improving technology in Cuba will have to be a two-way conversation. When U.S. sanctions on Cuba were loosened in December, the dialog was set into motion.
The goal of advanced technology in Cuba faces a number of challenges. The current regime controls the internet through a government controlled internet which today is only available in public internet cafes and hotels. The cost is “$4.50 an hour for online access, a huge sum where the average monthly salary is about $20.”
When Netflix announced in February that they were offering their streaming service in Cuba, it was not considered a successful launch. The island’s slow connection and currency restrictions made it impossible for either side to benefit.
“According to the National Statistics Office, there were 2.6 million internet users in Cuba in 2011.” Cuba’s population is well over 11 million. While streaming television does not present a direct solution to poverty, it’s a starting point for changes in policy that could affect every demographic.
Cellphones are another example of how Cuba falls short in communication. Unlike the internet, citizens are able to buy mobile phones for private use, but many cannot afford them. In 2013, it was reported that only 20 percent of the population owned a cellphone. These mobile phones use a a narrowband 2G connection. This type of connection has been outdated for more than a decade in developed parts of the world.
Better technology in Cuba extends far beyond a capitalistic ideal. It serves a democratic agenda for its people as well. This year when famed artist Kcho provided free WiFi in his cultural center in Havana it did more to break the pattern of isolation than the island’s politics. These small steps are encouraging for a 21st century Cuba, and an opportunity for those in poverty to have a voice.
– Sakena Washington