Monday, April 25, 2016

UPDATE: POSTPONED - Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow (May 25-26, 2016) Hilton Midtown Hotel – New York City

Regretfully, we have decided to postpone for a future date our previously announced symposium "Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow," originally scheduled to take place on May 25-26, 2016 in New York City just prior to the LASA conference.

The logistical and financial challenges of organizing such an ambitious event with so little time have proven impossible to overcome for the time being. We regret this change of plans but do hope to hold this event in the near future. 


Ted, Taylor, and Norges
Click here for preliminary program
Want to meet some of the creative Cubans behind the tech start-ups that President Barack Obama will be learning about during his historic trip to Havana this week? 

Join us in NYC on May 25-26 for the following event!

* * *

Internet and Economy:
Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow

May 25-26, 2016
Hilton Midtown Hotel – New York City

With the support of Baruch College, CUNY, the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), and the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), we are pleased to announce: “Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow,” a two-day seminar that will take place on May 25-26, 2016 at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in New York City.

Building on the success of the previous event, “Internet y Economía: Perspectivas y Oportunidades para el futuro de Cuba,” that took place at Havana’s Royal Norwegian Embassy on October 1-2, 2015, the New York event aims to take advantage of the synergies generated by the attendance of leading academics, policy makers, and practitioners in the world of Cuban Information and Communication Technologies (ITC) at the annual Latin American Studies Association International Congress (LASA) on May 27-30, 2016.

The main objective of the seminar is to bring before a broader industry, policymaking, and academic audience the current state of and debate over ICT in Cuba, focusing on public access, competing models and uses of the Internet, and the development of a digital economy on the island in order to promote greater connectivity and prosperity for the Cuban people.

Seminar speakers will include Cubans who have developed some of the island’s most popular mobile apps, Cuban and American academics, Cuban journalists, leading independent media organizations, representatives of international NGOs, and U.S. government officials. Invited guests also include representatives from leading U.S. tech companies, tech journalists, and representatives from Cuba’s permanent mission to the United Nations.

Seminar topics will include:
• Digital economy and tech startups
• Public policies for ICT development
• News media and digital technology
• U.S. engagement with Cuban ICT

Preliminary Program

The development of ICT has transformed societies in recent decades. The falling cost of technological equipment and increasing levels of broadband access have facilitated this development. So great has been this transformation that we commonly refer to it as the “Digital Revolution,” one that will rival the industrial revolution in its impact on society. This revolution cuts across all sectors of society, transforming economies, politics, international relations, and the media.

However, due to Cuba’s low rate of Internet access and weak telecommunications infrastructure, it has not been able to fully benefit from the dynamic effect ICTs are having on the global economy. Still, Cuba remains a leader in the skill and competence of the population in ICT use, a fact especially noteworthy among Cuba’s many often underemployed computer science graduates.

Some Cubans have creatively overcome the barriers imposed by low connectivity by developing offline mobile apps and coming up with ingenious ways to use flash drives to distribute digital data across the island without the Internet. Others have used alternative modes of data transmission to build an independent media-sphere that successfully competes with the state media monopoly. All this has generated new social dynamics and significant commercial activity that, paradoxically, remain beyond the reach of the country’s antiquated legal framework.

Thus, Cuba faces a scenario where access to digital technology will be crucial for economic development both in the short and long term. Despite this, there is no clearly defined public policy toward ICT. Recently, the Cuban government announced its intention of achieving “massive” public access to the Internet so that by 2020, 50% of households would enjoy broadband connectivity. In fact, during 2016 Cuba will roll out its first-ever pilot program for household Internet access.

The recent rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuban governments provides an important opportunity for the development of Cuban ICT given that the twin issues of Internet access and entrepreneurial expansion are among the top issues in bilateral negotiations. This situation is especially important given that one of the reasons for Cuba’s low connectivity has been the lack of access to modern technology and telecom services provided by U.S. companies.

Nevertheless, this situation has changed in recent months given the Obama administration’s relaxation of previous restrictions on telecom companies doing business in Cuba and the roll out on the island of Cuba’s first-ever Wi-Fi hotspots.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cuba-U.S. Entrepreneurial Forum with @POTUS in #Havana - March 21, 2016 [Video]

Below is the full video feed from MinRex (Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations) of the Cuba-U.S. Entrepreneurial Forum that I was honored to attend at the invitation of the White House last month in Habana Vieja.

If your time is limited, I suggest you skip to 32:20 when Obama took the stage.


His most interesting initial comments came between 34:30-35:30, when he referred to the past exploitation of Cuban labor (before the revolution) and the fact that for the last 50 years it's been virtually impossible for Cubans to operate their own business on the island (because of the revolution). But that, "in recent years, that's begun to change..."


Google's Brett Perlmutter, Cuba Emprende's
Jorge Mandilego, and the Cuba Emprende
Foundation's John McIntire.
Then between 36:04-37:00, Obama gave a shout out the the good work done my my friends at Cuba Emprende training thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs over the past three years. He also mentioned the fact that there are now half-a-million licensed self-employed who - together with the other parts of the non-state sector - now make up one-third of the Cuban workforce.

One of Obama's best lines came here when he struggled through Spanish words like "cuentapropistas," "casas particulares," and "paladares," finishing up with the self-deprecating line:
"My family and I ate in one [paladar] last night, and the food is really good even if my Spanish is not that great!" 

A third notable moment came (at 39:14-40:03) when he indirectly noted the obstacles that continue to hobble the expansion of Cuban entrepreneurship, saying "We also know that entrepreneurship flourishes when the environment encourages success." He then ticked off a laundry list of the key internal obstacles in this area including:

  • a ban on most private professions
  • little access to small business loans or wholesale sources of inputs
  • the inability of the private sector to import supplies
  • a dual currency
  • infrastructural bottlenecks, and 
  • the need to include women and Afro-Cubans.

With deft diplomacy and an offer of an olive branch, he shifted from these critical comments to a hopeful note saying, "All are areas where the United States hopes to be a partner as Cuba moves forward."


The next section between 46:20-1:25:30 is a fascinating back and forth between Obama and a series of (mostly) young Cuban entrepreneurs moderated by Afro-Cuban-Irish-American (!) Soledad O'Brien.


The final - and in my mind most important - part of the event came at 1:28:03 when, after advising Cuba to "steal ideas from where ever they see them working," Obama added the rejoinder:
"Don't steal ideas from places where it's not working, and there's some economic models that just don't work. That's not an ideological opinion, but just an objective reality."
Perhaps to soften this blow, he quickly added that these changes will be internal to Cuba, "that's not gonna be determined by the United States, that's gonna be determined by the government and people of Cuba." He also reassured his mostly Cuban audience that the U.S. is not interested in Cuba failing (which is arguably the basis of the embargo) but instead, "we're interested in Cuba succeeding."

However, of the entire interaction my favorite quote came as Obama signed off (1:30:09) and drew a telling (and somewhat humorous) parallel between the necessary changes still needed in U.S. policy toward Cuba (Congress ending the embargo) and the necessary changes still sorely needed in Cuba itself.
"When I initiated the change in policy, one of my arguments was that if something is not working for 50 years you should stop doing it and try something new, and... [big applause] that applies to what the United States is doing, that also applies to what Cuba is doing."