By Sean Goforth.
Western firms are nibbling at Cuba, long considered the forbidden fruit of the Americas. Currently, most are eyeing the tourism industry, while others are cozying up to Havana in hopes of signing a deal to improve the country’s ailing infrastructure. Recently, for instance, the German engineering firm Siemens signed a deal to upgrade Cuba’s utilities infrastructure.
Then there are a few brave companies that are getting in now even though any revenue will be a long-time coming. Given that less than 5% of Cubans have Internet at home, Netflix’s 2015 announcement that it will offer its video streaming service there appears to be an attempt to build brand recognition for the day when Cuba finally enters the twenty-first century.
The Castro government is managing the transition, of course. So, despite the urgent need to attract foreign investment, further economic reforms in Cuba will be short-lived if it shows signs of stoking calls for democracy. Cuba is moving back into the Western fold, but progress will continue to be fitful.
Yet, beyond the allure of Cuba’s shabby-chic hotels and the prospect of improving the island’s decrepit roads, there is an even greater prize for investors with vision: Cuba possesses immense STEM talent. Today, physicians, thousands of whom are sent abroad to friendly countries in exchange for foreign aid to Havana, are probably the most prominent part of this group, but this is only one segment. There are tens of thousands of IT professionals on the island.
History of STEM Incubation
Since 1959, the Castros have focused on improving access to education and healthcare, requiring that Cuba’s universities train thousands of physicians, nurses, and, over the past decade, computer scientists. Meanwhile, because of the Castro government’s provocative foreign policy, the island has endured isolation from the West. The ongoing demands of infrastructure, healthcare, and feeding those in the Caribbean’s largest island have spelled a healthy dose of self-reliance for communist Cuba. This initially warranted the STEM- heavy approach to education.
From the perspective of a young and ambitious Cuban, STEM fields allow easier access to technology and, crucially, fewer topics are taboo. Existentially ponderous fields like philosophy may beg calls for democracy, but for Cuba’s inquiring minds questioning the limits and applications of artificial intelligence is surer footing. This fuels the popularity of computer science among Cuba’s best and brightest. “In Cuba, there is a cultural/intellectual movement when it comes to software development,” says Yusnier Viera, a 2005 computer science graduate of the University of Havana.
As a result, quite unlike America where liberal arts make up the bulk of college majors, in Cuba Information Technology is the most popular field of university study after healthcare. Across Cuban universities more first-year students declare IT as their major as those who pick Physical Education, Agricultural Sciences and Education, combined. Still, the communist economy has done a poor job of leveraging that talent in the digital age.