U.S. Techies: Wiring Cuba Requires Political Science More Than Computer Science

Jun 2, 2015

U.S. tech entrepreneur Peter Zimble in front of a vintage Ford during a recent visit to Havana.
Credit Courtesy Peter Zimble

Part 2 of Cuba Online

Some people visit Cuba to drink up rum mojitos. Peter Zimble goes there to dream up web services.

“The woman who runs the apartment where I’m staying was lamenting that she had to walk my visa to a government office to register me as a guest,” Zimble told me by phone from Havana’s seaside Malecón. “It would be so much easier if there were an app for that.”

Zimble likes to stroll Havana’s charming but rundown streets, looking at neighborhoods through the lens not of a tourist but of a techie. As we spoke, he passed one of his favorite new private restaurants.

“I’m friends with the owners,” he said. “But except for the neon sign that’s flashing with a martini glass, you wouldn’t necessarily know of it unless you heard of it word-of-mouth. There are very few places you can go to know where the best restaurants are, the best car washes are. And the Internet would really tie all of that together.”

Like, say, a Cuban version of Yelp.

RELATED: Bandwidth And Bikinis: Cuban Entrepreneurs Make Web Pilgrimages To Miami

Zimble is among a growing number of American businesspeople who, like Internet geologists, are surveying Cuba’s vast online potential. He’s a California tech entrepreneur who helped wire Iraq after the U.S. invasion. Now, as the U.S. and Cuba normalize relations, he hopes to do the same in Cuba.

And most Cubans can’t wait for folks like him to get started. Only 5 percent of the island’s 11 million people have full access to the Internet, which is among the lowest levels in the world.

“There’s really no one you can talk to in Cuba,” says Zimble, “who doesn’t believe the Internet is going to change their lives, change the situation here.”

Building the Internet in Cuba isn't a logistical task. It's a political decision. -Peter Zimble

Experts say all the various contracts for wiring Cuba, from homes to hospitals, could ultimately amount to billions of dollars. It’s why Zimble has already started up a company called Oye Communications. (“Oye” means “listen up” in Spanish.) And he considers himself a front-runner to bid on those jobs because he’s a specialist in satellite-based Internet services.

That's what largely built the Web in Iraq – and it’s what Cuba will need, at least early on, since its ground-based telecom infrastructure is so decrepit.

Yet, if Zimble has one piece of advice for anyone who asks, it’s this: Patience. Lots of it.

There’s a key difference, after all, between Iraq and Cuba.

“Here in Cuba,” Zimble points out, “the building of the Internet is not a logistical task. It’s a political decision.”

Source: International Telecommunications Union: Measuring the Information Society Report 2014

Only one person can give the Internet the green light in Cuba: President Raúl Castro. And that could take a while. In the meantime, deciphering how to deal with the island’s communist officials means techies like Zimble need to be versed not just in computer science but in political science. Diplomats more than dealmakers.

“My main purpose is to understand how the Cuban government works,” Zimble said, “at what pace they want to move. But again, you’re talking about decades of being stuck in time.”

Which is why Miami promises to play a big role in getting Cuba wired. There’s an emerging tech industry here – and more important, people who know the island and the byzantine way the regime there operates.

“It’s a totally different mindset of what and how things should work,” says Bert Quesada, a Miami consultant to Zimble.

Quesada is a Cuban-American satellite communications expert. He’s also one of a handful of Americans who’ve done legally sanctioned telecom business with Cuba. He’s dealt with the communications ministry and the state telecom monopoly, ETECSA, for almost 25 years.

TREAD LIGHTLY

On the one hand, Quesada says there’s a lot for U.S. tech entrepreneurs to be encouraged about: “What [has] surprised me the most is the way that the Cubans [in the government] seem to be on board with this.”

On board, he says – but very nervous. The Cuban government says it wants half the population online by the end of this decade. But it’s reluctant to give Cubans such a powerful tool of information.

It knows the Internet’s capacity for stoking democratic sentiment – as does the Obama Administration, which is pushing connectivity in Cuba as a key component of normalization. A bill, the Cuba DATA Act, was just introduced in the U.S. Senate to loosen the trade embargo and let American companies do more Internet business with Havana.

“I think [Cuban officials] are testing the waters,” says Quesada. “I think this is why they’re providing free Wi-Fi for two or three hours at the Plaza de la Revolución. I think they are afraid of the pitchforks and the torches – that this is what’s going to bring about a change in government.”

That means doing Internet deals requires more delicacy than any other industry in Cuba.

“You can’t go into Cuba waving cash around and saying, ‘I want, I want, I want, I want,’” says Quesada. “You’ve got to tread very, very lightly, and you have to rely a lot on personal, friendly relationships on the island.”

But that’s also given yanqui entrepreneurs more opportunity to engage ordinary Cubans as well as deputy ministers. Zimble helps head a California charity, Wheels for Humanity, which delivers wheelchairs to Cuba.

“This is a country that’s been keeping afloat with very little,” says Zimble. “The creative mindset of the Cuban people and the Internet – it’s going to be fantastic.”

If you can wait.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.