Havana’s top IT authority discusses Cuba’s internet future

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Ernesto Rodriguez Hernandez, director-general for informatics at Cuba’s Communications Ministry. Photo by David Ramos Casin.

As Cuba advances its economy into the 21st century, informatics will play an increasingly important role. Cuba Trade recently sat down in Havana with Ernesto Rodriguez Hernandez, director-general for informatics at Cuba’s Communications Ministry. Since he assumed the post in late 2013, Cuba has added hundreds of wifi spots for internet access and seen a boom in the number of self-employed computer programmers.

This year, Cuba plans to add at least 150 more internet access points and is seeking ways for the self-employed to work more with state companies. Keeping up with rising demand for the internet and the role of Cuba’s growing cadre of trained engineers and programmers were among the questions Cuba Trade touched on in its meeting with the 47-year-old IT director. Here is an edited version of that interview.


Please describe the education system for IT technicians and professionals in Cuba.

First, let me reiterate that all education is free from primary through university levels. In IT, there are two- and three-year programs after highschool that graduate hundreds of technicians known as tecnicos-medios. We also have polytechnics and universities that offer degrees in IT, computer science, and engineering. There’s even a university just for IT engineers––Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas (UCI)––that lets students work closely with state institutions in areas such as health and industry.

There are [also] IT programs in every province. Some of the best-known universities include polytech CUJAE, UCI, and the University of Havana, but Cuba has quality IT education nationwide. We graduate more than 700 IT engineers a year from universities; UCI alone graduated more than 500 engineers last year.

What opportunities are there for these graduates to get jobs with the state? 

The state plans for the workforce it needs, looking years ahead. So, all university graduates in Cuba are guaranteed placement in jobs that will let them use their knowledge to contribute to our development in varied fields. Graduates also can pursue master’s, doctorates, and other studies to help Cuban society.

Does Cuba produce its own software for banking, telecom or other needs?

There are some imports; software often is embedded in equipment. But increasingly, Cuba develops software. Today, there are more than 30 state companies dedicated to IT, not only for software development but also for distribution and tech support. Those companies employ thousands of people. The company that developed software for the public health system [Softel] last year earned a prize at the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva. A different group in the cultural field, Cubarte, earned a prize at the summit the year before. Most programmers involved in those efforts were talented, young graduates of our universities.

What are Cuba’s plans to boost internet access and speed?

Today, every municipality has access to the internet. There are more than 600 computer centers with internet nationwide—some with 10, 12, or 15 computers, some in hotels, some in offices of [telecom company] ETECSA, and some in the Joven Club network. That network offers access to computers and classes, has trained more than four million Cubans in basic computer skills, and now has more than 150 centers with internet access, some in remote areas.

All that doesn’t count the newer wifi spots opened. Today, we have more than 300 wifi spots in parks and other public places. More than 1.6 million Cubans now have internet accounts. This year, we should add more than 150 access points, either through wifi spots or computer centers.

Recently, the [CUC] price for internet access was reduced from 2.00 to 1.50 per hour to surf internationally, and from 60 to 10 cents per hour for content on national sites that end in .cu. These are concrete examples of how the country is improving access, within its financial and economic means. There also is a program to strengthen telecom infrastructure to give broader and better quality service.

Many say internet service in Cuba is slow. Is it for lack of funds to modernize the system?

The speed is slow by international standards, and that’s where the telecom infrastructure comes in. But keep in mind, internet speed also depends on the devices people use; some devices can’t work fast… Investment in telecom is part of the larger issue of investment, finance and planning in Cuba. It’s a complex process. It’s not only about adding new technologies but also linking them to existing systems.

Cuba doesn’t have 4G broadband yet, right?

Cuba is deploying a 3G network. In First World countries, 4G systems can have speeds of 6MB to 10MB. Every country defines broadband in its own way. In Cuba, broadband is defined as 256KB and up. In wifi spots, users can get speeds of 1MB now.

What about ETECSA’s pilot project to offer internet in homes in Havana Vieja?

More than 300 households have signed up for the service in Havana Vieja since March. Gradually, the project should be extended, as infrastructure and resources allow.

Tourists and locals gather at a wifi hotspot in Havana’s Vedado district. Photo by Matias J. Ocner.

Please describe the recent workshop in Havana, TICS 2017, that brought together IT workers in the state and non-state sectors.

It’s part of an effort to develop relations between state and non-state activities, as we update Cuba’s economy. The workshop was convened by the Grupo Empresarial de Informatica and Comunicaciones (GEIC), a group of state companies within the Communications Ministry. Self-employed programmers came. The event let us identify areas where we might work together and share experiences. There were interesting presentations, some on software developed by the self-employed.

How many self-employed programmers are there now? Do they earn more than state workers?

Today, there are more than 1,400 self-employed programmers nationwide, most in Havana. The numbers have been rising. Some earn more, but money isn’t their only motivation. Today, the self-employed can collaborate with state companies for mutual benefit.

What can Cuba do to keep more of its young IT talent from emigrating?

There’s no crisis, and emigration from developing countries is not new. Cuba strives to perfect its education programs and develop opportunities for IT talent to contribute to the development of the country. And let me ask: Why don’t rich nations instead of encouraging the immigration of skilled workers from poor nations, do more to educate their own people? It costs Third World countries a lot of work and resources to educate their people, and then, in an unfair competition, have talent leave in a brain drain.

Can self-employed Cubans export their services? There’s interest in the U.S. in contracting.

It’s not legally authorized now. Regulations are needed to ensure, among other things, that contracts with the self-employed are respected. Today, foreign companies can contract with state companies.

What has been your biggest challenge leading IT at the Communications Ministry?

Mobilizing available resources in a coherent, synergistic and efficient way to boost the process of informatization in the country. Doing this in a First World country should not be difficult. In Cuba, besides economic and financial limitations, there’s the U.S. embargo. It restricts our access to certain sites, such as the platform for programmers of free Linux software or VMware and virtualization sites…. What’s incredible is to see how Cubans use their imagination to make use of even obsolete equipment and programs to overcome the limitations. Cubans are real innovators.

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