Innovadores In the News
Since the 1980's, Cuba has been producing skilled programmers who ultimately seek opportunities with leading companies overseas. Now, some of Cuba's young entrepreneurs are choosing to stay and develop onshore startups. Will economic reforms and government-controlled internet keep pace with the rising global demand for tech talent?
HAVANA—Cuba is now emerging from some 58 years of orthodox Communist control. With that comes the inevitable question of what role American business and entrepreneurship might play in its re-development. The largest and most strategically located island in the increasingly important Caribbean/Latin American basin, Cuba could emerge quickly as the biggest international greenfield opportunity since China.
When I took up my assignment as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in 2011, my biggest question was how had Cuba survived as one of the world’s last remaining Marxist Leninist systems? Strong and sometimes brutal internal controls were important, but in my experience, not sufficient.
When I started my U.S. foreign service career in 1975, generals who came to power by force ruled almost every country in Latin America. Many of those governments used brutal methods to suppress dissent, but ultimately transitioned to civilian rule. Today, only one Latin American leader wears a general’s uniform. It is Cuba’s Raul Castro.
Between Fidel Castro's death and the new American president, it's hard to know what's next for U.S.-Cuba relations. But partnerships are already underway, including one involving Cuba's first independent video game design company and a U.S. foundation that helped it get started.
Empty Head Games is the company started by two young Cubans, Josuhe Pagliery and Johann Armenteros. In November, the duo launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for their game, Savior. In just six days, the campaign hit its $10,000 goal.
Deep in Bauta, a sleepy Cuban town 17 miles southwest of Havana, past rows of billboards painted with portraits of national heroes and narrow streets lined with colorful Spanish colonial houses, sits an abandoned factory on a plot of lush, overgrown farmland.
The Textilera de Ariguanabo was built in 1931 by Dayton Hedges, an American businessman whose family owned a successful textile company. The factory produced cotton and rayon fabric, as well as overalls, shirts, and pants, and was Cuba's largest manufacturing site outside of the sugar industry. In 1940, it employed 1,200 workers; by 1958, that number had more than doubled.
A moment that had perplexed and fascinated Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits for decades had finally come to pass. A Cuban visual artist, Pagliery, 35, had been in the U.S. since early November to raise money and gather some publicity in hopes that he and a computer programmer friend might become the first from their island nation to create a fully animated video game.
"It was very shocking, super strange to be here in the U.S. when that happened," Pagliery said from the home of family he'd never met until this visit, his first to the U.S. "This is someone you've known your entire life, and then to see it from another perspective -- it's a very strange feeling."
The notion of private enterprise in Cuba usually refers to restaurants known as “paladares,” classic car owners who serve as taxis or homes that offer rooms-for-rent to tourists.
But despite limited access to the internet for the masses, lack of information from outside the island and constrained social media interaction — in a country where piracy rules — two young men from Havana are betting on an almost untapped market: video games.
One wants to expand Internet access in his country. Another wants to work in software and game development. And yet another is developing an app to help people navigate the capital’s transit system.
They are three young Cubans who were selected from more than 100 applicants to spend six weeks in New York City as part of a program devoted to technological developments and entrepreneurship in math, science and engineering.
[Video] La Fundación Innovadores es el primer y unico programa de intercambio empresarial e incubadora de tecnología en Cuba que ofrece apoyo para temas como la ciencia, tecnología, ingeniería, arte y educación matemática.
Entrepreneurship might seem like an odd word to associate with Cuba, but it seems increasingly apt, given the individuals I met during a week traveling the island. From the tobacco fields three hours outside of Havana to downtown restaurants that rival the finest Philadelphia has to offer, one can find the seedlings of capitalism and businesses built for profit sprouting everywhere.