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May 29, 2014

State of Information Technology: Cuba

By: Michael Goetzman
2012

Background

Contrary to common US belief, Cuba’s international telecommunication infrastructure is in better condition and better able to meet current and future demand when compared to neighboring countries and their internal infrastructure, although that is also improving. Demand for Information Technology and telecommunication is rising in spite of the economic effects of the loss of Eastern Europe and the US embargo and internal “political” embargo. Key industries such as tourism and biotechnology which generate the most hard currency require communication and their requirements are being funded both by internal and external resources. Information Teechnology has played a pivotal role for promoting both sectors.

Cuba still holds steadfastly to communist ideology and while the country remains backward in many areas, technology is not one of them. The country has had close association with the former Soviet Union and the East European Bloc of communist countries and thus benefitted from their technological advances. The Cuban authorities have always understood that communication was a priority even though the main beneficiaries were government institutions and not the general public.

Electronics were introduced in Cuba in the sixties when radios were assembled for widespread use. By 1974 black and white television sets were produced and it was quickly followed by manufacture of batteries in 1975, color television in 1985 and production of semiconductors.

In a parallel but separate branching out of technology was the creation of the National Institute of Automated systems & Computer Skills (INSAC) in 1974 with the aim of keeping Cuba abreast with communication technologies. Consequently a new company, named Cuba Electronica, owned by the Ministry of Foreign Trade, was promoted with the objective of importing computers, peripherals, semiconductors as well as software for developing local systems and networks. However the entire purpose of these efforts was to promote industry and the military. Indeed this has had a most profound effect on the Biotechnological Industry in Cuba.

The Impact of Information Technology on Biotechnology Industry

An important feature of Information Technology and its impact on Cuban industry has been that due to the government being the sole investor, the aims and objectives were clear cut and decision making was swift. Consequently all Information Technology engineers were trained with a purpose. Health was a priority for the nation and as such it was decided very early to introduce health related technology at an early stage.

Another important characteristic of development was that in absence of competition and having a dictatorial regime the positive fallout was the easy collaboration of departments on collaboration. With help coming only from other friendly and likeminded states the options were limited that also hastened the development of biotechnology as the route to encourage research. Thus national and international collaboration became the driving forces and scientific developments resulted in quick commercialization yielding good profits from overseas sales. An outstanding example is the highly successful development and deployment of the vaccine to fight meningitis that was a deadly disease in the country.

There was also a compulsion and a vision to improve the health of the population and despite economic hardship the government continued to support the biotechnology industry and it proved to be the step in the right direction. Not only did it make Cuba a success in this field but it also provided a thrust to Information Technology and Communication technologies in general.

Benefits from biotechnology are particularly sought by places facing economic challenges due to globalization or decline of traditional industries.Nevertheless there is need for infrastructures that will help assist in its development, sustenance, support and growth. The contributory components are the value chain and finances. In case of Biotechnology institutions of learning become the most important element as they supply the human capital on which the entire foundation of Biotechnology rests. In Cuba various institutes and universities played that role under the effective directives of the government. Several Biotechnology Clusters were created. From 1990 to 1996, the Cuban government invested around 1 billion US dollars in what is currently known as The Western Havana Bio-Cluster, and it was the first such place that could conduct research in human healthcare and agri-animal biotechnology. This cluster comprises of 52 major research, education, health, and economic institutions devoted to the biotechnology segments (Kaiser, 1998). Research generated by the various clusters has developed a number of products, which are already having a significant impact on Cuban society.

Biotechnology in Healthcare

Health of the population has always been a concern for the Cuban authorities and efforts have been on to eliminates diseases like hepatitis-B that has disappeared in the infant population. Cuba now hopes to not only eradicate this infectious disease altogether in the near future but also to eliminate the virus circulation. The international acceptance of this medicine can be gauged from the fact that it has been on the purchase list of WHO for over a decade for worldwide use and amply demonstrates Cuba’s excellence in biotechnology (WHO, 1996).

In another striking example the Finlay Institute, CIGB and the Center for Bioreagents has successfully met the challenge to produce and supply a safe tetravalent vaccine for the Cuban Immunization Program. This new combination vaccine called Trivac HB is used for protecting children from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, and hepatitis B,

One of the main features of biotechnology is to provide innovative delivery systems and since the main objective was to promote technology for healthcare today Cuba has become one of the most advanced electronic biomedical instrumentation manufacturer in Latin America. Besides the Central Institute of Digital Research (ICID) has developed sophisticated and highly technologically advanced biomedical equipment like the Cardiocid-M that is an electrocardiographic system for diagnosing cardiovascular system diseases; the Neorocid, an electromyographic and electro-neurographic system for diagnosing peripheric nervous system diseases, and various applications for state-of-the-art genetic engineering research (Cereijo, 2001).

Despite these advances the Cuban Biotechnology industry is still small by world comparison. The Biotechnology industry in the developed world, especially US, has acquired huge importance and to reach such high standards needs huge resources. Since Cuba faces economic sanctions from the US and other developed countries it progress of late has slowed down and needs foreign assistance to keep up its former advancements (Giles, 2005).

Biotechnology for Plant/Animal Life

Apart from improving human welfare, several projects have been directed towards using biotechnological advances in improving efficiency of plant and animal breeding. Attention has been paid to genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics, besides advanced tissue culture techniques. There are Transgenic plants with resistance to biotic (pest and diseases) and abiotic (drought and salinity) stresses and various strains are also under development. Extensive use of plants and animals as bioreactors is the goal of several ongoing projects and the results are recognized for their high value. In fact there are many publications that report and mention these discoveries and have found these discoveries and their methodologies to be of high caliber. The CIGB has published 680 peer-reviewed papers in various scientific journals from 1986 to 2006. These CIGB papers have been cited in more than 3,000 papers demonstrating their contribution in their field (CIGB)

The Information Technology Sector in Cuba

The Cuban establishment has actually thought far ahead of its times, although its focus has been narrow and not meant for the benefit of its general public, and with this in view it commenced development of its own second generation of minicomputers in the seventies. For this it initially got its engineers trained in East Germany. Due to closure of many industries in early nineties in Cuba the government created special units like the Bejucal base, the Wajay complex, the Paseo complex, and the several computer related research centers where engineers trained at Russian, German, French and Chinese research labs were employed. Cubans have also received training in Holland, Sweden and Austria.

Within a decade it established two main centers at Cujae and Universidad Central for research and development. The country got connected to international internet services using CENIAI, TINORED, Informed and CIGBnet. Of these CENIAI has had open internet access ever since 1993. However internet access is not freely available to the common citizens. There are connections available for tourists as this industry cannot survive without online connectivity. But even this is suffering from slow speeds. The cybercafés that are allowed to serve the tourist traffic are few and need upgrading with both computer hardware as well as well as connectivity issues.

Information Technology Influence on Military

The two main targets of technology have been the medical industry and the military. For the military intelligence one of the main tasks has been attempts to sabotage US communications. So far the focus has been creating virus infections but the Cubans have a far more dangerous potential.  They are a potent force in cybercrimes. They have now developed the Transient Electromagnetic Device (TED). This can trigger an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) and can cause immeasurable destruction. With their knowledge and experience Cuban engineers can now build TEDs using spark-gap switches, automobile ignition parts fuel pumps and similar inexpensive and innocuous components. This restively simple device can trigger off a remote explosion. It can generate a pulse that will act as a spike of only say a hundred picoseconds but will be enough to explode a nuclear device resulting in a huge disaster.

Nevertheless it cannot be said that all of Cuba’s intentions are malicious or even vicious. The Cuban establishment realizes that it has to join the world communities, even those that are friendly, through cyber communications. It is also understood that for enhancing business and commerce a robust communication system with technologically advanced devices and networks needs to be in place to attract international companies. A further shift in attitudes is seen in the need to open doors with US based Cubans who can be a great aid to the country similar to the US based Chinese who are a great linking bridge with their home country. Key industries like biotechnology and tourism that generate hard currency require communications, and their requirements are being slowly funded by the government. The expansion of these industries needs foreign investments and the potential investors too need modern communication facilities to ensure free and quick flow of information.

There appears to be some change in the environment and an encouraging report from the Cuba Study Group, in collaboration with the Latin America Initiative at Brookings and the Council of the Americas, reports the recommendation of a unique and comprehensive set of policy objectives aimed at reforming the current U.S. approaches to facilitating communications on and with Cuba. The recommendations of this Group are the result of several months of intensive review, involving representatives from the business community and civil society, as well as information technology and telecommunications experts. The participants discussed the report’s recommendations, as well as current U.S. telecommunications policies toward Cuba, and suggest policy revisions to enhance the Cuban people’s access to information, technology and communications tools. If and when accepted these will go a long way to redress the situation (Report, 2010).

Conclusions

Investments are required in upgrading and expanding the communication facilities  and here the Cubans have the advantage of possessing a strong but very limited internal infrastructure. The current needs are a political collaborative environment that can encourage flow of information, technology and investments from outside the country. An improved and open communication set up will go a long way to accomplish all of the above objectives.

Due to the existing political situation in Cuba and continued economic sanctions from US the Cuban economy finds Cuban citizens find it difficult to expand in any significant way. However small inroads are being made in regional directions and for over a decade there has been a growing relationship between Jamaica, Venezuela and Cuba has seen some progress. During my 2012 visit to Cuba, the the office of the Prime Minister of Cuba officially announced that within months the first undersea fiber optic line is expected to be completed. This will link the three countries to vastly improve communications. These attempts may increase bandwidth outside of the country but for a real boost a more open economy and a mature approach is desirable to attract foreign capital and interest.

References

Cereijo, M. (2001, June). Yes: Cuba Does Have the Technology and Capacity to Conduct Cyberterrorism. Retrieved March 22, 2011, from http://www.amigospais-guaracabuya.org/oagmc071.php

CIGB. (n.d.). CIGB Papers cf:. Retrieved March 22, 2011, from http://www.palgrave-journals.com/jcb/journal/v13/n1/full/3050038a.html

Giles, J. (2005). Vive la revoluci ón? Nature , 322-34.

Kaiser, J. (1998). Cuba’s billion-dollar biotech gamble. Science , 282(5394), 1626 – 1628.

Report. (2010). Bridging Cuba’s Communication Divide: Empowering Cubans through Access to New Media & Technology. Retrieved March 22, 2011, from http://www.brookings.edu/events/2010/0715_cuba_communications.aspx

WHO. (1996). Hepatitis B vaccine: Universal Immunization Policy 1996. Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI). 1211 Geneva 27, Switzerland: World Health Organization.