Nearshore Americas

A Year After ‘Normalization’ Havana Still Squandering Cuba’s Greatest Advantage

It’s been almost a year since the historic announcement that the United States and Cuba would begin to normalize relations. In that time, there have been a lot of questionable decisions, such as Netflix’s announcement that it would offer its online streaming service on the island. At best, that announcement is premature, while at worst, it’s outright ignorant of the fact most Cubans make $20 a month and a pitifully low percentage of Cubans have Internet at home.

But if Western businesses have at times failed to deploy appropriate strategies to access the Cuban market, they are still doing better in navigating this interim era of ‘normalization’ than the Cuban government. Havana is slowly committing a serious blunder by neglecting its talented workforce.

Skilled STEM Talent

Cuba’s talent pool of STEM graduates is potentially the country’s greatest advantage. Today 100,000 IT professionals may be residing on the island, a finding that’s documented in a 70-page research report published in July by Nearshore Americas. This figure, which does not include those who have already left the island, may amount to the largest surplus of IT talent in the hemisphere.

And the Cuban IT community boasts command over an impressive array of programming languages and other skills. They’ve honed these skills under the most trying of circumstances, using dated equipment and shoddy Internet access. A peculiar excellence in writing lean code, ideal for developing mobile apps, is just one of the results of such an austere training ground.

Yet once trained, the government frequently divorces STEM professionals from an active, meaningful life in their field of expertise. As they graduate from university and enter the workforce, many Cubans are assigned state jobs that only partly overlap with their background; computer scientists end up with posting at a government statistics agency, for example. Others, in fact thousands of others since Cuba relaxed travel restrictions in 2013, travel abroad where they can work freely in a job market that pays what is truly an otherworldly wage, not to mention the move allows them the sort of professional and personal satisfaction of plying their trade according to their actual interest.

Screenshot 2015-11-17 12.38.41

Source: USA Today

As Havana dithers, more and more Cubans are fleeing the island. In recent weeks The Miami Herald has documented some of the perils of leaving. In one case, a boat with five Cubans landed on South Beach; the other boat, which departed with it from around the Camaguey, got swept into the Gulf of Mexico. Others are taking a more circuitous route from Ecuador up through Central America, turning what’s long been a gnarly bilateral issue into a regional immigration crisis.

Earlier this month, Costa Rica shut off its southern border with Panama to Cubans without visas, leaving over 1,000 Cubans trapped in limbo at the Paso Canaos border crossing. Panama said it didn’t want them and pointed out they had left Panamanian soil. Yet Costa Rica has been overwhelmed. Whereas just over 2,500 Cubans crossed into the country in 2013, more than 15,300 Cubans have transited into Costa Rica from January-October of this year, according to the Miami Herald.

On Nov. 14, after rallies where the Cubans chanted “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” Costa Rica reversed course, offering humanitarian visas to the 1,001 Cubans at Paso Canaos. At the same time, the Costa Rican government reiterated it that it will now turn away all Cubans heading its way without the proper paperwork.

Looking Abroad

What’s driving Cubans off the island at an accelerating pace? By all accounts, living conditions in Cuba have not worsened in 2015. Rather there is a widely held view on the island that normalization of ties with America may bring about an end to the Cuban Adjustment Act, best known for a provision called ‘wet foot, dry foot.’

It is a policy that allows any Cuban who sets foot on American soil to stay in the country by receiving a green card after just a year. The privilege extends only to immigrants from Cuba, and it could quickly end. “You get information from what you hear,” a Cuban fisherman told USA Today this summer. “I heard that Obama was going to change the Cuban Adjustment Act in February. I heard that, and I didn’t want to wait anymore.” After a harrowing weeklong boat ride, his makeshift boat landed in the Florida Keys.

Ironically, the deep ranks of Cuban tech talent is a testament the success of the Cuban Revolution—the emphasis on high-quality education, made available to all, absolutely for free. But instead of Havana summoning these skills to greater effect, a growing number of STEM graduates are leaving the island. This oversight not only negates part of the rationale behind educating these professionals in the first place, it fritters away an opportunity even more historic than last December’s announcement—that is, the opportunity to move the economy away from a reliance on sugar and tobacco for the first time since the onset of Spanish colonization.

Sean Goforth

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