New York – 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.
The program, sponsored by Innovadores Foundation, a non-profit, was mainly based at Grand Central Tech, which hosts start-ups and gives them support as they grow.
“What we wanted to do as relations thawed between the United States and Cuba last year was to find aspiring Cuban [innovators]…to solve Cuban problems in Cuba,” said Miles Spencer, a co-founder of the foundation. “And so [we’re] bringing them up to intern at Central Tech and then sending them back forms an excellent corps for innovators in Cuba.”
To do that, Spencer said, he and co-founder John Caulfield, who is the former head of the U.S. Interests Section – now the U.S. Embassy – in Havana, decided to set out “to find the most talented kids, expose them to resources and techniques here and then return them to Cuba.”
This summer’s interns were Ruben Rosquete Toledo, a college junior who wants to improve Internet access across Cuba; Laura Gutierrez Farinas, a college freshman who is particularly interested in software and gaming development; and Raynel Gonzalez Irure, a senior who is developing an app called MyAlmendron that aims to improve the usability of Havana transit.
The interns arrived with impressive skills, a true feat in a country where telecommunications is spotty and slow, and access to computers and other gadgets is scarce.
“I’ve learned several choices to connect to Internet servers,” said Toledo in near flawless English. “Going back to Cuba, I have to find a flaw in the system or in the Internet connection and try to [fix it] by using what I learned here to try to apply it.”
Toledo, 21, said he became fascinated by computers at the age of 10, and that his father nurtured his interest.
His father would take him to his workplace sometimes, where Toledo would spend “hours and hours” just exploring different ways to use the computer.
Caulfield said that getting the Cuban government to support the idea of Americans wanting to help young Cubans advance their technological skills was not easy.
“We reached out to the Cuban Embassy,” Caulfield said. “We had to overcome suspicion that this was being done for subversive reasons.”
“In Cuba there a lot of people with talent who lack resources,” he said. “The only way to get access is if you’re a student or have a job that has Internet access.”
The students were thrilled with the faster working computers and ubiquitous Wifi here. There are about 100 Wifi spots in all of Cuba.
“To see the look on their faces – it’s priceless,” Spencer said of observing their delight as they worked with speedy technology and walked around an Apple store or “a grocery store that 25 different kinds of cooking oil instead of one.”
Spencer acknowledged the challenges to technological progress and access in a nation where the government still is leery of change and reluctant to expose its citizens to ideas that contradict those pushed by the Communist doctrine.
But for now, he and the interns focus on the “large middle area” of technology and innovation that is tolerated by government officials, Spencer said.
“That’s the real question that American companies have going into Cuba,” he said, “how to play by the rules and still make progress down there.”