Monday, July 30, 2012

Guest post on learning about computers in Cuba

This 1991 note, in which Fidel Castro writes that he feels envy, hangs in a frame on the wall of the Youth Computer Club (YCC) headquarters in the one-time Sears building in Havana. Fidel dedicated the headquarters and supported the Youth Computer Clubs, where kids could play games, take classes and send domestic email. The YCCs are now in 611 locations around the island and have produced over 2.25 million course graduates (adults and kids).

Alberto, who was one of the kids at the YCC in Havana, recently left a comment on the About post for this blog. Since it gives us a picture of a young person's access to computing a decade ago, I asked if I could copy it as a post and he said "yes." Here it is:

"I lived in Old Havana until 2001 – at the time, I was starting High School and recall that during my last year there my school managed to get their hands on a handful of desktop computers. Of course, internet connectivity was unheard of, but people were highly fascinated with the prospects of technology.

Access to those computers was extremely restricted, even though one couldn’t do much with them (or knew what to do with them). The room they were in seemed more like a small fortress than a computer lab – doors were locked from the outside with heavy chains and windows blocked with metal bars (despite being on the third floor of the building). Fascinating times.

Through a family friend I managed to land a basic “computer science” class at a center in Old Havana – the name of the institution escapes me, but I clearly recall it was one of those rare buildings with blasting air conditioning. That aspect alone was worth the 15-blocks walk from my apartment to the center. The class tried to teach the very basic functionalities of Windows – right & left clicks, creating a new folder, word documents, etc. I can’t say I learned much.

I did have a friend whose father was a college professor who had some engagement with Etecsa. They somehow managed to get a personal computer into their house, with dialup internet access and everything. It was indeed a very well kept secret. Sadly, most of the time was spent trying to reconnect to the internet as the connection was extremely unreliable. He went on to study computer science in Havana and today works in the field there. From what he tells me, his job is now a large waste of resources. As he describes it, “they pretend to pay me and I pretend to do work.”

On my side, it wasn’t until I arrived to the states that I truly learned to use a computer. Two years after my arrival (while still learning English), I was doing web development and running a local site centered around education and social gatherings. Two years later, I went off to the University of Chicago for Economics and continued to work on web ventures while there. To date I’ve worked on many web projects, mostly in the entertainment space and other more serious ones: hello.webicator.com (current project, under development). This service may be of interest to readers of this blog, LP.

Today I work with a group of economists at a bank in New York, but follow the topic of internet penetration closely, not only in Cuba, but in Latin America as a whole. Data from the World Bank suggest that Latam is today where the US was at the end of the 1990s in terms of internet penetration. However, the pace of growth appears to be greater than it was in the US, which makes sense intuitively given that the technology already exists – now it only needs to become cheaper and for countries to obtain the infrastructure to sustain it.

Cuba is sadly a very different story since politics plays such a large role. I suspect that the spread of internet, when it comes, could potentially lead to a shift in mentality – with a greater sense of awareness about life outside of Cuba, will arguably emerge a greater desire for change. When the day comes, I am sure tighter content filters will be implemented, but individuals will always find ways to circumvent them, as they do in China. Indeed a very sensitive topic."

If you are or were a student in Cuba, was Alberto's experience similar to yours?