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Obama announces Google’s plans to enter Cuba, to “give people a voice”

US strategy on the island focusing on new technologies and opening up private sector

Silvia Ayuso
President Obama during his visit to the José Martí memorial in Havana on Monday.
President Obama during his visit to the José Martí memorial in Havana on Monday.P. M. Monsivais (AP)

Google is the big story in Cuba. The internet giant is set to enter the island thanks to President Obama, who has used US businesses as a means to improve relations with Cuba.

Washington has two main economic priorities in Cuba. On the one hand to support the island’s self-employed and help boost a growing private sector that already employs a quarter of the Cuban workforce. At the same time, Obama will be looking to encourage the regime to embrace new technologies.

Speaking to US television network ABC from Havana, Obama said that Google has negotiated a deal to increase internet access in Cuba, a move the president says will give the Cuban people “more information and allow them more of a voice.”

“Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island and over time, if in fact, we start seeing access to the internet – which is necessary for Cuba to enter into the 21st century economically,” explained Obama.

Estimates suggest that between five and 15 percent of Cubans have access to the internet either at home or work, but insiders say the figure is probably much higher in reality, given the legendary resourcefulness of a people long accustomed to shortages. What’s more, in the last year, the Cuban government has opened more than 50 public internet access points, although most of them are in Havana. These points are easily identifiable due to the large numbers of people who gather around them holding smartphones or computers. “The people here are hungry for information,” Obama told ABC.

Obama has invited a number of key US business leaders to join him on his historic visit.

They include Daniel Schulman, head of PayPal, along with Juli Hanna, the founder of crowdfunding site Kiva, as well as Brian Chesky, one of the founders of accommodation website Airbnb, which already has a presence in Cuba.

Tourism is another Washington priority: with just months to go before US Airlines begin operating in Cuba, Obama’s entourage includes Ken Siegel, Chief Administrative Officer of Starwood Hotels, the chain that has just announced the first US hotel deal with Cuba in almost 60 years, along with Arne Sorenson, president of Marriott, which hopes to sign a deal here soon.

The business leaders accompanying Obama will not just be looking to ink deals with Cuban officials, but also to share their experiences with their Cuban counterparts, and hopefully speed up the transition to full trade relations between the two countries.

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