Havana’s web entrepreneurs search for U.S. clients, and Wi-Fi

Yondainer Gutiérrez at his family's home in Havana. He rents time on a friend’s Internet connection to send apps and websites he has designed to clients in other countries. Credit Lisette Poole for The New York Times

Yondainer Gutiérrez at his family’s home in Havana. He rents time on a friend’s Internet connection to send apps and websites he has designed to clients in other countries. Credit Lisette Poole for The New York Times

HAVANA, June 10  At his parents’ cramped house in Havana, Yondainer Gutiérrez builds apps and websites on a makeshift computer that runs on pirated software. He has no Internet access there, so he rents time on a friend’s connection to send his work to clients in France, Britain, Canada and the rest of Latin America.

This is outsourcing, Cuban-style, a little-advertised circle of software developers, web designers, accountants and translators who — despite poor and expensive Internet access — sell their skills long-distance.

And ever since the United States in February authorized Americans to import goods and services from Cuban entrepreneurs for the first time in half a century, they have their eyes on America as well.

“This opens up the world,” Mr. Gutiérrez, 27, said of the new rules, which mean that an American can hire Cubans, or buy a limited range of goods from them, so long as they work in the private sector, not for the state.

After President Obama announced a new era of engagement with Cuba in December, Havana has been awash with American executives scouting business opportunities and hoping to sell commercial flights, yogurt, pharmaceuticals and other products.

Of course, there is still an American embargo against Cuba. Trade is complicated by the fact that American exporters are banned from offering credit to their Cuban customers, and many more restrictions will have to be lifted before Americans can freely invest on the island.

But under Mr. Obama’s new policy, Cuba’s tiny outsourcing sector is now open for American business, several experts said.

“This has an immediate impact helping entrepreneurs in Cuba,” said Tomas Bilbao, the executive director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington, referring to the new regulations.

Cuba is certainly no Bangalore and is unlikely to ever rival the great outsourcing hubs. But more and more Cubans are marketing their services online, using skills obtained in the country’s socialist education system and workarounds learned from years of hardship.

Websites like Freelance.com, Behance, twago.es and Traductores Autónomos carry postings from Cubans across a dozen cities, from Pinar del Río in the west to Santiago de Cuba in the east.

There are no official figures, but nearly a dozen Cubans with postings on online job sites, who were contacted by telephone or by email, said that this work was their main source of income and that their peers were doing the same. Some said they already had American clients who hired them through middlemen.

John McIntire, a former investment banker and chairman of Cuba Emprende Foundation, a nonprofit that trains Cuban entrepreneurs, said the computer programming sector had the greatest potential to flourish under the new American regulations.

“It’s in huge demand,” said Mr. McIntire, speaking at a conference in Washington hosted by the Brookings Institution last week. “And guess what? Cubans are world class at it.”

Many who work at the University of Information Sciences, or UCI, near Havana, or the José Antonio Echeverría Higher Polytechnic Institute, or Cujae (pronounced Coo-hai), moonlight as freelance programmers, using the institutes’ broadband to transfer large files, software developers said.

Others buy dial-up connections on the black market — for about $200 per month — or rent time on wireless connections at big hotels. The smoky lobby of the Habana Libre hotel in downtown Havana serves as an office for Cubans who write software, build apps, unblock or fix mobile telephones, or rent houses. They huddle daily on deep armchairs and pay $8 per hour for Wi-Fi.

Dairon Medina, 28, a Cuban computer programmer who worked as a freelancer for several years before moving to Ecuador four years ago, hires colleagues in Cuba to do jobs for clients in Argentina, Canada, Germany and the United States.

He believes Cuba’s proximity — 90 miles across the Straits of Florida — is a plus.

“There’s a cultural affinity,” he said by Skype. “And then there’s the question of time zones.”

If American clients began hiring Cubans on a regular basis, he said, “it could be an immense market” for Cuba.

Oquel Llanes, a fluent Russian speaker who works with a Spanish tourist company in Havana and writes translations on the side, said there was constant demand.

“Translators are like barbers,” he said by telephone. “No matter what, people will always need them.”

Especially when they come cheap. Mr. Llanes, 52, who studied mathematics and computer science in Moscow in the 1980s, said he charged between $5 and $10 per page to translate literary criticism and history books. That is hardly a fortune when a page can take an entire day, he said, but much more than the average $20 per month paid to state workers.

The Cuban government has long had a policy of exporting services, especially those of doctors, nurses and sports trainers, in order to increase state income. Some 65,000 Cubans are currently working for the state overseas, earning it about $8 billion per year.

Datys, a Cuban state-owned software company with 700 employees, sells services to Latin America, according to its website, and Desoft, a state-owned high-tech company, has several clients in Cuba.

Were the government to improve Internet connectivity and telecommunications, Cuba could develop a competitive outsourcing sector, either state-run or independent, experts said.

“If you wanted to run a Spanish-speaking call center, why do it in Mumbai?” Mr. Bilbao said. “Maybe Cuba could eventually do that.”

That is still a way off, though, experts said. Under current sanctions, Americans are permitted to buy services only from the private sector; Cuba may not wish to see that sector grow.

Improved Internet connectivity is also a big “if.” A plan apparently leaked by the Cuban communications ministry and published this week in a blog, La Chiringa, indicates that the government aims to connect 50 percent of Cubans to broadband by 2020, but the anticipated speed would be too slow to stream video or play games online.

One Cuban software developer currently working in Chile on a contract for a Chilean software company said 80 percent of his cohort at the Cujae had left the country to work in Canada, Ecuador, Italy, Spain or Uruguay because Cuban Internet connectivity was unreliable and expensive and the rules for freelancers were murky.

“There’s huge potential that’s being drained out of the country because we don’t have the conditions” to work, said the software developer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Still, Cubans selling services, rather than goods, have lower start-up costs and do not have to worry about the expense and hassle of shipping, Mr. Bilbao said.

“One laptop can last you for five years of translating, which can earn you X amount of dollars,” he said.

Exporting goods is more complicated. The Obama administration’s new rules allow Americans to buy an unlimited amount of products from Cuban entrepreneurs — with exceptions that include live animals, vegetable products, textiles, machinery, arms and ammunition.

The Cuban government does not give entrepreneurs export licenses, however, so Cubans must ship goods the way they currently import them: by courier or in the duffel bags of relatives and other so-called mules.

This “suitcase economy,” as Mr. Bilbao called it, could grow after the Treasury Department in April authorized companies to begin ferry service to Cuba. Businesses could send goods more cheaply by ferry and sell them on websites like Etsy, experts said.

It is also unclear how keen the Cuban government will be to see trade flourish between the island’s entrepreneurs and the United States.

John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said the new American regulations allowing imports from Cuba “are designed to create the middle class that the Cuban government sought to extinguish.”

As the United States eases restrictions, it will test the Cuban government’s willingness to open up, Mr. Kavulich said.

“At some point the impediments will leave the shores of the United States and wash up on the Malecon,” he said, referring to Havana’s seafront promenade.

For now, experts said, restrictions on both sides are limiting engagement with Cuba’s private sector.

Mr. Gutiérrez, whose products include an app that helps drivers find a parking space and AlaMesa, an online Cuban restaurant guide, said that, for the moment, he would have to find a workaround to get payment from American clients. His projects range from around $500 for a basic website to several times that amount for one project that required hiring three people.

Banking and Internet problems aside, he said, he is optimistic that the thaw between Cuba and the United States will help freelancers like himself.

“There’s a lot to build here in the way of services; there’s a whole market to exploit,” he said. “All I need is a normal Internet connection and a way of getting paid.”