What expanding internet access in Cuba could mean for women

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Gabriela Monteiro, 16, (R) and Gisele Rodriguez, 15, use the internet at a hotspot in Havana, Cuba. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

  • Broadening access to the internet and other information and communication technology, such as mobile phones and social media, could be an important tool for women’s rights (and other human rights) in Cuba.

Last week, President Trump announced a shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba. True, Trump’s new policy tightens significant rules on trade and travel that President Obama had eased beginning in December 2014. However, Trump’s policy shift will continue the Obama-era policy of supporting the expansion of internet and communication access in Cuba as well as, among other things, the agreement to reestablish diplomatic relations and the end of the wet foot, dry foot policy. Broadening access to the internet and other information and communication technology, such as mobile phones and social media, could be an important tool for women’s rights (and other human rights).

As anyone who has visited the island knows— and as I experienced when I took two Fordham Law students to Cuba over this past spring break— internet and cell access is limited. But this is changing. Cuba depended on even slower, pricey satellite internet until 2013, but then opened a fiber-optic cable to Venezuela that linked the island nation to the global online infrastructure. Even though Cuba is still one of the least internet-connected societies in the world, internet access for ordinary citizens has dramatically increased since the summer of 2015. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in 2015 alone, daily internet usage doubled after Cuba and the United States began normalizing relations. With Obama’s efforts to open up relations with Cuba, online services like Airbnb expanded into the Cuban market. This emerging internet revolution could usher in a new era in many respects, including in assisting parents balance work and family obligations.

As I have discussed previously, Cuban women face glass ceilings in particular sectors and are underrepresented in traditionally male sectors. Barriers include limited paid paternal leave for fathers— which creates incentive for women to take leave, rather than men—and limited access to government-run day care centers, which makes it difficult for women to return to work. Because of these challenges and other factors, women often chose to not have children or not return to work once they do have children.

Increased access to the internet and cell phones on the island could improve women’s access to the workforce in at least four respects. First, broader internet access at home could expand opportunities for working parents— both mothers and fathers— to work remotely from home as well as to have more flexible work schedules. Creating the flexibility to work from home not only enables women’s employment, it can also make working from home more attractive for men, expanding the participation of men in parenting, which in turn further supports women’s participation in the labor force.

Second, greater access to information and communication technology would enhance the ability of working parents to be in touch with children and caregivers during work hours via cell phone, text, video chat, and other communication services. The ability to communicate with their children, caregivers, and even teachers during working hours can enable parents to put in a full day’s work with the reassurance that their children are being taken care of and properly supervised.

Third, a stronger internet economy could support the ability of working parents to balance family and work obligations more broadly. Currently, with no access to services like Fresh Direct, which allow consumers to order groceries online, Cubans often have to spend hours in line at different shops to get even basic food and other supplies, which makes the work-family balance that much harder. The internet lays the groundwork for the development of e-commerce, enabling grocery shopping and delivery services with a few key strokes. These services ease the time and inconvenience of traveling to various stores and waiting in line for necessities, making it easier for parents to spend more time either with their families or at work. In fact, Cuban software engineers and other tech-oriented experts are beginning to start up online Amazon-type delivery services, text-based weather updates, and other online services.

Fourth, the expansion of information and communication technology would create job opportunities in the tech sector for women. As United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) former Chief Innovation Officer Ann Mei Chang and I discussed in a CFR Discussion Paper we issued last year, “Women in Tech as a Driver of Growth in Emerging Economies,” expanding women’s access to information and communication technology jobs would not only advance economic opportunities for women,  their families,  their communities, but it would also help address the global shortage of skilled workers for these jobs and grow the digital economy. As women become increasingly active users of technology, they are more likely to pursue careers in the tech sector, which could further boost innovation and support economic development across the island.

As President Obama noted when he visited Cuba in March 2016—the first sitting U.S. president to make a trip to Havana since 1959—sustainable economic growth is not only the result of strong education systems. In calling for greater internet access, he noted that “It also depends on the free and open exchange of ideas,” because after all, “[I]f you can’t access information online, if you cannot be exposed to different points of view, you will not reach your full potential, and over time, the youth will lose hope.”

*I would like to acknowledge the generous support of the Fordham Law School Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, which funded the field research my students and I undertook in Cuba in March 2017.

LINK: What Expanding Internet Access in Cuba Could Mean for Women

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