The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the heart of Obama’s Cuba doctrine? The Internet.

A Cuban uses an illegal wi-fi connection to surf the internet, on November 28, 2014, in Havana. (AFP/ADALBERTO ROQUE)

How disconnected is Cuba, the land where a decades-old U.S. embargo has left many residents drive vintage automobiles from the 1950s and '60s? Only 5 percent of the island nation's 11 million residents have the ability to get onto the Internet.

So when President Obama announced major changes to the U.S. approach to Cuba on Wednesday, he emphasized the need to open up a nation "closed off from an interconnected world." To do that, the White House is loosening restrictions on the export and sale of goods and services aimed at helping more Cubans communicate with both each other and the outside world, technologies that are likely to include everything from cell phones to laptops to wireless Internet routers to software capable of equipping computers with network connections to fiber-optic cables. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said in an interview on CNBC Thursday that the Cuban government is supportive of increasing its citizens' access to the Internet.

Cuba isn't a particularly big country. Its population is roughly equal to that of Ohio. And with a low standard of living -- the average income per person is just $5,460 (USD) -- as a potential market for U.S. telecom goods and services it is more a symbolic than a profitable one.

But the possibility of helping its people connect to the outside world has captured the imagination of some in tech. In June, Google executives including chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen visited Cuba, according to the Cuban blog 14medio, operated by Cuban blogger and Internet advocate Yoani Sánchez.

Schmidt, an adviser to President Obama, and Cohen, a former U.S. State Department official, are co-authors of the book "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," released in April.

In August, Google made its Chrome browser available in Cuba. Google has since increased the services available on the island, introducing both Google Play and Google Analytics.

Google declined to comment on Wednesday about how the new policy would affect its goals. Others in tech, though, were willing to heap praise on the president's decision to open up a new market.

“We welcome President Obama’s announcement that would allow commercial exports of communications equipment to Cuba," said the Telecommunications Industry Association, an industry group representing manufacturers and suppliers. "We look forward to the commercial opportunities that the opening of Cuba represents for the telecommunications sector.”

And Consumer Electronic Association president and chief executive Gary Shapiro said in a statement that the measures will help bring Cuba the same benefits technology has brought to the rest of the world: "eliminate the borders of time and geographic location to bridge global communities, democratize access to information and entertainment content, and provide new hope for promoting democracy and human rights."

Meanwhile, Roots of Hope, a Miami Beach-based group that helps equip young Cubans with inexpensive cell phones and other technology, said the new policy "promotes an increase in the living standards, connectivity, and autonomy of Cuba's citizens, but more importantly a hopeful new beginning for our brothers and sisters on the island."

Just who's responsible for the poor state of Cuban tech has been a sore spot between the governments of Cuba and the United States. Cuba has blamed the U.S. embargo for forcing the country to rely upon slow and expensive satellite connectivity for much of its access to the Internet.

In his own speech Wednesday, Cuban President Raúl Castro called upon the government of the United States "to remove the obstacles hindering or restricting ties between peoples, families, and citizens of both countries, particularly restrictions on travelling, direct post services, and telecommunications."

Said Obama, "I believe in the free flow of information. Unfortunately our sanctions on Cuba have denied Cubans access to technology that has empowered individuals around the globe."

Even with the new relationship, there is a long way to go. Close watchers of the Cuban Internet scene wonder just what sort of Internet ecosystem a freer Cuba might build.

Larry Press is a professor of information systems at California State University at Dominguez Hills who has closely tracked the Internet situation in Cuba. Press wonders if "instead of inviting a company like Telefónica and AT&T to come in" to upgrade its creaky or non-existent infrastructure, the Cuban government might build out a shared national Internet backbone itself.

"Wouldn't it be cool if they did something uniquely Cuban," said Press, "like saying, 'Hey, the Internet is a human right?' Or if they did something radical like Google Fiber does, like say 'Low-speed Internet is going to be free to everyone?'"

(In the cities in the U.S. in which in operates, Google offers its lowest tier of broadband access free to users after the payment of an installation fee.)

It has, in fact, become a bit easier for Cubans to communicate in recent years. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the number of Cubans with mobile phones has increased from just more than 600,000 in 2009 to 2 million in 2013. That means nearly a fifth of the population of Cuba has a mobile phone -- but many of those phones don't have Internet access.

And Internet access has been a key sticking point between Cuba and the United States.

In September of 2009, the Obama administration eased some restrictions on U.S. companies providing telecommunications access to Cuba. But by the end of that same year, Cuba had imprisoned Alan Gross, a contractor working with the U.S. government who was charged with distributing laptops and other communications equipment in a bid to bring the island's Jewish community online.

On Wednesday, Obama said that Gross's jailing had been "a major obstacle" preventing closer ties between the two countries.

Gross was released by the Cuban government as part of Wednesday's agreement.