Cuba’s recently appointed President Miguel Díaz-Canel met with technology and other company executives and U.S. Congress members in New York City after his inaugural appearance at the United Nations.
At the meeting held at Google offices in New York Monday afternoon, Díaz-Canel spoke with representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, VaynerMedia, Connectify, Mapbox, Virgin Group, Airbnb, Revolution, Udacity and Bloomberg.
The gathering was organized by Eric Schmidt, former executive director of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and currently technical adviser to the company, as well as Brett Perlmutter, who is in charge of Google projects in Cuba.
Schmidt met with the Cuban leader in Havana in June to discuss connecting the island to one or more underwater communications cables. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Az., said at the time that the two sides were close to an agreement.
Some of the issues discussed during the New York City gathering included increasing Cuba’s access to the internet through mobile phones, and developing the culture of start-ups on the island, according to a source familiar with the talks.
Several companies represented at the gathering did not reply to el Nuevo Herald requests for comment. Twitter replied that it would not comment.
Cuba’s official news media reported that Díaz-Canel told the U.S. executives that “computerizing society” in Cuba was one of his government’s key priorities.
Cuba’s telecommunications monopoly, known as ETECSA, carried out several tests recently to expand the use of cellphones for internet access. But the problems encountered highlighted the significant infrastructure problems the company faces.
Díaz-Canel told the executives that the U.S. embargo was “the principal obstacle for the maximum development of this area,” even though former President Barack Obama eliminated restrictions on U.S. companies to allow them to provide internet access on the island. Google submitted a proposal in 2015, but the Cuban government rejected it because of national security concerns.
The New York meeting — which also included Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz and Communications Minister Jorge Luis Perdomo Di-Lella — appeared to also provide an opportunity to promote the Cuban market. The island does not have the levels of foreign investments needed to overcome its stagnation.
Díaz-Canel also “referred to the potentially valuable human resources that Cuba can count on to move forward in this area, and the opportunities opening in other advanced technology sectors, such as biotechnology,” the official Cubadebate website reported.
Díaz-Canel, an engineer, has repeatedly called for Cuba’s technological modernization during his first months in office. He was appointed to succeed Raúl Castro in April.
In his first trip to the United States, to attend the 73rd General Assembly of the United Nations, Díaz-Canel also met with several U.S. Congress members from both parties on Monday, including Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor.
“For the first time in nearly six decades, the world is seeing Cuba without a Castro at the helm. For the United States, this is a new opportunity for improved relations with our neighbor just 90 miles off the Florida coast — one we cannot afford to let slip by,” Castor said in a statement.
“The Cuban government has sent mixed messages and not followed through on some shared business plans during the most significant transition of power that occurred over the past couple of years,” Castor added. “Cuba’s new leader has the opportunity to usher in a number of positive changes on the island and we encouraged him to focus on improving the everyday lives of Cubans, including increased access to the internet and support for the Cuban private sector.”
Castor visited Havana in February but did not meet with Raúl Castro, then president of the Council of State.
Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who attended the gathering with Díaz-Canel, was quoted in the Cuban press as saying that the U.S. Congress may become more interested in trade with Cuba after the November elections.
Also at the gathering were Democratic Reps. Gregory Meeks of New York, Robin Kelly of Illinois and Karen Bass of California.
Several Cuban American legislators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complaining about the large Cuban delegation attending the General Assembly, at a time when the issuance of visas by the U.S. embassy in Havana is all but halted.
“It remains troubling that regime and pro-regime individuals seem to receive U.S. visas with relative ease, yet pro-democracy activists and others seeking to escape tyranny must face exorbitant fees, travel burdens, and significant delays when requesting U.S. Entry,” noted the letter by Florida Republicans Carlos Curbelo, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Díaz-Balart and New Jersey Democrat Albio Sires.
Castor said Monday’s meeting touched on issues such as “renewable energy, human rights, agriculture, travel, Venezuela, Colombia, telecommunications and even Major League Baseball.
She added that Diaz-Canel’s wife, Lis Cuesta, was also at the gathering. Cuba’s official news media has not mentioned her presence in New York, but on Friday she posted a note on her Twitter account.
“Cuba is ready to promote an improvement in bilateral relations with the United States, and take advantage of the possibilities of cooperation between the two countries, based on equality and mutual respect,” she wrote.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres