By the start of the weekend, four Cubans ages 17 to 25 will have arrived in New York to a six-week internship at Grand Central Tech, a New York-based incubator for technology start-ups that receives funding and expertise from Google (GOOG) (GOOGL), Microsoft (MSFT), IBM (IBM) and Goldman Sachs (GS), among others. The Cubans will be working alongside about 35 interns, each taking classes while matched with one of the 19 startups housed at Grand Central Tech as part of a year-long program aimed at helping them build their businesses.
The State Department-backed program, which is certain to test Cuba's willingness to allow its citizens greater Internet access, comes as the U.S. is set to open an embassy in Havana on July 20 for the first time in more than a half-century.
"Here's an opportunity to empower the citizens of Cuba, to allow them to communicate with the rest of the world, to allow them to access all of the knowdge of the Internet," Miles Spencer, a technology entrepreneur, angel investor and co-founder of the program, said in an interview in New York. "I can't say for certain that it goes hand-in-hand with democracy, but it certainly goes hand-in-hand with progress, and that's a good thing."
For the U.S. and the companies behind Grand Central Tech, the Cuban intern program is a chance to assist a poor country in its development while tapping into the human resources of a culture that has long valued science and technology.
But the potential of an economic opening with Cuba serves as a enticing, if opaque, backdrop. Just how that opening will evolve remains uncertain even as Cuban officials have signaled they are eager to embrace technology and the Internet, though on their own terms. Google, among other companies, has been sending executives to the island in recent months.
Cuba's willingness to participate in such a program, Caulfield added, reflects a growing realization on the island that it must loosen rules about Internet access if its economy is to develop and evolve.
"Within the government there are those that fear widespread access to the Internet," John Caulfield, a longtime diplomat who retired late last year after heading the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2011 to 2014, said in a phone interview from Jacksonville, Fla. "But things are starting to look different in Cuba. There is no political opening but there is a willingness to try some different things, and this is one of them."
The idea for a U.S.-Cuba exchange based on technology was hatched in May when Spencer went to hear Caulfield give a talk about the potential for increased commercial relations between the two countries in the wake of President Obama's December order to restore full diplomatic relations with the island nation.
While Caulfield trumpeted the potential of art, music, medicine and baseball, Spencer wanted to focus on tech. Would it be possible, he asked, to bring a group of young people to New York to learn the practical applications of technology, thereby laying the ground work for tech-based business in Cuba?
Intrigued by the proposal, Caulfield approached contacts at the State Department, who in turn made in-roads with the Cuban government. Within weeks of their initial meeting, Spencer was speaking to Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the current head of the U.S. Interests Section; Frances Colon, acting science and technology adviser to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry; as well as Cuban officials including Sergio Jorge Pastrana, head of Cuba's Academy of Sciences.
Spencer, a former host of PBS television show MoneyHunt, then reorganized his not-for-profit foundation, C.A.A., to fund the program, calling it Innovadores, or Innovators, and secured the involvement of Grand Central Tech. The State Department publicized the program on its Web site helping to spread the within Cuba's science and technology circles that students with talent and big ideas would be chosen to go to New York for training.
The program's objective, Spencer said, is for the four young people to return to Cuba to solve Cuban problems through technology. Projects under discussion include developing low-cost batteries to address chronic power shortages on the island, improving wireless GPS services, and creating a Yelp (YELP)-type service to make it easier for average people to locate business.
"There's just so much that we take for granted that Cuba doesn't have," Spencer said. "95% of the problems these kids would work on would really make a difference."
The four students will be working out of Grand Central Tech, a 1.1 million square foot space that once served as Facebook's (FB) New York headquarters. Just two years old, Grand Central Tech provides start-ups with working room and access to a range of tutorials and advisors in exchange for a commitment to rent an office in the building for four years after. The building, which lies alongside Grand Central Station, was financed by the Milstein family, which made its fortune in real estate.
The Cubans, said Matt Harrigan, a co-founder of Grand Central Tech, will be matched with a company that best fits each individuals' talents and interests. As for bridging the language divide, Harrigan said a number of the people involved in its second class of companies know Spanish, and that the Cubans will be encouraged to use their English.
"We're going to muddle through it but that's part of what this is all about -- the U.S. and Cuba re-starting relations," Harrigan said in a phone interview in New York. "Both sides are going to have to learn a little but this is all super exciting, we're all a part of history."
Following the end of the program scheduled for Aug. 16, Spencer is hoping the Cubans will agree to send another group of young people to New York for training. Over time, he hopes, the Cubans who leave Grand Central Tech will form the nucleus of their own technology start-up incubator in Havana.
In a trip to Havana in late-June to interview prospective candidates, Spencer met with Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart, the oldest son of the Cuban leader. Castro, chief technology advisor to Cuba's State Council, told Spencer that after five decades of covert operations and overt attacks, the time had finally arrived for exchanges built on science and technology.
"He told me that you could have worked on this for 50 years and you would not have made as much progress as you did in the last 90 days," Spencer recounted. "Your timing, he said, is sublime."