Silicon Valley Rides Obama’s Coattails Into Cuba

The island is opening up for business, and Airbnb, Google, and PayPal are among the companies that want in.

Cuba US

A woman talks by phone at a coffee shop on March 15 in Havana.

Photographer: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

President Barack Obama is in Cuba, and Silicon Valley is tagging along for the ride.

Executives from several technology companies are traveling with the U.S. president on his goodwill tour or introducing new business initiatives focused on the island—or both. Among the companies joining the Cuba parade this week are Google parent Alphabet Inc., Airbnb Inc., PayPal Holdings Inc., Priceline Group Inc., Stripe Inc., and Xerox Corp.

QuickTake The U.S. and Cuba: Context for a Thaw

One main area of focus is money transfers. Lifting restrictions on moving money between the two countries was one of the first things the Obama administration sought to relax since relations began to warm. Dan Schulman, the chief executive officer of PayPal who's traveling with Obama, said on Monday that his company would begin offering payments to and from Cubans this year through Xoom, an international money transfer company it acquired last year.

Americans send about $2 billion to Cubans each year, accounting for about 3 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the U.S. State Department. That’s about a 10th of what Americans transfer to Mexicans, the largest recipients of remittances from the U.S. Fees from payments to Cubans could total as much as $147 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That works out to about 1.5 percent of PayPal’s annual revenue.

Don’t expect PayPal to get all of that money. The company sees Xoom as a way to compete with Western Union Co., which also plans to begin operations in Cuba this year. Bitcoin entrepreneurs, who have long seen remittances as an area ripe for disruption, recently celebrated the first transactions between the U.S. and Cuba. Schulman positioned his company’s move in humanitarian terms. "With Xoom and the power of the Internet, Cuban Americans save on high fees—which means more money going back to their families," he said in a statement.

Stripe, a San Francisco payments startup, is also offering money transfers to Cubans but focusing on those looking to start businesses. Last week, the company said it would start offering Cuban entrepreneurs the ability to incorporate companies in the U.S., set up American bank accounts, and use Stripe to accept payments in Cuba.

Cuba isn't likely to be a big revenue driver for any industry immediately, aside for travel catering to tourists. The Cuban economy is the world's 67th largest, slightly smaller than Sri Lanka's but still bigger than Belarus's. The American contingent seems to be planting the seeds of a capitalist culture that has been absent throughout Cuba's revolutionary period. In 2016, that means tech startups. Sheel Tyle, a principal investor at venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates who focuses on consumer technology in emerging markets, is also traveling with the Obama administration. The Treasury Department also recently lifted its ban on imports of software from Cuba, adding to an exemption that allowed Cuban apps into the U.S. 

A Cuban woman provides an Airbnb reservation service from a laptop in a rental house in Havana.
A Cuban woman provides an Airbnb reservation service from a laptop in a rental house in Havana.
Photographer: Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images

There are still major barriers to the emergence of a Cuban tech startup industry. Broadband penetration on the island is lower than most places on the planet, leaving locals to rely mostly on accessing the Internet in public places. Try coding the next Facebook from the sidewalk outside of a hotel.

Obama said Google will try to help offset that by setting up more Wi-Fi and broadband in Cuba. "We’re also exploring additional possibilities around increasing and improving Internet access, but they’re at early stages," Brett Perlmutter, the Cuba lead for Google’s Access project, wrote in a blog post. Even setting the technical task aside, companies like Google will likely have to decide how to navigate the differing approaches that Cuba and the U.S. have to issues like dissent and freedom of expression. 

Obama's trip isn’t the first sign of the tech industry's enthusiasm for Cuba. Netflix said just over a year ago that it would offer service on the island, raising eyebrows from those who didn’t think the infrastructure was in place to do so in any meaningful way.

Airbnb has also been operating in the country for almost a year, but that hasn’t stopped the home-rental site from using Obama’s trip as an opportunity to call attention to its business there. The company’s founders are traveling with the White House, and it said in a statement that 13,000 guests from the U.S. have booked a Cuban Airbnb, spending an average of $250 per booking. The reason most often cited for these trips is education. The second most common: business meetings.

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