When the news broke yesterday that Cuban President Raul Castro was easing some economic controls that have stagnated his country for decades, my immediate reaction was earnest hope that the U.S. government recognizes the development as the opportunity it is to advance engagement with the Cuban people.
The BBC reported that Castro is hardly making large-scale economic reforms, but that he's at least allowing some private enterprise to take root. He continued to bash capitalism and to proclaim that socialism in Cuba is "irrevocable," which is only to be expected. But the reality is that Cuba's economy is in shambles, and Castro clearly recognizes that his definition of "socialism" is going to have to be massaged a little.
That recognition makes this an extremely opportune time for the U.S. to massage its definition of "embargo." I'm reminded of a conversation on this topic I had a couple of years ago with Allison Watson, Microsoft's corporate vice president in charge of its worldwide partner group. Watson seemed somewhat bemused by the fact that Microsoft and other U.S. companies were at a competitive disadvantage because of the U.S. government's trade embargo against Cuba. Here's an excerpt from a blog post I wrote following that conversation:
"Frankly, from a Cuba perspective, Cuba's not a bad word to anyone outside of the United States," [Watson] said. "I don't know, outside the United States, if [doing business with Cuba] is a good or bad thing, per se."
She's right, of course. The U.S. pretty much stands alone in its obstinate refusal to engage Cuba and enable the citizens of both countries to benefit from investment there.
That lack of engagement is hurting no one more than U.S. companies, including Microsoft. No doubt, Microsoft products have been widely used in Cuba for years. And, no doubt, the great majority of those products are pirated. Microsoft has been able to effectively address the piracy problem in countries like China, where our government allows it to operate even though we may not be all that enthused about their politics. As a result, software piracy in China is at least less outrageous than it used to be, and Microsoft has reaped the financial benefit of that.
But when you're not allowed to engage a country in commercial enterprise, you lose. At a technology conference in Havana in February of , the Cuban government declared its intention to rid itself of Microsoft software in favor of Linux. Other countries, including China, have taken similar measures. But at least Microsoft is able to compete in those countries. It, like every U.S. company, needs to be allowed to compete in Cuba as well.
I would add that the Cuban people, too, need U.S. companies to be allowed to compete in their country. No, the free-market door in Cuba hasn't swung open, but at least it's ajar. We need to get our foot in that door now to pursue opportunities like the types of joint ventures that opened up China. It's time to put our differences with the Cuban government aside so that the people of our two countries can enjoy the fruits of engagement.