July 18, 2008 - 10:52 A.M
By Don Tennant
Our obstinacy on Cuba is unfair to U.S. companies
A couple of weeks ago at Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in Houston, I interviewed Allison Watson, Microsoft's corporate vice president in charge of the worldwide partner group. I asked her whether she was aware of any Microsoft partners who have done business with Cuba, Iran or North Korea, and if so, what actions she had taken to curtail that activity. I found her response to be very interesting.
This was the first part of her response: "I'm not aware whether there are or aren't. We do have local subsidiaries that operate in markets around the world. For example, I have a team that operates in Latin America - they would probably know if there is anything going on."
Now, one could probably argue that the head of Microsoft's global partner operations should be more up-to-speed on the status of gray market activity involving Microsoft's products, at least with respect to the company's business partners. But you have to give Watson credit for straightforwardly acknowledging that she didn't know.
In any case, it was the second part of Watson's response that really intrigued me.
"Frankly, from a Cuba perspective, Cuba's not a bad word to anyone outside of the United States," she 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 last year, 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.