Despite embargo, Cuba a haven for pirated U.S. goods
Thu Sep 2, 2010 1:31pm EDT
* Pirated U.S. TV shows, movies, software abound in Cuba
* U.S.-Cuba embargo blocks legal access to most U.S. goods
* Lack of formal U.S.-Cuba relations hurts enforcement
By Esteban Israel
HAVANA, Sept 2 (Reuters) – A few weeks after Ashton Kutcher's latest
comedy "Killers" premiered in the United States, the movie was already
entertaining the masses in communist Cuba.
For two pesos, the equivalent of nine U.S. cents, the state-owned Yara
movie theater in the heart of Havana offered Cubans a washed out and
pixilated copy of Kutcher's adventures as a CIA assassin who is himself
targeted for a hit.
"It's a very good flick. We just got it on DVD," says a woman in the
The problem is that "Killers" will not be officially released on DVD in
the United States until Sept. 7 and even then Cuba will be off limits
due to the 48-year-old U.S. trade embargo against the Caribbean island.
But half a century of U.S. sanctions have turned Cuba into a piracy
haven and a missed opportunity for U.S. businesses.
Even though the embargo forbids U.S. companies like Microsoft (MSFT.O)
from exporting software to Cuba, most personal computers on the island
run unlicensed copies of its Windows operating system.
Pirated copies of the latest version, Windows 7, have been available for
months from illegal vendors in Cuba.
The blue-skinned aliens of "Avatar," James Cameron's blockbuster film,
appeared on Cuba's state television in February while the movie was
still breaking box office records around the world.
Surfing Cuba's five television channels, all state-owned, a viewer could
stumble across shows such as Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana" and NBC's
"Friends," or movies like Dreamworks' "Madagascar 2".
Video games of all types are sold by software pirates in Cuba for the
equivalent of about $2.
"The reality is that U.S. products and services are down there whether
the companies that make them sell them or not," said Jake Colvin, Vice
President for Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council
"The frustrating thing is that U.S. companies are getting nothing for
it," he told Reuters.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN?
The trade embargo, imposed since 1962 with the aim of toppling the
Caribbean island's communist government, forbids most U.S. business with
Cuba, with the key exception of agricultural products, and, under
certain restrictions, medicines.
Cuba's unofficial position is that the embargo limits access to so many
products that it forces people to resort to piracy.
But it also does so with a certain relish, which is both the result of
five decades of U.S.-Cuba hostility and a jab at the capitalist system
Cuban leaders disdain.
The Business Software Alliance, a Washington-based industry group, says
63 percent of the computer programs being used in Latin America as a
whole in 2009 were unlicensed and had an approximate commercial value of
But in Cuba, the piracy rate is estimated to be around 80 percent, if
not higher, said Montserrat Duran, BSA director of legal affairs for
Cuba has been more protective of its own products, having spent much
time and money defending its world-famous Cohiba cigar and Havana Club
rum brands in legal battles in the United States.
The National Foreign Trade Council says the current lack of formal
diplomatic relations between the two nations makes it difficult for U.S.
companies to raise these issues with Cuban authorities.
"Until we fix the relationship, until we have governments that talk to
each other and have a better official relationship and we have rules
that allow companies to interact and do business in Cuba we are not
going to be able to address the problem," said Colvin.
Better relations, when they come, could be a mixed blessing for Cuba's
financial exposure over pirated goods, one computer engineer on the
"The day we finally resolve our problems with the United States,
Microsoft's Bill Gates will try to collect the bill. And it will be
huge," he said, asking not to be identified.
A spokesman for Microsoft declined to comment.
In the meantime, Cuba should focus on the future rather than worry about
the past, said Business Software Alliance's Duran.
"Nobody expects them to pay for what has been done, but governments
should legalize their products and lead by example. People need to
understand that piracy is a crime similar to stealing a car," she said.
Cuba took a step toward addressing the problem last year when it
developed a variant of the free, open-source operating system Linux and
promoted its use in the country's computers.
Cuban leaders said conversion to Linux would ease their security
concerns about the widespread use of U.S. software and create another
front in their long fight to resist U.S. domination. (Editing by Jeff
Franks and Doina Chiacu)