Havana: A Trip Back in Time

(Due to the lack of internet connectivity in Havana, this blog post is back-dated to Tuesday, March 18th)

I left my hotel in Miami at 8:30 am on Saturday, and did not arrive at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba until 9:30 pm that night!  13 hours of travel time to reach a destination that is only 80 miles from the southern coast of Florida.  Absolutely amazing (ok, a little frustrating) and an incredible insight in to the red tape and inefficiencies that stem from the lack of US-Cuba diplomatic relations.

The first half of our trip has added much color to the opinions that were shared by our guest speakers, and to the image of Cuba that is presented by the press.  It is clear that Havana was once a beautiful, bustling city that offered a rich, cultural experience to residents and visitors.  Ernest Hemingway penned two famous novels here – while enjoying mojitos and daiquiris – and Havana saw an influx of American visitors during the era of Prohibition.  While the city maintains its rich, cultural heritage, it is immediately obvious that the country has stalled, economically.

A tour of the city and outlying areas reveals dilapidated buildings (the historic district experiences 4 major collapses, per week), the absence of internationally recognizable brands (Starbucks, major banks, Coke), and crumbling roads.  More than half of the cars on the road date back to pre-1960, credit cards are not accepted, and the country operates under a confusing, dual-currency system.  Cuba is in desperate need of direct and foreign investment, and the government has recently begun to institute reforms that are intended to improve economic and social conditions.  Public figures and private citizens, alike, point to the US embargo as the one of the key impediments to future growth.

Highlights from the trip include a lecture on the state of US-Cuba relations, a visit to a privately owned spa, and “Vice Day”.

On Monday, Professor Luis Rene Fernandez Tablo offered his views on the challenges that are posed by the US embargo, and his hopes for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  By his estimates, the US Embargo has caused economic damages of more than $1 trillion USD; the Cuban government recognizes that restoration of diplomatic relations are crucial to moving the country forward and all lecturers expressed hope that a solution can be found in the near future.  While I enjoyed listening to the Cuban perspective, I found it disappointing that the focus seemed to be on what the US needs to change, with little discussion of the concessions that Cuba can (and should) make to bring the two countries to the negotiating table.

Later that afternoon, our class had the opportunity to talk with the owners of O2SPA, which is a privately owned spa and fitness company.  The three sisters spoke frankly about the challenges of financing, establishing, and running a business in Cuba, and offered a tour of their facilities.  The spa also offers dance lessons, and the Class of 2014 wasted no time in showing off their two left feet.

Tuesday (officially referred to as “Vice Day”) brought tours of the Habanas Cigar Factory in Havana and the Havana Club Rum Factory in San Jose.

Habanas manufactures several different cigar brands, and takes pride in their process.  A tour of their factory revealed workers who apply years of expertise to the formation of hand-rolled cigars, and the careful application of quality control measures.  Everyone left the tour with a greater appreciation for the art of cigar making, and with a pocket full of cigars that were later enjoyed in the company of the famous Cuban mojito.

“Vice Day” continued with a trip to the Habana Club Rum Factory, where we met with the rum maestro who oversees production at the San Jose factory.  He ended his overview of the production process with an offer to taste the various Habana Club rums and the quote: “A rum master is like the pope…only closer to God”.  Habana Club has the third largest market share of all rum manufacturers, and an incredibly complex and creative marketing strategy.

The trip has been fascinating, thus far, and I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the program holds!

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