Try to see Cuba as Cuba is, not as you think it is (or should be),” our tour guide, Yanailis, told us on our first day in the country. “It might not be what you expect, but that doesn’t make it any less charming.”
Reflecting on the first part of the trip, I’m grateful Yanailis encouraged us to observe and understand Cuba, rather than judge and make assumptions. As I mentioned in my first post, we began our trip in Cienfuegos, known as La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South) for a cultural, historic, and community visit that involved a stay in a casa particular (private house) and trip to Trinidad.
In the town of Cienfuegos, our group was broken up into 2-4 people per casa particular, all within a five minute walk of each other. Our host, Ana, warmly greeted my clustermate Stephanie and I as we hauled our suitcases into her quaint pink house. Each morning, our hosts prepared a hearty breakfast of fruit, bread, omelettes with fresh juice, serving it with friendly questions about our day. Though we often ate other meals with our fellow classmates, we were grateful to have had a delicious dinner at the house one evening, which was an authentic meal of pork, rice, soup, and Cuban salad. A day trip to charming Trinidad, where we finished an afternoon of touring with Mojitos on a patio jam packed with locals, was the perfect way to experience colonial Cuba.
Monday was primarily a travel day, as we bid farewell to our hosts in Cienfuegos and arrived four hours later in Havana. It’s hard to adequately describe the beauty of first seeing Havana, with its bright colored walls, classic American cars from the 1950s, and the Caribbean ocean waves crashing a few feet from the road. After a relatively peaceful and quiet stay in Cienfuegos, we were excited to explore the restaurants and vibrant nightlife of Havana. On Monday night, many of us went to Le Chansonnier, which looked more like a house with a private art collection than a place to eat. It became even clearer that creativity and artistic expression fuel the success of many businesses in Havana.
Tuesday morning, we heard from three incredible lecturers who each gave us unique perspective on Cuba. First, José Luis Rodriguez García, the former Minister and special adviser to the Center of Studies of World Economy, presented a brief history of Cuba’s economic and political environment while citing key statistics and indicators. Jose told us that in 1989, only 6% of the employees were non-state, compared to about 30% today.
We later heard from the CEO of Meliá Hotels International about their historic joint venture with Cuba. In 1990, Meliá established the first joint venture of its kind between Cuba and a foreign country, during a time when many countries wouldn’t consider going into business with Cuba. (In full disclosure, our group is staying at a Meliá hotel in Havana.)
The last lecturer that morning was Gregory Biniowsky, of Gowlings law firm. Though born in British Columbia, Gregory has spent over 20 years in Cuba and serves as both a consultant and legal advisor for foreign investors in Cuba. His advice to our class was practical and honest: Gregory encouraged any of us who were thinking of doing business in Cuba to approach any negotiation with humility, respect, and patience. Though it may be normal to “ignore politics” in the United States, this is impossible to do in Cuba, whose people have historically prioritized politics and social concerns above economics.
Tuesday afternoon, we also toured the Rum Museum at Havana Club and spoke with Miguel Diaz Vargas, the Havana Club 7 Brand Manager. Havana Club International is a joint venture between Cuba Ron, the state-owned rum enterprise, and the French liquor company Pernod Ricard. Miguel showed us videos of the new marketing campaigns and social media promotions that Havana Club has initiated to expand its global image and consumer base. If you live in the US, you aren’t able to get Havana Club rum from Havana Club, but rather from Barcardi, which also has its roots in Cuba. If you want to learn why, I suggest reading further about that the historic rivalry, cultural significance, and legal disputes between Havana Club and Barcardi. Despite the lack of advertising allowed in Cuba, with political signs and wall paintings about socialism being abundant, the Havana Club brand and product is an economic symbol of pride.
Cliche as it may sound, it’s hard to believe how fast my time in Cuba is going and how quickly it will soon come to an end. In a few days, I can’t wait to tell you more about the second half of the trip and the awesomeness that is Havana, Cuba.
– Anna Aagenes ’18
Cienfuegos – photos by Stephanie Hu