Learnings From Cuba

IMG_0038Our class’ 2018 global immersion trip to Cuba was a rare opportunity for a group of 28 US business school students to experience “the real Cuba”.

Though we studied Cuba for 6 weeks in the A term, there was no way we could have gained the perspective and understanding we did without visiting the country.

I’d like to share three key themes of our trip in the hopes you are inspired to learn more about Cuba too.

1. Cubans are proud of their history, and generally approve of socialist education and healthcare. We spoke with many Cubans – a real estate lawyer, a former ambassador, a journalist, an Airbnb host and more – and all of them have extensive knowledge and opinions on the last century of history in Cuba. Given the country has free education, it was no surprise how eloquently each speaker could describe the events leading up to the Cuban Revolution, through the Special Period (when the Soviet collapsed and Cubans lost their support) and up until the Trump administration. Not one person spoke out against the socialist system of free education and healthcare. In fact, most Cubans appreciate what Fidel Castro did for their country. However, a Northern European version of socialism mixed with free market sounded amenable to most speakers over Castro’s fully socialist agenda. Even the urban planner believed in a more European model of planning that will preserve the city’s history (versus Shanghai-type development, riddled with pollution and disregard for historical sites). Ultimately, Cubans were extremely happy when the Soviet Union funded more social programs, but with their collapse came a drop in GDP of 35% and 16 hour power blackouts. Today they are happy with some social programs, but recognize a need to grow GDP to progress as a country.

2. 80% of Cubans have either remittances, a private enterprise or a second job to supplement their $25 monthly average salary – and the US is a big part of how they do this. The US Cuban embargo prevents any business with Cuba (other than tourism). However, some say Miami – which has the largest population of Cubans in the world after Havana – keep Cuba afloat with the estimated $3B+ in remittances sent each year from friends and family in the states. This creates disparity, because the 20% of Cubans who truly live on $25 a month may not, for example, have family who can send $100 each month, effectively increasing income by 500%. A Cuban real estate lawyer shared an example of how this plays out: Cubans used to only be able to swap their houses given the socialist model. They can now sell their houses, but the actual prices paid for apartments can exceed $100-200k+, without loans, mortgages or credit of any kind available to do so. You can take a guess where they are getting the disposable income to do so! Some people are effectively “investing” in Cubans if they float housing costs, because Cubans can either re-sell their houses after making improvements, or turn the house into an Airbnb or “casa particulares”, where they can earn money renting out their homes to tourists.

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3. Icy relations with Cuba simply make it easier for Cuban insularity and for the hardliners in the country to push their agenda. We spoke with the head of our tour group company, Collin Laverty, who also had extensive experience working in Cuban American policy. He believes in relations that are best for the US – not relations that are what the US has had in mind. He spoke about how many Cubans were happy when Obama’s visit to Cuba softened relations. The Cubans in government, on the other hand, did not know what to do. For 50 years, Cuba had cold relations with the US, and Fidel knew how to use that to his advantage. Saying that the US didn’t want to work with Cuba made it easier to convince Cubans to believe in Fidel and keep away from US relations. The Capitalist US influence could have negatively impacted the socialist movement. The Trump administration is a return to cold relations and is a “gift” to Cubans in government who are afraid of opening the floodgates to US business and capital.

Our class had an incredible time and made great friends through this trip. Thankful to have had the opportunity… but also thankful to be back on the grid online and in the states.

Adios y hasta luego amigos!

-Jill Wang ‘18

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