It’s hard to imagine that just a couple weeks ago, I was traveling through Cuba, learning about the business environment, culture, and history of the country. For this final post, I asked my classmates to contribute their own reflections, opinions, and photos. I’m grateful and excited to share their contributions and insights with you.
“The highlight of our trip to Cuba was striking up a conversation with a local woman who then invited us into her home to tell us about her experiences during the revolution. She then made us Cuban coffee, showed us pictures of her family, and had us call her abuelita.” – Oliver
“Cuba exceeded my expectations on many levels. One thing I found fascinating is how advanced Cuba is on gender issues in comparison to the United States. Despite the low salaries, women and men are paid equally. In terms of abortion, all women have the right to abort. Here in the United States, we are still fighting for pay equality and for abortion rights. “ – Silvana
“After visiting Cuba, I now realize how easier it is to live in a country with no crime and violence. However, I also understand how lucky I am to have been given opportunities to pursue my dreams.” – Federico
“After visiting Cuba, I now realize that the allure of the island for Americans is the fact that we mostly forbidden to go. Cuba has a long way to go if it wants to consistently attract tourists in the future.” – T.J.
“One thing that surprised me was the openness that young Cuban people had to discussing how the current system benefits them, as well as their ideas for how to improve it. The most interesting thing I learned was that workers have the daily newspaper (and novels) read to them as they work in state-operated cigar factories. I was really moved by the state’s commitment to ongoing education for Cuban citizens. After visiting Cuba, I now realize the many ways in which the system there works for the Cuban people, and I feel excited to see how that system adapts in upcoming years to provide even more opportunity for young Cubans.” – Natasha
The diverse perspectives of my classmates and I reflect how many topics were touched on during our Global Immersion Program (GIP) in Cuba. To say Cuban economics and politics are complex would be an understatement, yet the Cubans we met continue to do the best they can to overcome their financial circumstances and maintain hope for the future.
Thank you to everyone who provided photos, comments, and feedback on these blog posts. And thank you to Chazen and CBS for this incredible opportunity!
Some say that traveling to Havana (La Habana) feels like going back in time. I think this is most true when you are riding around in the vintage American convertibles from the 1950s, which is exactly what we did on Wednesday morning. Though a cloudy morning, this experience was probably one of the most enjoyable and memorable moments of our trip. Our tour guide explained that the cars were nicknamed “almondrones,” referring to how hard almonds are to break.
Two contrasting periods in time in Havana help explain its current state: First, you have the glamorous decades of the 1920s-1950s where Cuba was a cultural epicenter in Latin America, and much later, you have the Special Period of severe economic recession in the 1990s, which led to extreme rationing and a lack of investment to maintain the incredible buildings and opulent attractions.
After a panoramic tour of the city, we arrived at an organic farm where Miguel Salcines spoke with us about the history and significance of the farm. Since Cubans were unable to import products like pesticides for their crops during the recession, the organic farm was born out of necessity. Organic farming, as Miguel explained, is becoming increasingly popular and attractive as both a sustainability measure and a good business model.
Miguel extolled the benefits of eating organic products and lamented the American fast food diet. Halfway through the tour, he pointed ahead to a path of steps and stones and said he named these, the “Obama Steps.” He explained that if a Republican candidate had been elected instead of Obama, he would have lost business but that didn’t happen due to Obama’s reelection. He also told us to watch his TED Talk about “afrodisíacos y alimentos” (aphrodisiacs and food), which we plan to do once we have WiFi access and are back in the United States.
On Wednesday evening, we went to La Guarida for dinner and heard from the owner, Enrique Núñez, about his business and the fame garnered from the book and movie, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) that features the restaurant. (And yes, there was a dessert called fresa y chocolate and it was my favorite part of the meal.) Due to laws for non-state businesses like his, he has had to be creative in order to grow and expand his restaurant, including having tenants who both live and work there, as well as having different sections of his business under the names of various family members.
The next day was equally educational and unique. After hearing from two representatives of Habanos, the largest cigar company in Cuba, our group took a tour of their cigar factory. Like Havana Club, Habanos is also a joint venture and we were fortunate to hear from a staff member of Cubatabaco (the state-run Cuban company) and another from Altadis (a Spanish company owned by Imperial Tobacco). Though obviously still illegal in the United States, Habanos distributes cigars all over the world, with 55% sold in Europe and 19% in the the Americas. According to our presenter from Altadis, the US is a huge consumer of cigars (2/3 of the total consumption). One could anticipate a dramatic shift in distribution toward the Americas should the US embargo be lifted.
Inside the Habanos factory, we learned that each employee works 8 hours per day, though the factory is open and operating 24 hours a day. A worker makes over 100 cigars per day, the exact number depending on type/size, and they are paid extra if they make more than the required amount. The best employees are tasked with making the biggest cigars. Each is rolled by hand and inspected one by one, with those not passing quality tests remaining in the factory. (Employees are allowed to take five of these cigars home each day).
The next two visits on Thursday were two of my favorite activities of the trip. First, we went to the house of artist Mabel Poblet, one of the most successful young Cuban artists in the world. Upon walking into her gallery house, your eyes are immediately drawn to circular pieces of art on the wall made of cut photographs and a interactive artwork of dangling squares, blue sea on one side and a mirror on the other. She described the inspiration behind her pieces, including large glass squares on the wall with engraved quotations from famous Cubans.
Next, we traveled to Clandestina, the first independent design studio in Cuba, where we were inspired by the owners’ creativity and tenacity in the face of a difficult economic environment. They told us that not many locals in the neighborhood understood their business as a design studio, thus, in order to foster a closer relationship with the community, the Clandestina co-owners hosted parties with the understanding that drinking and music were common denominators that could bring people together. I asked Idania, one of the co-owners, how they maintained their social media accounts in a country where internet access was so limited. She admitted it was difficult yet they were doing the best to consistently update their content and utilize the public WiFi hotspots.
On Friday, our day began with a visit to the Mariel Corporate port, a special economic zone, to learn about the international investors this port is attracting. Though Mariel is 100% Cuban owned, they have hired a company from Singapore to manage their operations. After Mariel, we headed to Estadio Latinoamericano to meet with Rodolfo Puente, former béisbol (baseball) player and current Vice President of the Cuban Baseball Federation. Our day ended with a tour and a meeting at the US Embassy.
It’s hard to believe everything will come to an end this weekend. Stay tuned for my final post next with a reflection on Cuba and more amazing photos from our trip!
Tomorrow morning, thirty Columbia Business School (CBS) classmates and I will land in Havana for our Chazen Global Immersion Program (GIP) Cuba trip, where we will build upon our classroom-based learning and understanding of the business and economic environment in Cuba.
As a socialist country, most Cuban companies remain under the direct control of the Cuban government and most workers are state employed. In 2015, the average take home salary in Cuba was estimated to be $20 a month. Despite economic stagnation, however, Cubans remain optimistic about their future, with 70% believing their incomes will increase in the next 6-12 months. Our class has been told by multiple guest lecturers that Cubans are welcoming, warm, and optimistic about the future of their country.
Unlike past CBS trips to Cuba, our class will be spending the first few days in casas particulares (private houses) in Cienfuegos before we go to Havana. As someone who has had very positive experiences with homestays in both Spain and Guatemala, I’m very much looking forward to a private homestay with a family in Cuba. According to casaparticular.com, Cuban casas particulares “can be recognized by a small sign on the door, with two blue triangles (‘roofs’) against a white background.” When we aren’t getting to know our host family, we will be exploring cultural, community, and historical attractions in Cienfuegos along with visiting Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a day trip.
After the weekend in Cienfuegos, our group will travel to Havana for a busy week of presentations, company tours, and continued travel to historical and cultural sites. Yes, we will get to see old cars and tour Havana Club’s Rum Museum, but one of the things I’m most excited about is the opportunity to meet the women who run Clandestina. Clandestina is a contemporary design store that sells T-shirts, bags, prints, with a recycled clothing line that, per their website, “addresses the operational challenge in supply by creating a line of clothing from the limited second-hand clothing and goods markets—producing products that are unique and distinctly-Cuban.” About one year ago, the owners had the chance to speak with President Obama about their business and I couldn’t help but love the shout out to CBS!
I am hoping my Spanish language skills will be good enough to have meaningful conversations and to ask all the questions I have (and will have) once I arrive in Cuba. After months of hearing from others about what Cuba is like, I’m incredibly eager to be there and experience it for myself.