More Questions than Answers

Adam Norris ‘17

Cuba is a truly fascinating place. Our tour guide said you can never really learn about Cuba from books or news articles, and I have to agree with her. During my week in Cuba with CBS, I learned a lot about the way Cuba operates and began to understand how the Cuban people live under communism. I also was reminded that the US embargo has barred US investment in Cuban for the past 50 years, but not other developed nations, meaning if/when the embargo is lifted, it is important to learn from the experiences of those investments as Cuba is not an untapped market ripe for American investor conquest.

In the end, I still have many unanswered questions, but here are the top things I will be sure to think about before ever attempting to do business in Cuba, or in any future business venture when I graduate.

What are the results of a communist government on the people? On the whole, government programs in Cuba are well funded, well executed, and provide a lot of benefit to the people. Throughout my trip, it was clear there were high education rates, ample access to healthcare, and very low levels of homelessness, poverty, and crime. Even so, the government is responsible for setting wages and prices, meaning goods and services aren’t priced at their utility value. This raises the question of where this value (and more specifically profit) ends up.

What is the importance of Russia on Cuban international relations before the Special Period and today? Up through 1991, Russia was the largest financial supporter of Cuba, providing most of the necessary exports to the island. Russia is no longer able to support Cuba in this way, but the diplomatic relationships communist Russia facilitated have allowed Cuba to develop trade partners far beyond any other Caribbean nation.

Does the Cuban government actually want the US to fully repeal the trade embargo? In the post-revolution/Cold War era, it is possible that Cuba’s alliance with Russia was fueled by a mutual enemy in the United States. While the Cuban people undoubtedly want the embargo repealed, the US serves as an easy scapegoat for Castro’s government whenever the need arises.

How do Cubans afford $3 drinks at bars on salaries of <$200/month? With most of the Cuban population working for state-owned or state-run entities, salaries are modest. Being that this is the case, it seems unlikely Cubans are able to earn enough money to afford luxuries we (in the US) take for granted like going out to dinner or drinks. Even so, we frequently saw locals out at the bars and restaurants, begging the question of where this money is coming from (remittances, black market businesses, or elsewhere).

In conclusion, I would highly recommend the GIP Cuba course to anyone who is interested in thinking about everyday life in a different way than the developed world. Not only were the speakers interesting and the trip expertly planned, but the lifelong friends I made from CBS on this trip reiterated why I chose CBS for my MBA in the first place.

First Impressions…

Adam Norris ‘17

It’s been a great couple of days in Cuba so far and get to know a country full of of Welcome Drinks (and if you’re unsure what’s in it, it’s probably rum), government regulations, and optimism and hope for the future. For this post, I’ve decided to spend some time discussing a few areas of interest to me thus far. For more insights on this trip, feel free to check me out on Instagram @gunsmoke30000 or @CBSChazen for pictures covering all of the adventures of our group throughout the week.

Restaurants: Restaurants in Cuba definitely run on ‘island time’ as a group dinner for ~25 of us on Saturday night easily tipped the three-hour mark. I would also say the food has been good so far, but far from great, so keep that in mind if you’re looking for a culinary experience on your next vacation. For background on the restaurant industry, since the ‘Special Period’ (aka Soviet Union collapse of 1989-1991), restaurants have been broken into two main categories: state-run established and private-run paladares. While both are relatively prominent, locals definitely prefer paladares, which are typically located in the ground floor of the owner’s house. These private restaurants have strict government limitations on the number of diners it can serve at once (<50) and are required to go to the same supermarkets as the rest of the Cuban population. These laws have forced paladar owners to become increasing resourceful, risking fines and sanctions by pushing the number of seats available for diners at a time and creating a black market for groceries that are typically unavailable at supermarkets to remain profitable in spite of high income taxes.

Real Estate: While walking through Old Havana, our tour guide stopped in one square to point out something she called a barbeque. Unlike BBQ in the US, a barbeque in Cuba is a high-ceiling apartment unit that is broken into two levels to accommodate more residents and provide privacy for the ones who live there. The reason it is called a barbeque is that the upper level created by this installation gets really hot during the Cuban summer, opening up the potential to ‘cook’ the upper tenant. It kind of reminded me of the episode of Seinfeld when Kramer has the idea to build levels in his apartment (Season 2, Episode 2), but in this case, it really emphasizes the difficulty of building wealth in Cuba, and resulting number of people forced to share a single room apartment unit.

City Planning: Another interesting observation from our tour of Old Havana was the University of Havana, who’s architecture sticks out like a sore thumb in classic historic district. Again during the ‘Special Period’, the city council wanted to revitalize the area where the university now sits, but lacked the financial resources to restore the original buildings. Opting for a modern building with clean lines and floor to ceiling windows, the city council approved the ugly structure, which I was told is regretted today, and (to add insult to injury) requires twice as much electricity to air condition than any other building in the area.

Cigars: I know I can’t write about Cuba with covering cigars, and don’t worry – I’ve been sure to fully indulge in this aspect of the experience so far. Beyond the cigar lounge at the hotel, we were fortunate enough to visit a tobacco farm yesterday to learn more about the cigar making process. Unlike many industries in Cuba, the tobacco farming industry is not state-run to encourage innovation and quality not seen in government run businesses (although farms are still required to sell 80% of their tobacco to the government). At the farm, we were able to see tobacco leaves in multiple stages of the growing and drying processes, and learned how cigars are made. For those interested, a cigar is made up of five tobacco leaves: three which serve as the filling, one which is a wrapper on the filling to control the burn rate, and a final wrapper which is specially treated to provide additional flavor. Basically, to make a cigar, you wrap the three inner leaves with the first wrapper, and put it into a plastic mold for 30 minutes to compress the cigar and solidify he shape. Next, the cigar is wrapped tightly in its second (and final) wrapper, where it is put in the model again for 10 more minutes. Finally, the cigar is cut to make fine edges, and aged depending on the type. When making a cigar, it is important to remove the center spine of the leaf, which contains the most nicotine and is the least healthy part. Leftover tobacco (including leaf spines) are then shipped off to be used in cigarettes, emphasizing the importance of using only the best tobacco for the cigar.

 

And before I signoff, I wanted to pass along a few updates to the travel tips from my first post…

  1. Visa: We had no problem leaving the US and entering Cuba, but be sure to get to the airport early since you’ll need to check-in get your Visa approved by your airline in the US. This also covers your proof of insurance.
  2. Hotel: Hotel Melia Cohiba is one of the top three hotels in Cuba with a beautiful pool, several restaurants, and (I’ve head) a decent gym.
  3. Money: Prices in Cuba are all over the place. Meals can range from $5-$50, depending on where you go, but drinks are cheap (especially compared to New York) at a price of $2-$5 for a beer, mojito, or Cuba Libre (rum and coke).
  4. Internet and Cell Phones: As pleasant surprise, our hotel boasts free internet. However, good luck using it between 8am-10pm. As a test, I did turn off airplane mode on my cell phone and was able to get a text off with good coverage near the hotel. While the pricing has made me reluctant to try it again, a colleague was able to get a score on the Dolphins wildcard loss yesterday when we visited Viñales.

#CBSChazen #GIPCuba #Bruiser #HavanaGoodTime

Mounting Anticipation…

Adam Norris ‘17

¡Bienvenidos!

So begins a multi-post blog on the Global Immersion Program (GIP) trip to Cuba. For some background, Professor Kogut’s GIP Cuba course consisted of six 90-minute classroom sessions filled with guest speakers, relevant readings, and student presentations aimed at answering the question: Is Cuba the next transformation economy? After examining nations who have previously gone through similar transitions and evaluating Cuban business and political progress in the post-revolution era, the course culminates in a week-long trip to the Caribbean Island in an attempt to answer this question. By visiting Cuba, we will better understand what the future will look like, and what influence and opportunities foreign investors might have.

As a self-proclaimed travel junkie, I have never been so unsure what to expect from visiting a different country. Sure, there will be amazing food, a rich and vibrant culture, and vintage cars from the mid-20th century, but what else will I encounter? I have been told that there will be limited internet (if any), no cell phones, no use of credit cards, a 10% fee when exchanging USD to Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC)…but how will we be welcomed by Cuban professionals and government officials after over 50 years of travel sanctions? How will our ability to experience Cuba be molded by a country whose government is deeply involved in everything from real estate to healthcare to tourism?

While I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to find out; how excited I am to enjoy Cuban food and cigars, to interact with the locals, to learn from business owners, to immerse myself in this time capsule of a place before its transformation occurs.

And before I signoff, I wanted to pass along a few travel tips for anyone out there who’s looking to go to Cuba in the near future. This is what I know from research so far, but I look forward to passing along ‘pro’ tips from the island.

  1. Visa: While CBS helped me get an Educational Visa, you’ll need to get one of the 12 approved categories for Visa before you go (and a supporting itinerary). Full list here.
  2. Hotel: Had CBS not booked the Hotel Melia Cohiba for this trip, I would have used Airbnb or Four Points By Sheraton Havana to book a vacation rental.
  3. Money: Stick with CUCs over the Cuba Pesos (CUP) because CUPs have government controlled prices and are not intended for tourists (not to mention CUCs are 25x more valuable than CUPs). In case you get confused. CUCs have monuments on them, while Cuban Pesos feature the faces of local heroes (or check the links I provided above. Also, your best bet at exchanging money is at the airport, so to avoid the 10% tax on converting USD to CUC, bring Canadian dollars, British pounds, or Euros. Additionally, as noted above, credit cards probably won’t work yet so bring enough cash to cover your entire trip. Finally, there is a 25 CUC exit fee to leave Cuba, so don’t forget to store this money in your passport to ensure you don’t miss your departing flight.
  4. Internet and Cell Phones: You should be able to buy internet cards from your hotel’s reception desk, but understand that the speed will be slow (good luck streaming video) and the front desk may be closed or out of these cards when you need them (unless you stay at Hotel Melia Cohib, which offers free internet). While other providers may have plan options, AT&T did not for me, so I’m planning to be mostly incommunicado during my trip.
  5. Souvenirs: Previously, you could only bring back $400 worth of souvenirs, of which $100 could be Cuban cigars, rum, or other alcohol. However, as of October 2016, those limits have been lifted, so just don’t bring back enough to seem like you’re planning to sell them when you return.
  6. Health: Upon arrival at the Havana airport, you may be asked to show proof of insurance, so don’t forget your insurance card (even though it probably won’t cover any care you’d need in Cuba). If you do forget, you can buy a policy through the airport for a few CUCs per day. Once through customs, Cuba is fairly safe in terms of food, but I would recommend avoiding tap water and being careful when trying new foods. To be safe, check the CDC website.

 #CBSChazen #CBSChazenCuba #GIPCuba