Reflections on Cuba at a Point of Inflection

We’ve been back in New York for a few days, and Cuba is dominating the news cycle. That, of course, is due to President Obama’s historic visit to the island nation (and thankfully not to any of our shenanigans), which drew significant attention to the cooling of relations between the U.S. and our island neighbor. After a few days of reflection on our experiences in Cuba, I can’t help but be hopeful that we are on the precipice of a new era of American-Cuban relations.

Cuba faces many challenges beyond the U.S. embargo, but its economic liberalization is no doubt hamstrung by an inability to conduct commerce with the largest economy in not only its region, but also by many measures the world. It was discouraging to see time and again last week how an outdated relic of Cold War of foreign policy affects so many people on a daily basis. True, some industries seem just fine without the U.S. market, such as we saw in a very sharp and professional presentation from Havana Club rum, but others very much struggle to find a foothold. Hotels grapple with supply chain and logistics, foreign direct investment grows slowly, and a huge, modern port has tremendous excess capacity.

Given recent events, it seems that momentum may be swinging against the embargo. Yet, having lived most of my adult life in Miami, my Facebook newsfeed saw no shortage of vitriol from friends (and more often friends of friends) of Cuban descent as President Obama made his rounds in Havana. The wounds of the revolution still fester for many Cuban-Americans, and I wonder if any progress can possibly be made towards repeal as long as a Castro remains in power. Raul has announced plans to step down in 2018, and the uncertainty that follows may hold the key to the shackles tying U.S.-Cuba relations to a bygone era.

Still, as we walked the streets of Havana last week, enjoying the burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene, perhaps the most common sentiment we heard from the many locals who welcomed us on the streets was that “we can separate the policies of the American government from the American people.” The mass of tourists on the street was met not with angst but exuberance. Most Cubans with whom we interacted seemed genuinely excited to see Americans among them once again. So, while the lessons of history will surely affect the future of American-Cuban relations, and many sticking points may exist between and within our two governments, there is no doubt that the American and Cuban peoples are neighbors. Perhaps in the coming years we will finally be able to interact as friendly neighbors again.

 

Mark Adelman ’16

Cuba aims to knock it out of the port

Our visits with company and government officials have progressed over the past few days in Cuba with a range of opinions from a variety of industries, perhaps most intriguingly, from management at the new port at Mariel and officials from the Cuban baseball federation.

While the intricacies of shipping containerization are not my expertise, our host, the British-born port GM employed by a Singaporean company that manages the port, shared both the fundamentals of the industry as well as why he believes Cuba’s Mariel is well-positioned to be a tremendous player in global shipping. As a quick overview: a soon-to-be completed updating of the Panama Canal will allow for larger ships to pass through the canal bound for various ports in the Southeastern U.S. and Eastern Seaboard, some of which cannot accommodate the largest modern container ships. Positioned essentially along the way to the U.S. from Panama, Mariel seeks to become a hub and spoke of sorts for receiving these ships and transferring to smaller vessels to maximize time and fuel efficiencies.

The port is glistening and modern, with plenty of excess capacity for growth and tremendously ample room to expand if and when the embargo is lifted. Yet with an embargo restriction called the Toricelli Act preventing ships that dock in Cuba from visiting the United States for six months, the payoff of this investment ultimately lies with embargo repeal. This port has been a major investment for the government and carries a potentially high payoff, but until trade with the U.S. normalizes, it quite a risky upfront capital investment.

Cuban baseball, meanwhile, faces vastly different challenges from the embargo. The island is baseball crazy, and due in part to its well-organized federation produces a wealth of talent worthy of handsome sums of money from American Major League Baseball teams (Google Yoenis Cespedes cars if you don’t believe me). Yet, due to embargo restrictions, Cuban players must defect and establish residence in a third country before being eligible to sign in the United States. This has led players to seek help from questionable sources to smuggle themselves out the country. A lifted embargo would allow a structured system to be put in place, perhaps like the posting system used by Japanese baseball. Yet there are also fears that a proud Cuban baseball league might become little more than a farm system for Major League Baseball, though many would argue defections have made that the case already.

The embargo remains the primary lens through which business is seen in this country. As our trip winds down, the remaining views will undoubtedly reflect similar challenges.

Beaches and embargoes fight for perspective on our first days in Cuba

On Sunday afternoon, I looked up to the sky as I stepped onto the fine, pillow-soft sand at the beach in the Varedero region of Cuba. Not a cloud to be found in any direction above the shimmering sun-drenched waters on this pristine spring day. I walk to the edge of the sand where, nestled in the sawgrass, is a bar. As I wade out mojito in hand to meet friends in the water, I know authoritatively that this is the single greatest day of class in my academic career.

Of course, the week has largely not been spent relaxing with a beverage in hand. Our first few days on the island have included a variety of views on the unique political and economic situations in which Cuba finds itself. We’ve heard from a range of speakers including a historian, a hotel manager, a former diplomat, and the former Finance Minister. The viewpoints have quite honestly been more candid than many of us expected. There is no blind eye turned to the troubling trade deficit, nor do they shy away from the looming demographic crisis of Cuba’s ageing population that, while educated, may not have the most marketable skill sets for the modern global economy. Each speaker is cognizant of and acknowledges many of the challenges Cuba faces in its economic transformation.

However, the role of the American economic embargo sews a common thread through most opinions. Many objective observers would agree that the embargo policy ultimately was unsuccessful and has greatly hindered the Cuba’s economic development, but there is sentiment among our speakers that once the embargo is lifted Cuba will blast off into economic revival. While this is a certain possibility, the other issues facing this nation are powerful, and must be confronted with new solutions and a continued liberalization of economic policies. As the trip moves forward, opinions on the embargo as it affects each industry will no doubt be top of mind among our class as it is top of mind for this nation.

A Cuba Visit 15 Years in the Making

When I was 13, a Cuban café opened near my house. Despite living just more than 200 miles from Havana in Southwest Florida, those Saturday lunches of ropa vieja and maduros were my first real exposure to Cuban culture. Nonetheless, I’m ultimately a simple man with a pathway to my heart that runs directly through my stomach, so my interest in Cuban culture was piqued.

While food drove this interest for the next few years (colada was the first coffee I ever enjoyed), living in Miami from age 17-25 provided ample opportunity to deepen my connection to Cuban culture. From formal study of Cuban Cold War history as an undergraduate to casual learning about my friends’ experiences as Cuban American children of expats over cigars and dominoes, those nine years in Miami created an ever-growing desire to visit the island just a few miles to the south.

So on the eve of this long-awaited trip to Cuba, my anticipation is matched only by my consternation as to what comes next for the homeland of many of my Miami neighbors. While much has been made of Cuban-American détente over the past 15 months, it remains unclear if we are on the cusp of a new era of Cuban prosperity or a gradual slide into a one-dimensional, tourism-centric economy like that of too many of Cuba’s neighbors.

Over the past six weeks our class has heard from a variety of experts whose expectations range from nearly unbridled optimism to dejected acceptance of a dismal future for the Cuban economy. Now, we will learn first-hand over the next week from those on ground who can offer another perspective. We will meet with government officials, restauranteurs, hoteliers, and (of course) cigar producers among other segments of industry to learn about commerce in Cuba as it is and what the future might hold. Internet access allowing, I will post updates along the way.

While tourists across the world scramble to visit Cuba before it changes, I can’t help but feel lucky to visit as it changes. No one can say when the embargo might be lifted, or how a country steeped in nearly three generations of communism can compete in a global economy, but the opportunity to see this unfold in a country with such potential is undoubtedly exciting. And of course the fresh pastelitos won’t hurt.

 

-Mark Adelman ’16

Economic, Cultural, and Ethnic Diversity in Emerging Indonesia

With a full week back in New York to reflect on my experiences in Indonesia, I can’t help but dwell on the implications of the stark differences between our time in Jakarta and Bali. The more I reminisce on our robust economic discussions with the Minister of Finance and breadth of market leadership of the Lippo Group, the more the contrast with the rich cultural adventure we had in Bali begins to crystalize into several interesting takeaways about Indonesia.

  1. Despite its size and potential, Indonesia faces difficult challenges to establishing itself as an economic powerhouse. If a visitor saw only Jakarta, he might walk away thinking Indonesia needs just an investment in infrastructure to establish itself as an economic power. However, the night and day contrast with Bali highlights the geographic fragmentation of the nation, which is much more daunting challenge nationwide than the infrastructure in the capital. For instance, e-commerce is a tremendous area of interest, but can a company like Amazon truly offer two-day shipping to 6,000 inhabited islands each with its own infrastructure issues?
  2. That said, Jakarta may be poised to compete as a regional center of business. I left Jakarta with a strong interest in visiting Singapore and seeing how a more developed Southeast Asian city economy operates. While there are geographic hurdles for the nation as a whole, Jakarta’s infrastructure challenges seem manageable with shrewd planning and wisely-utilized investment. It seems, anecdotally, as though Indonesian talent may be staying or returning home more than in recent history, indicating that the minds may be there to make Jakarta a player in the region.
  3. The challenges Indonesia doesn’t face are as interesting as the ones they do face. Indonesia is a country that is very ethnically diverse and features a tremendous array of cultures and dialects. In addition, it has the largest population of Muslim people in the world, as about 88% of its 250 million people practice Islam. In the 21st century, many other countries that fit these profiles are facing issues of disjointed populations, civil unrest or violence, religious extremism, and other cultural challenges that prevent economic issues from being addressed. This is not the case in Indonesia. Despite cultural differences, Indonesia is largely a unified, harmonious country whose issues are economic, not civic. This speaks volume about the people of this country and its future prospects.

This trip was a great first experience for me in Asia. The opportunity to learn so much about the business environment in an emerging market combined with the utterly unique cultural experience of the Balinese New Year celebrations made for memories I will cherish for years to come. If current or prospective students reading this blog have any doubts about the Chazen experience, I can promise it is among the most enriching I have had.

A tale of two trips: natural beauty and Nyepi in Bali

It took about 30 hours to travel from New York to Jakarta. It took about one hour to travel from Jakarta to Bali. When we landed in Bali, if felt like the second trip had taken us further. We had heard that Indonesia is an extremely multicultural country, but witnessing the divergence between these two regions separated by just about 750 miles was an eye-opening experience.

From the first step out of the airport, it felt like a another world. Lush greenery, shimmering blue waters, cloudless skies unscraped by buildings, scaffolding, and the developmental signs of an emerging economy. The only evident emergence was a need for sunscreen.

It's green in Bali
It’s green in Bali

While nearly 90% of Indonesians are Muslim, most Balinese practice a local form of Hinduism, bearing deep effects on the culture and cuisine of the island. We saw this quickly as we dined on suckling pig prepared several ways for lunch and cooled down with cold Bintangs, a popular Indonesian beer.

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Babi Guling and Lawar. Balinese roast pork. Delicious.

 

The character of the trip was instantly different. From visits to a Hindu water temple and a park to feed monkeys to a traditional Balinese dance recital and a dip in the Indian Ocean, it was almost baffling that just the day before we were discussing tax incentives for investment and strategies for raising the collection base with the finance minister. The challenges of infrastructure in an emerging economy felt worlds away on this picturesque island marked by such unique culture.

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Purifying the sacred springs of a water temple

 

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The natural spring at the water temple

 

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Afternoon snack with new friends

 

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Maybe better friends than some of us hoped

 

No experience better embodied this than the preparations and parades for Nyepi, the Balinese New Year. Nyepi involves several days of preparation culminating with a day of silence symbolizing purification for the New Year. During the day of silence the entire island shuts down and tourists are not to leave their resorts (was not a problem with how beautiful our resort was), but the night before includes parades in every village. The children of these villages spend weeks building Ogoh Ogoh, demon statues made of bamboo frames that are destroyed at the end of the night. To be quite honest, being at this parade was a once in a lifetime cultural experience that I never dreamed I might witness. Undoubtedly a #WhyCBS moment.

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They put big time work into these Ogoh Ogoh

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Electric Ogoh Ogoh
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Our resort. This is a school trip. Seriously.
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It was snowing in New York as I took this picture.
 

The day of silence was extremely relaxing at the Mulia resort. Hours by the pool, a little tennis, a lavish dinner, and good times with great friends new and old. One of the most relaxing and enjoyable days I have had in a long time. GDP per capita didn’t cross my mind once.

Growth, Issues, and Infrastructure in Jakarta

With travel delays behind me, I arrived in Jakarta on Monday night in time to join my classmates for a family style Indonesian dinner before retiring to the single nicest hotel in which I have ever stayed. Well done, Mandarin Oriental, you’ve found yourselves a new brand advocate.

Seriously though, this view, with $40 massages.
Seriously though, this view, with $40 massages.
Fish head stew, sauteed beef, chicken, and all kinds of Indonesian goodness
Fish head stew, sauteed beef, chicken, and all kinds of Indonesian goodness

As we settled in for our days of meetings, we learned a little background on our host nation. Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world by population, and actually is a G20 economy, but has seen uneven periods of growth over the years under different political regimes and macroeconomic conditions. Geographically, it consists of more than 17,000 islands, roughly 6,000 of which are occupied, that spread a wider range than the US coast to coast. About 10% of the population lives in Jakarta, a developed cosmopolitan city of skyscrapers.

This is not a small island nation
This is not a small island nation

Our roster of meetings in Jakarta had a wide range, from a public school, to public officials, to a social network and a state-owned bank. Yet across these many meetings, several recurring issues facing Indonesia as they posture for growth continually arose.

During our 3 days of visits we had the opportunity to meet with the following firms/officials

  • An elementary school
  • Saratoga Capital, a private equity firm
  • The Governor of Jakarta
  • Lippo group, a diversified conglomerate that has market leading entities in telecom, retail, and other industries
  • Mandiri Bank, the largest bank in Indonesia
  • Astra International, another large conglomerate in manufacturing, automotive, commodities and infrastructure
  • The Minister of Finance for Indonesia
  • Kaskus, a social network/tech startup of sorts with strong engagement among Indoesians
Taking selfies with Jakarta's governor
Taking selfies with Jakarta’s governor
Ok so the selfie stick was kind of a thing. This time with John Riady, Director of Lippo Group
Ok so the selfie stick was kind of a thing. This time with John Riady, Director of Lippo Group
Storytelling at an Indonesian elementary school
Storytelling at an Indonesian elementary school

While these officials and business leaders all offered their own perspectives on the country at large as well as their individual challenges, several overarching themes emerged. There is nearly universal agreement that Indonesia is an economy with tremendous potential that is currently unmet. Recent growth in the middle class and expanding internet penetration could help this country move its economic rankings closer to its population rankings. However, there are serious issues impeding this movement.

For one, corruption has historically been an issue, though the new regime seems intent on curbing it. Further, infrastructure is a tremendous challenge both in the capital and across the nation. Jakarta lacks effective public transport and its roads are a perpetual logjam of disorganized traffic. On the trip from the airport to the hotel, we saw a man walk up to the driver’s door of a public bus and take over for the driver, who walked across the street to the mall. No one on the bus seemed to find this unusual.

From a national infrastructure perspective, several companies with which we met saw ecommerce as an area of huge potential in Indonesia, yet no one appeared to have an answer for the logistical challenges of making deliveries to 6,000 islands in a country without reliable postal service. Nor did they have much of an answer for how domestic players could compete with the Alibabas and Amazons of the world if they chose to enter Indonesia.

Castrol did a study that found Jakarta's traffic worst in the world. After sitting in this, we believe it.
Castrol did a study that found Jakarta’s traffic worst in the world. After sitting in this, we believe it.

Our meetings in Jakarta were hugely educational and leave me with a tremendous interest in this high potential economy moving forward, yet the obstacles Indonesia must overcome are formidable, and many in our group question how they will be tackled. Nonetheless the public officials with which we met were undoubtedly charismatic and aware of their nation’s issues. As such, Indonesia will be an exciting economy to follow in the coming years.

#ChazenOHare #ChazenNaritaAirportHotel

#ChazenOHare #ChazenNaritaAirportHotel

Ok, tough start to the trip for my classmate Nitash and me. We both were late additions to the trip, got a steal on roundtrip flights with a different airline than most others took, and got what we paid for, in retrospect.

We kicked it off with a delay for an hour on the tarmac getting out of Laguardia. No worries; our flight from O’Hare to Tokyo was delayed due to a mechanical problem anyway. After switchimg planes and a two hour delay, it was going to make for a VERY tight connection in Tokyo, but no real problem.

So we board on the replacement plane (which I’m positive did not have the amenities of the airlines our classmates took – I mean look at that remote), wait an hour, and deplane due to mechanical issues. 0 for 2.

Plane remote
Only the most cutting edge technology on this flight.

After several more hours of waiting, the third plane proves to be the charm and we finally depart for Tokyo with no hope making our connection. Instead we get a ticket for a flight the next morning and a room at a Narita airport hotel.

I just wish I wasn’t too jet lagged to use it.

Doesn't that bed look ravaged from a night of tossing and turning?
Doesn’t that bed look ravaged from a night of tossing and turning?

Nonetheless we arrived safely in Jakarta in time for dinner with our classmates and ended up missing only two events and two mall visits. Here’s to a smoother rest of the trip!

7 Days in Indonesia

I’ve never been to Asia before. Actually, living in Miami and Southwest Florida for most of my life, I hadn’t even known very many Asian people. Broadening my social network was huge attraction of Columbia Business School, and the opportunity to make friends from all over the world has been an incredible experience. One that tomorrow morning will become even more amazing when I travel with my friend and clustermate Aphrodita, a native Indonesian, and 18 other students to Jakarta and Bali for Chazen Indonesia.

The anticipation for this trip has been tremendous. Excitement over the wide range of companies and government officials we will be meeting. Awe of the natural beauty we expect across the country. Disbelief at the incredible properties at which we are staying (seriously, wait for the pictures). A touch of anxiety over the 27 hours of travel to get there. Confusion as to what exactly “cat poo coffee” is, and why we will want to spend $8 on a cup.

I’m told the aromas are powerful

My mind has been racing with excitement about this trip for weeks now, but two aspects of the experience stand out as most interesting: batik and Nyepi.

Having lived most of my life in tropical climes, I can attest to how sweaty a business suit can be on a hot day, but our itinerary calls for plenty of business formal. Enter batik, a traditional pattern that is found on lightweight, open-collar shirts and dresses. This traditional garment is acceptable wear for westerners in formal situations. We all plan to purchase one there, and some guys are planning to skip the sport coat all together.

If Batik is good enough for Bill Clinton, it’s good enough for us.

Then, while in Bali, we are lucky enough to be present for Nyepi, the New Year’s celebration for the Balinese style of Hinduism. While the day itself is something of a day of atonement during which the entire island shuts down and many locals take day-long vows of silence, the celebrations on the eve of Nyepi promise to be a once-in-a-lifetime cultural experience. Some Balinese people make statues of bamboo and paper to symbolize the demons of the past year, which are then paraded around the village and burned. Truly a cultural experience unlike any I have experienced.

Ogoh Ogoh, the demon statues for the Nyepi celebrations

These experiences should amount to a spring break journey unlike any other. I am excited to share more of our adventures and meetings as the trip progresses, but until then, I am very behind on my packing.

-Mark Adelman ’16