Reflexiones después de regresar de Cuba (Reflections after returning from Cuba)

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.

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Our class in Cuba, photo courtesy of Adam Fu

“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

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Oliver and Ron, photo courtesy of Oliver Noteware

“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

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Stephanie, TJ. and Tatiana, photo courtesy of Adam Fu
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Natasha, Teresa, Isobel, and Silvana, photo courtesy of Adam Fu

“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

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Marc and Jefferson at organic farm, photo courtesy of Laila Marouf
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Teresa and Laila, photo courtesy of Laila Marouf
Photo Mar 15, 7 15 56 PM photo by Silvana
Michele and Tatiana, photo courtesy of Silvana Ordonez

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!

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Professor Meier, Maggie Hopkins (Chazen), and our class, photo courtesy of Adam Fu

La Habana (Havana)

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.

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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.

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La Guarida Owner, Enrique Nunez
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View of Havana from La Guarida

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.

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Cuban Artist, Mabel Poblet

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.

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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.

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Our class with members of the Cuban Baseball Federation at Estadio Latinoamericano. (Photo courtesy of Maggie Hopkins)

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!

 

Cienfuegos, Trinidad, y finalmente, Havana.

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

Reflexiones antes de llegar a Cuba (Reflections before arriving in Cuba)

Anna Aagenes ‘18

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.

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Cienfuegos, Source: Full Compass Guides

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.

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.

Understanding Cuba

Understanding Cuba

Adam Norris ‘17

It’s been a whirlwind of a week here in Havana, jam packed with incredible speakers, paladares, and experiences (not to mention Mojitos and Cuba Libres #welcomedrinks). Here is a summary of some of the most interesting topics we’ve learned about so far, and some travel trips for anyone planning their own adventure to Cuba in the future.

Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical: Unlike most Caribbean countries, Cuba has a productive and successful pharmaceutical sector focused on the diseases most common to Cuban citizens (specifically diabetes and cardiology). The origination of this success was Fidel Castro’s interest in healthcare as he dedicated over $1B in government funds since the 1990’s, and would often visit research facilities to check in on their progress. In 1998, to facilitate drug development, doctors in Cuba were granted permission to get internet at work, a rare benefit for Cubans. Unfortunately, this has not been enough to keep the most promising talent from immigrating abroad for higher paying opportunities.

Rum: What would a visit to Cuba be without a trip to a rum museum. The most famous rum in Cuba is Havana Club, closely followed by up-and-coming Santiago de Cuba. Fueled by the ‘Special Period’ of post-USSR Cuba, the food industry was opened to foreign investment that allowed locally-owned HCI (Havana Club International) to partner with French-owned Pernod Ricard. In 1993, Havana Club produced rum for export only, as the delicious nectar was not available for local consumption until 2003. Today, HCI employs over 500 Cuban employees, produces over 4M 9-liter cases per year, and boasts a vibrant social media marketing campaign.

In case you are unfamiliar with the rum creation process, it begins with sugar cane, which is run through a machine that essentially squeezes all the juice (guarapo) from the stock. The guarapo is then heated to separate sugar crystals from the molasses light Cuban rum comes from. From there, the molasses is fermented and distilled, creating aguardiente or an unaged distilled liquor. Next, aguardiente is stored in 15-year-old barrels for at least three years before being bottled and distributed. Finally, whenever you open a new bottle of Cuban rum, it is customary to pour out the first drops ‘for the saints’ before enjoying.

And now, for some travel tips…

  1. Places to eat: Overall, the food in Cuba was underwhelming (especially among state-run restaurants), but a few gems really stick out.
    1. La Guarida is a can’t miss restaurant with delicious food served in an old home that is slowly being refurbished. Don’t forget to roll through the roof-top patio bar for breathtaking views of Havana after dinner as well.
    2. Chansonnier also stands out among the rest with solid meat and fish offerings in a renovated multi-room paladar.
    3. Finally, Rio Mar was a big hit for lunch if you’re in the mood for seafood. Try to get a table outside for lunch and enjoy the water-side view.
  2. Things to do: While our trip was primarily academic in nature, we were able to get out of the meeting room for a few can’t miss sites.
    1. In case this wasn’t clear in an earlier post, Viñales is a must-visit if you’re traveling to Cuba. With large caves and tobacco farms along the way, it’s a great opportunity to get out of Havana and experience the Cuban countryside.
    2. If you like live music and over-the-top costumes, Tropicana is a must. While it’s a bit pricey at 85cuc per ticket, it does include a bottle of Havana Club for every four patrons, along with cigars for men and flowers for women.
    3. We also went to Buena Vista Social Club, but this show caters towards an older crowd or families with children. Even so, the music here is also great.
    4. Spend the 50cuc for an hour driving around Havana in an American-made convertible from the mid-1900s. If you ask, the driver will pump up the local tunes as you navigate the city streets and earn the jealous eye of everyone you pass.
    5. While I haven’t been there yet, I plan to stop by Floridita later today to get Ernest Hemingway’s token drink: The Double Pappa Daiquiri. According to my tour guide, this is essentially a daiquiri with twice as much rum, making it easier for the diabetic Hemingway to tip ‘em back at his favorite spot. A huge tourist attraction, try it at an off hour to get your picture with Hemingway’s stature before moving on to other activities.

It’s been an absolute pleasure writing you all from Havana, Cuba and I look forward to passing along the largest lessons learned and opportunities for economic, political, and social growth in Cuba in my final post from the US.

#whycbs #havanagoodtime #cbschazen #GIPCubatropicana17

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