Asi Es Cuba

In case you missed them, take a look at our prior posts.

School pride on the walking tour of Havana

It’s been a little over a week since the last of us returned from Cuba and it’s safe to say that – at least for us first-time Habaneros – no amount of classroom time could have prepared us for what we found. Textbook accounts of political and social challenges can never replace conversations with local business owners as they recount their struggles to purchase basic supplies. Similarly, pictures of the Malecón highway could not diminish the surreality of seeing roadways filled with classic American cars.

Through speakers and company visits, we were exposed to a side of Cuba that few are able to see. Moreover, it’s a side of Cuba that may very well cease to exist should the economic transition continue. However, for all its flaws and all its beauty – we fall back to Asi es Cuba. Nothing quite compares.

As for the questions we prepared prior to leaving…

How do the Cuban people view their neighbors? The U.S.? Venezuela?

Old Cuba may have spent most of its energy antagonizing the U.S. and forging alliances with fellow communist states, but New Cuba maintains a relatively positive focus on domestic development in spite of the Bloqueo. In fact, I would say one of our strongest takeaways from the week relates to just how much damage the embargo does to the Cuban people.

Title III of the Helms Burton Act allows U.S. companies to sue firms (Cuban or other) for “trafficking” in expropriated Cuban property. While Title III has historically been suspended by every U.S. President (until our current one, possibly), it is sufficient to make foreign investors wary of involving themselves too heavily in business on the island.

Further, the embargo does a massive disservice to cuentapropistas. Since Obama, Cuban entrepreneurs have been able to sell their goods in the U.S. Their products, however, are still subject to extremely high tariff rates – in some cases, up to 90%. The only other country with “Column 2” status under the U.S. International Trade Commission’s Harmonized Tariff Schedule is North Korea. As expressed by some cuentapropistas, the U.S. claims to support Cuban entrepreneurs while its policies seem to only make the life of a cuentapropista more difficult.

That being said, all seem to recognize that there is still plenty more the Cuban government must do to safeguard the growth of industry on the island. U.S. policy does not help matters, but it would be unfair to assert that the U.S. should shoulder all of the blame.

Pre-revolution ride

How has life changed since the introduction of 3G cellular service on the island? What has stayed the same?

3G cellular service has had an undeniable impact on the availability of information in Cuba. For a population that once relied on a network of hard drives (dubbed, El Paquete) in order to disseminate information, WiFi was a game-changer. It stands to reason, therefore, that 3G service would have a similar impact on the mobility and accessibility of data – especially given the struggle to access WiFi networks on the island.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Cuba if there weren’t a handful of associated challenges. For one, not everyone can afford a phone or SIM card – and service isn’t available everywhere. Beyond that, a large portion of apps and internet services are blocked from use due to the embargo. The Apple app store is unavailable, as is our beloved Canvas (which made uploading an assignment very difficult for our author).

Sorry, Professor. My cash flow model got embargoed.

How do private citizens view themselves in the context of broader economic reforms? Is it a “reform or out” mentality? Or is there a “third way” between capitalism and Cuba’s communist past?

Cubans want private property, and they’re very glad that their new constitution recognizes this as a right. Now they want to make sure the government will defend this right to property as well as create a system by which individuals can grow their wealth. This trip certainly helped cement the innate human desire to create and the drive to achieve some level of ownership in life – the natural expression of which is entrepreneurship.

While Cubans are setting up their own businesses and appreciate the material benefits of capitalism, they are – by and large – proud of certain achievements in their history. The quality of their public health system, all things considered, is something that merits close examination. Moreover, Fidel’s vision for Cuba truly did create a racially diverse and relatively non-divisive society. Cubans don’t want to lose these tangible and intangible qualities that make their nation unique. Even worse would be a return to the rampant economic inequality of the pre-revolution days. While New Cuba seems to be defined by a desire to build and reform industry on the island, we certainly did not get the impression that Cubans as a whole are striving for full-blown, American-style capitalism.

And I’m sure they’d like to keep their cars, too.

With our questions answered and our “Bucket List” items checked off, we say goodbye to Cuba and hope to return very soon!

Until the next time…

Casey Buckley is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Philippines: Reflections

The Philippines is not your typical  Asian country. We were often reminded that the Philippines is a country that spent “300 years in a convent, and 50 years in Hollywood”. This phrase is commonly used to describe the countries colonial rule by Spain and then the United States. This rich history adds to the country’s cultural diversity! I am always excited to learn about a country’s culture and its people, and especially the food. I’ve enjoyed Filipino people and its food from the United States, and it was an honor to experience this first hand.

7 days, 20 business meetings, 30 classmates, 1 professor – lots of learning and lots of laughs. We learned how there are various businesses and activities engaging in the pursuit for progress for the Philippines, and the following areas were common themes as we learned more Filipino culture and business:

FinTech – There is a rise in FinTech businesses across the Philippines. Presently 3 out of 10 Filipinos have a bank account, and the remainder keeps their savings in their homes. 68% of financial institutions are pawn shops. Digital payments are low, and consumers take advantage of cash on delivery payments. There are currently a lot of ventures focusing on this space such as Coins.PH focusing on meeting the needs of consumers who do not have bank accounts.

Telecommunications: The Philippines has a population of over 105M people, and about 67M people have access to the internet. The Philippines spends about 4 hours on social media on average (compared to 2 hours in the US). With the average age of Filipino Citizens hovering around 24, the internet and social media will continue to play an active role in politics and the rise of many industries.

Tourism: During our last day, we visited Bohol, the 10th largest island in the Philippines, and home to many resorts. We learned about the tourism industry. Tourism is forecasted to be one of the largest industries in the Philippines. In Bohol, there are many programs in place to help support this growing industry, such as a local school where students grades 8-12 can take part in the Turo-Tourism program and prepare to work in local resorts.

The Philippines is forecasted to be the 16th largest economy by 2050, and I look forward to visiting the Philippines long before then to witness the greatness that lies ahead!

Jacinta James (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Taste of the Philippines!

Day 2 of the Philippines began at the home of Secretary Mar Roxas. with a Filipino style breakfast prepared by Asia’s Best Female Chef, Chef Margarita Fores (affectionately known as Tita Margarita). Breakfast was comprised of Garlic Rice, Chorizo, Lumpia, Mangos and more! While different from a traditional American breakfast, you could tell that the group embraced it, as at the end, all of the plates were clean!

Immediately after our breakfast meeting with Senator Mar Roxas, we proceeded to a local farmers’ market, that was a few minutes walk from our initial starting point. At each stop, Tita Margarita gave us a colorful explanation of each food item and then often followed by a demonstration from the local vendors.

Keep on reading for highlights from our tour!

Stop 1: Filipino Fruits!!

Upon entrance of the market, we were greeted with lots of colorful fruits. Our fruit taste test began with mangos, locally referred to as mangaa, the Philippine’s national fruit. We then had samples of the following fruits: Lanzones, Chico, and Guyabano, which is also known for its “miracle” properties.

Stop 2: Coconut Milk + Coconut Water

We then moved to the part of the market where we watched the process of taking coconuts to create coconut milk. The coconut milk was both very creamy and flavorful. We then observed the process to cut young coconuts to obtain coconut water. Tita Margarita reminded us that coconut water is a good beverage choice after a long, late night (wink wink) due to its natural hydrating properties.

Stop 3: Lumpia

At breakfast, we had our first taste of Lumpia, a spring roll native to the Philippines. Lumpia could take shape as either a sweet or savory snack. At the market, we observed the process of creating a lumpia wrapper. The process was similar to the creation of a crepe. Lumpia wrapper is traditionally made with egg, flour, and water with a bit of salt mixed into a wet dough. We watched the chef take the ball of dough and press it into a large heated metal plate several times, to make the wrapper.

Stop 5: Yellow Fin Tuna (and more)

We then entered into the “wet” portion of the market. Upon entrance we were greeted by a very large yellow fin tuna fish. Where we learned that this fish is typically exported to Japan. We had the opportunity to taste the tuna, along with some shrimp and crab, ceviche styled.

To close, we then offered parting gifts! We had local treats to take away, for us to munch on while we were in route to the day’s company visits, as well as a straw bag and hat as souvenirs!

To follow along with us, stay tuned for more blog posts from me (Jacinta James), and be sure to follow our journey on Instagram @columbiachazen.

Off to the Happiest Country on Earth!


That’s right— The United Nation’s World Happiness Report had ranked Denmark the Happiest Country on Earth between 2013 to 2015, with Sweden rounding off the Top 10. 

Before starting off the MBA at Columbia Business School, I had been told by several students in the Family Business Club that the Global Immersion Tour to the Nordic countries was definitely going to be a trip that couldn’t be missed. With everyone’s glowing recommendations in mind, I knew that this was going to be one of the immersive CBS experiences that I would have to most definitely have to be a part of. Finally, after five weeks of in-depth learnings into Nordic Family Business Enterprises, our group of 26 Columbia Business School students, will finally begin our Global Immersion Tour to the Nordic region. The week-long tour will kick off in Copenhagen, Denmark, and will continue on to Stockholm, Sweden.

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Over the past few weeks, our class has had the opportunity to learn everything from political, economical, and family business trends in the Nordic region, to various aspects of Multi-generational Nordic Family Enterprises.  With guest speakers such as Anna Throne-Holst (granddaughter of Marabou founder) and CBS alumnus Nikolai Jensen (from the Jensen group), the class was also able to gain in depth insights into family politics in Nordic family enterprises, and how the region’s culture had affected certain aspects of the business, such as governance and succession.

For some of the students in the class, this would not only be their first time in the Nordic region, but also their first time to have taken or been exposed to a family business course during the MBA. Professor Patricia Angus had stressed the importance of understanding ideas such as the Three-Circle Model, to better understand the dynamics in a family business, as well as certain inheritance laws, and stakeholder theories that make doing family business in the Nordic region so unique to other countries. All of which will be extremely valuable when visiting and learning from various Nordic companies, and meeting influential individuals from family business such as Peter Wallenberg, who was recently at CBS’ Family Business Conference, which was held at Columbia University last February 9th.

Our extensive five-week preparation, and exploration into Nordic heritage will surely be an asset to all of us, as we gear up for a week of intense immersion into the region’s culture, which should allow all of us the chance to exchange our ideas and insights on the highly innovative Nordic countries, and how they have uplifted the entire region to an aspirational status.

I’m excited to share all our new experiences and learnings from our 2018 Nordic Tour!

-Marty Lopez ‘18

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

Istanbul: Travel Basics

Foreigners at Istanbul Atatürk Airport wait in line to get a Turkish visa.Photo: Aziza Jamgerchinova (c) 2012
Foreigners at Istanbul Atatürk Airport wait in line to get a Turkish visa.
Photo: Aziza Jamgerchinova (c) 2013

By Aziza Jamgerchinova

For most students in the Global Immersion Program group, the first encounter with Turkey will be Istanbul Ataturk Airport. It is named for the founder of the modern Turkish republic, whose portrait you will see not only on the Turkish currency but also in many offices we will visit during the weeklong trip. The airport is a sleek modern facility with flights to all major destinations around the world. Americans need a visa to enter Turkey. The visa can be purchased at the airport, just prior to going through passport control. The current price of the visa is $20 and can be paid in cash. Once you get your visa and the passport stamped it’s a short walk to the baggage carousels. One annoyance is that the luggage carts are not free of charge as they are in many Western airports. Good luck getting Turkish lira coins at this point. Once you exit into the main airport concourse, you will find ATMs, local desks of Citibank and HSBC, and even a Starbucks in case you urgently need a caffeine fix.

Taxis are the easiest way to get to Grand Hyatt Istanbul where our group is staying. They run on meters, and taxi drivers know enough English to understand where you need to go. However, as a foreigner you might be somehow overcharged or taken on a longer route. A cab fare from Ataturk airport to Taksim takes about 20 minutes without traffic and costs around 50 New Turkish Lira (TRY), or roughly $28. During rush hour both the fare and the length of the trip expand. Taxi rates after midnight and before 6 a.m. are 1.5 times higher.

For those seeking an adventure or traveling on a budget, consider the subway that connects the airport to central Istanbul. Enter the subway station on the lower level of the airport by taking an escalator down to the basement of the main concourse. The subway fare is 1 TRY, or about 60 cents, and does not depend on the distance traveled. A subway ride to Taksim, a trendy neighborhood where we are staying, will take about 45 minutes. The trains are comfortable clean and safe. Expect curious passengers to be staring at you most of the time, and a few brave ones may even ask you some questions. While the subway service is excellent most foreigners prefer taking a taxi.

ATMs and currency exchanges are everywhere in Istanbul. In addition, most merchants – especially at gift shops – will gladly accept American dollars at a slightly lower exchange rate. Exchange offices are much more convenient than banks if you need to change money, and they stay open until at least 7 p.m. Banks close by 5:30 p.m. Keep in mind that some of the Turkish paper bills look alike so pay attention to what you give and what you receive in return. Traveler’s checks are too hard to cash in Turkey. But credit cards are widely accepted, especially at restaurants and bars frequented by Westerners.

Internet access can be spotty at Turkish hotels. Luckily central Istanbul is full of Internet cafes and restaurants with wireless. Several years ago, the municipal government installed free wireless in a few landmark locations. If you are walking along the Istiklal Caddesi the free connection will show up as an option on your device. An online registration will give you three hours of free access per day. If you think you will need a cell phone in Istanbul it’s worth buying a local SIM card. Roaming for American providers will be pricey.