A Cuba!

Every week since late January, our group of 30 has gathered on the fourth floor of Warren Hall to discuss Cuba – its culture, its history, and its future. Led by the inimitable Professor Bruce Kogut (and his fearless sidekick, Lodovico), we have been fortunate to have been exposed to a wide range of literature and numerous distinguished guest speakers – including Provost John Coatsworth and Dr. Margaret Crahan of SIPA.

The core focus of our course – and the lens through which we have viewed Cuba – is that of an economy in transition. Our holistic approach to the subject has allowed us to explore a wide range of topics: the legacy of Spanish colonialism, the decline of the Castro regime, and a Russian case study in privatization of state-owned real estate – to name a few. We hope that a thorough understanding of Cuba’s past and the transitions of its formerly communist peers will allow us to better contextualize and assess the promise of economic reforms today.

And with that, we’re off to Havana!

Some of the questions we hope to answer over the course of the next week are:

  • How do the Cuban people view their neighbors? The U.S.? Venezuela?
  • How has life changed since the introduction of 3G cellular service on the island? What has stayed the same?
  • 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?

On a slightly more whimsical note, we’re also looking forward to jazz clubs, salsa dancing, and riding in classic cars. And of course, we wouldn’t be MBA candidates if we weren’t interested in any potential business opportunities down the line…

Stay tuned for answers to the above questions and more!

Casey Buckley is a 2020 MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

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

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

Cuba in Review

Adam Justin, MBA ’15

After a few days being back in New York, Havana still seems like a world apart. A place trapped in time, to be sure. The most striking feature was definitely the cars. The streets were full of colorful, Chevys, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, and more. The reviews are in, and we all had an incredible trip.

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The Cubans, everyday people, are eager and excited for more opportunities to open up to the United States. It feels like we are at the beginning of an exciting stage in our countries’ relations. To that end, our class was extremely poignant. We met with government officials and business people, in a range of industries. Cuba is clearly in need of massive amounts of investment. Investment is needed in housing, transportation, telecom, hospitals, hotels, retail – almost everything. The classes were super interesting and relevant, with our class full of questions, many were digging at where could we, foreigners, possibly do business in Cuba.

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For me that was the highlight. Talking at the end of the presentations with the presenters, our tour guides, restaurateurs, anyone, was focused on the future. Everyone had ideas for the future and how to make it better. The Cubans, as advertised, are impoverished. But they are also well-educated, smart, and hard working. This is a powerful blend and certainly gives me a lot of optimism for the future of Cuba.

Cuba Nueva

Greetings from Havana! Global Immersion Cuba is on. In our first couple of days here in sunny and warm Havana, our group of 40 students has attended thought-provoking presentations covering the Cuban economy, international trade, the financial and banking system, famed Cuban cigars, the rich historical heritage of Havana, and attended an energetic (to say the least!) baseball game.

We have more questions than answers. Every answer leads to more questions. This is Cuba in 2015. We cannot escape discussion of the embargo or the recent decisions made by the Obama administration to loosen restrictions and seek to restore ties between the United States and Cuba. The United States looms large in the Cuban psyche; it’s obvious from every presentation, our interactions with local people on the streets, and signs are everywhere.

It’s hard to understand how it works here. And by it, I mean, everything. Cuban socialism is its own system, that affects everything about the economy to personal values and priorities. Cuban socialism has qualities of the Soviet system, but at the same time feels like a small island culture. As capitalists from an American business school, it’s hard to think without reference to a “market” because we are so accustomed to concepts of “profit” and “ownership” but in reality those concepts are more complex than the words imply when used here in Cuba.

You also can’t escape the charm. The classic cars, national pride and the sense of the former wealth of Havana. It’s a beautiful city filled with polite and welcoming people.

There’s a lot to see and do, and so much to learn! This is Cuba in 2015, and the beginning of a new chapter in Cuban history. #cubanueva

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A Winter Thaw

Adam Justin ’15

Wednesday’s surprise announcement by the Obama Administration and Cuban President Raul Castro caused quite the stir, in Miami, in American politics, and right here at Columbia Business School. Forty of us, one TA and our professor, have been preparing to visit Cuba for the past six weeks. We’ve been preparing ourselves to survey a country that time passed by, a country where credit cards don’t work, and exploring what it would mean if relations between Cuba and the United States were ever to thaw. And then, Wednesday, the headline broke, ‘Cuba and the United States to normalize relations!’ Here we are, in the middle of this development, where conjecture is becoming reality.

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Our class studied the Cuban economic system, and how industries work in comparison to the capitalist system in which we all live and work. We have formed groups, and are diving deep into a dozen industries, to learn how these sectors work in Cuba, and how the industry will change as the country enters the global community in new ways. In our last classroom session, we discussed these projects. One that I’ll highlight was a group’s research on professional baseball in Cuba. In the United States, the most successful athletes become fabulously wealthy, reaching celebrity status, collecting cars, homes, boats, and more. Not so in Cuba. And the same is true in many industries. The economy, and really the society, was built differently than here in the United States. When we’re young, we dream of being lawyers, business people, and yes athletes, often paired with dreams of being rich. What do young Cubans dream of? What does this week’s announcement from our government’s mean for our southern neighbors’ dreams for their futures? Are Cuban baseball players headed to the MLB?

It is a exciting time to be headed to Havana. And yes, I will be bringing back Cuban cigars, thanks to this winter thaw.

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