Translating the New Cuba

Columbia Business School students recently visited Cuba and were exposed to a side of Cuba that few are able to see — one that may very well cease to exist should the economic transition continue.

Print this page
A Columbia Business School MBA student on a Global Immersion Program course walks along the streets of Havana, Cuba.
Casey Buckley '20

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.

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 the Obama presidency, these 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 percent. 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.

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).

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 Castro’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.

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

Casey Buckley is a 2020 MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.

articles by Topic