In March, one of three MBA Study Tours traveled to Cuba. This was a first for the Foster School-marking our 31st country visited by groups of MBA students. One of our students, Emily Eberle shares her thoughts on the experience:
I consider myself fairly well-traveled. As a child and teenager I had the opportunity to see parts of Europe and Latin America with my family, in college I studied and interned in China, and in my early career I had the opportunity to work in Germany for a year. Despite this experience, and knowing not to have expectations when I travel, Cuba surprised me. I hadn’t realized that there were people my age or younger who would earnestly talk about the “Triumph of the Revolution”, and I was amazed that a country would earnestly measure economic progress by the average number of calories and grams of protein consumed per annum.
Most of all, I was amazed by the quality of speakers that we were given access to on our tour. Yes, we may have been stood up here and there, or forced to practice our patience because the speakers were starting on “Cuba time”, but every person we spoke with was experienced, prepared, intelligent, articulate, and earnest. They spoke to us hoping we’d invest in their future, and engaged in deep discussion about the risks, challenges, and opportunities of partnering with them. I don’t know if they prepared specifically for us or were merely giving canned investor presentations that they had given to every foreign guest before us, but for the first time in my MBA experience they made me truly feel like a future member of the business community.
Cuba has overthrown slavery and dictators, staged a “triumphant revolution”, overcome a “special period” that brushed against starvation, and endured a decades-long blockade by their natural trading partner. From a traveler’s perspective, memories of Cuba are filled with observing the pulse of Havana through an evening stroll along the Malecón; marveling at the deserted highways, the meticulously preserved ‘60s muscle cars, and the crumbling buildings; and enjoying cigars and listening to ocean waves lap against a gorgeous beach. And the plague of crabs. One mustn’t forget the plague of crabs (see attached photos for crabs crawling over a house). From a student’s perspective, one must contrast speaker presentations about illegally emigrating to pursue fulfilling career opportunities elsewhere and whispered conversations with dissidents about how Cuba is an Alcatraz with the raw emotion exhibited by those who speak fervently of the Revolution, and how it means continual improvement of the lives of every Cuban. From a business perspective, one must balance the risk of poor infrastructure and a crippled economy with the opportunities inherent with a highly educated workforce and a plethora of industries ripe for modernization.
Giving the changing political landscape (Cuba’s Congress will meet in April and is expected to change many things about FDI, self-employment, and entrepreneurship, and the US is in a political cycle that may promote or undo the steps that Obama has taken to normalize US-Cuban relations), it’s uncertain what will happen in the future. In the meantime, this “American capitalist” will end with the two best quotes from our trip: “lower your expectations”, and “Cuba is worth the risk.”