Cuba is Vibrant and Stylish, Yet Still Old World in Many Ways

In the second of three posts about a SHRM delegation visit to Cuba Oct. 11-17, Howard Wallack writes about the group’s impressions of the island nation.

Music is everywhere, and it and the plastic and performing arts are appreciated.  Tropical ballads, salsa, rumba, cha-cha and more are heard daily. We visited two different dance troupes and witnessed great creativity and fusion between different dance styles. We were a week too early for the annual theater festival that has very accessible pricing allowing average Cubans to enjoy the performances.

Information is restricted and controlled. Internet access has arrived, but it is limited and unreliable. Even so, there is a hot spot at an intersection in downtown Havana where hundreds of Cubans congregate to try to get connected. 

Cuba is unquestioningly beautiful in terms of its natural and tropical beauty, architecture, and iconic 1950s automobiles, though it seems that much of that splendor has been mythologized. Much demonstrable progress has been made, intentionally so by the Cuban government, to maintain and restore its architectural riches. However, there are many more dilapidated buildings in need of restoration than available resources.  At the same time, some newer projects -- like the Antiguo Almacen de Madera y Tabaco (Old Wood & Tobacco Warehouse), an old pier building that has been turned into a brewpub -- is as glossy, modern and hip as anything you would see in the United States. 

The growing local restaurant scene, fueled by the cuentapropistas (self-employed small entrepreneurs) is vibrant, stylish and welcoming.  For foreigners, servings were plentiful, though with proteins in limited variety, practically every meal included traditional black beans and rice. It may be the either the seasonality or a limited supply chain, or both, that meant we had pumpkin soup every day as a starter, and just a few choices of fish, beef, or lamb. Shrimp was available once or twice, and one restaurant had lobster. By comparison, our Cuban tour guide, a young University of Havana graduate in foreign languages fluent in English and German, described how most Cubans average $20 U.S.  per month in salary and have government-issued coupon books to get their basic foods from the markets, though often supplies are depleted.

Cuba is a closed and still relatively unfree place compared to the United States and other countries. Some of the participants shared a perception that with Cuba being a Communist country they were surprised at the rights that Cubans did have and enjoyed.  Nonetheless, it undoubtedly continues to be a tightly controlled society.  That was clear from the moment we arrived when a box of books that I brought was searched and the books painstakingly inspected.  These were glossy picture books of Washington, D.C., landmarks that were intended as thank-you gifts for the business people on our program. It didn’t surprise me that the box was opened and examined, but rather that the young Cuban customs guard looked individually and patiently at every single picture in the 120-page book, carefully reading the captions and then asking me questions about the photos. She pointedly asked whether I had been born in the United States, whether I was happy as an American, and whether I was proud of being an American. And then three additional customs guards each looked at the books until they agreed they were innocuous and free of any propaganda.

After visiting a beautiful protected nature reserve in Pinar del Rio province, we strolled in Viñales, a town west of Havana. Every few blocks there was a marking outside a home labeling it as the site of the local neighborhood “Committee for the Defense of the Revolution” or CDR.  The name of one of them caught my attention:  “Here is CDR#5 - Little Theresa the Guerrilla Warrior”! CDRs are neighborhood committees that exist to promote social welfare and report on “counter-revolutionary” activity.

These prominently displayed markings throughout the town center may seem to locals as a proud statement of their mutual support. Although to an outsider, they were a flagrant warning that everyone is being watched. 

And lastly, news is severely restricted, with the three small national broadsheet newspapers Granma, Trabajadores (Workers) and Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) all state-run publications.

Next: In the next installment, Howard Wallack writes about prospects for the future for Cuba. In the first installment, Wallack wrote about business operations in Cuba.


Howard Wallack, SHRM-SCP, is director, global business development at SHRM.



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