While Cuba is Changing, Increased Business Activity is Unlikely for Years



In a final post about a SHRM delegation visit to Cuba Oct. 11-17, Howard Wallack writes about prospects for the future.

The past is glorified and the future, if not dreaded, is uncomfortably uncertain. The best metaphor I have for Cuba is that visiting now is like trying to go up into your attic after a long period but the door is stuck halfway open.  You can peer in and see wonderful treasures inside that evoke great memories, but, at the same time, you know that once the door is fully opened, you’ll see lots of dust and cobwebs that need cleaning out. 

There seems to be agreement from both Cuban and American sides that political and economic coexistence is necessary after so many years of animosity, yet a long chess match is ahead between governments. Both sides know that a different future is coming and necessary, though there is disagreement about the recommended pace and sequencing of change. Cubans we met openly expressed that they have no problems with Americans and welcomed us back, so the fear of change appears not to be coming from Cuban people, but from leadership.

While changes are happening fast, the changes that would allow more business activity are unlikely until at least 2018. Even though Raul Castro has indicated that he won’t be “re-elected” in 2018 and a transition to another generation of Cuban leaders is likely, it’s a stretch to think that the Helms-Burton Act and U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions would be lifted any sooner.

You can read and intellectualize a lot about Cuba, though when you see the new and the old and hear it firsthand, you realize just how complex and layered the situation is.

A change of mindset is needed, particularly as some people have accepted the entitlement of the Cuban system. People’s attitude toward working isn’t always the best, though we saw a lot of optimism that the cuentapropistas (self-employed small entrepreneurs) can be a lever for a change in a lot of people.

Cubans are deeply inquisitive about the United States, in particular the future results of our Democratic vs. Republican election. What is the point in time in history that we’re at now?  We’re only at a first step in normalizing relationships. More needs to be done to encourage participation of the population in economic development, as opposed to top-down direction.

Common Cubans are undergoing a change, as one SHRM member called it their own Glasnost.  Our guide recognized that changes are needed, although stressed that they are deeply proud of their accomplishments in education and health and want to keep them. The country has 96 percent literacy, everyone has access to health care, and Cuba sent more doctors than any other country to help combat the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa last year. 

The series: In earlier blog posts, Wallack wrote about business operations in Cuba and the SHRM delegation’s impressions of the island nation.

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



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