A few years ago, I was part of a corporate team of negotiation and crisis management architects who were dispatched to Cuba to resolve issues that threatened the integrity of the brand during an expansion venture undertaken by a multi-national group of companies where I worked.
Put aside that the fibre of the Cuban socio-political structure was inherently repulsed by the western, capitalist business mechanics that defined the philosophy of the company, there existed the conspicuous and adamant opposition to change. Cuban colleagues in every pre-operations huddle, executive meeting, and social team gathering inadvertently, but more often directly, communicated their dismay with any approach with even the slightest deviation from the institutionalized methods to which they were accustomed.
Multi-tasking, for example, seemed foreign and although the Cuban employees accepted additional responsibilities with utmost enthusiasm, they would fail to deliver results beyond what they thought was adequate.
This opened a new window into what turned out to be the underlining element poised to impact the company’s celebrated reputation in a toxic way. Although the Cuban people are socialized throughout their lifetime, through Communism, to follow instructions they were not motivated to accept these instructions from any source adventitious to the Cuban soil.
Consequently, their own yardsticks for measuring satisfaction took precedence over the organization’s mission and service standards to which they were oriented only six weeks before. And pursuant to their employing their own ideas of luxury – the tenet upon which the company was built and earned international accolades – service standards truckled under the pressure and shifted in compliance with this Cuban-grown metrics, one which the market to which the company appealed, was not impressed.
One of the most salient lessons is everyone in Cuba is the police. As such, the unwritten law dictates that a senior member of the Communist party must hold an executive chair at the policy making level, at this, a foreign organization. It became increasingly apparent that these executives were married to the Revolution and lived happily ever since, and therefore spent days dissecting new policies in the hope of finding ways in which they ran counter to the ideals of the Revolution. To say their scrutiny hampered progress and delayed the rudiments inherent in a smooth operation, is tantamount to using a euphemism in its mildest form. They were remarkably averse to any inkling of reward for excellence. Equality was paramount and employees who stood out were given the warning finger rather than a thumbs up. In many ways, the Cuban work environment emphasized humility to the level of suppressing talent. It was better to shrink than to shine.
No model of governance is perfect. Recently, Microsoft’s chairman, Bill Gates, himself a poster boy for Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations questioned the system and offered solutions to heal western capitalism at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. However, the Marxist creation is puzzling. Education in Cuba is absolutely free at all levels, and the Cuban people are undoubtedly among the most learned in the world. It seems however, Marxism did not chart the logistics for utilizing this wealth of knowledge; after the people are educated, what do you do with them? What is the point of graduating architects at summa cum laude level only for them to take jobs as front desk attendants? The bell-man with a PhD in History received no opportunity to impart his learning as he was too busy lugging bags and listening to kvetching tourists.
While sentencing a man to death after a twenty minute trial does not seem to have any regard for humanity in any model, I developed a deep seated respect for Cuba. Contrary to reports in the media, the Cuban people do not make it their life’s work to leave the island. A strong patriotism was evident, one that transcended age and wisdom. They accepted and rationalized why they should never experience the culinary utopia of a steak that better serves the nutritional needs of their convalescing Cuban brothers and sisters in medical institutions. But almost always, they expressed their desire to have ownership: of property, and their destinies.
No-one hesitated to respond to questions about their feelings for Castro. “He liberated Cuba…he gave us what others still struggle to create.” In the eyes of Cubans, Castro gave them an unflinching equality. The Cuban appreciation and celebration of this ‘gift’ was pulsating and seemingly a crucial ingredient in the melting pot of happiness, pride, and the unrelenting ability to improvise. Only a genius would think of using toilet paper holders for hair curlers, cool-aid for highlights, and a bicycle with an engine?
Determined to develop a business management toolkit and a communication arsenal to tackle the issues authentic to the Cuban experience, I volunteered to extend my tenure in the country to live among the Cubans. This was one of the best strategic business decisions I have so far made as that experience not only fostered the subsequent strategies that helped to leverage the company’s competitiveness on the island, but also tutored an expertise in shifting paradigms to comport with business goals – Cuban style. It is true, crocodile does taste like chicken, mohito is Cuban water, Che is eye-candy everywhere, and what is so wrong with regulating the number of showers one may take? And as for hair salons, they are over-rated.
Yes, Communism failed to deliver on its promise to eradicate poverty. But ask the Cuban people about poverty and they will often reference a marquis that has become an icon in Havana square. It reads: “Millions of children around the world are living on the streets. None of them is Cuban.”
Raquel is a writer living in Toronto, firstname.lastname@example.org