Cuba…the Nike Nation?

We crept quietly to the living room doorway and like little spies peered around the corner. I was 9 and my sister was 6. Saturday night and our parents were out with friends, leaving us with the babysitter who was sitting, oblivious to us, watching our family’s one TV.

This was our ritual on a babysitter evening. Made us feel older – staying up late – watching TV if only surreptitiously – and, of course, the shows that were on at that time – even back then – were deemed inappropriate for us.

But tonight was different. We noticed it when our parents left the house. There was a tension in the air – not between them, but literally in the air – pervasive. Like something had changed in the world.

Our babysitter was watching the news…how odd…but as she changed channels (and there weren’t that many), it was all news and the announcers sounded stressed, their message urgent.

We didn’t understand it all – but I heard Russia, missiles and Cuba – I knew enough from the nuclear drills that we had, sitting under our desks in school, that this was apocalypse time.

We were frightened. Our parents weren’t home. What if we were attacked?

And so, my first impression of Cuba was born…and grew and nurtured…fed, on one hand, by an obsession with Che (my faux revolutionary phase) but mitigated by my visceral hatred and fear of repressive Communist governments and my deep compassion for the poor people trapped in the iron grip of a police state…that is, until last week, when I visited Cuba for the first time.

I have always believed that there is no better way to learn about a country and its people than by making a business trip. And Cuba was no different.

Fair warning before I proceed…if you are going to knee-jerk on Cuba – in any direction — best not to go on…this is not a political statement or a screed of any kind…to the right or to the left…it is simply a report on my impressions and experiences gathered over a few days in Havana – talking and walking and driving in what we would call classic vintage cars and what they call transportation…


…eating and listening…a lot…to people and music…and of course, having our meetings.

In planning a meeting of our Latin American leadership team – representing just about every country in the region – we felt that now was the time to see Cuba, to get a sense of her rhythm (more on that later), and to experience the dynamic of organizing and planning and executing a conference – with many people along with transportation and food and technology needs (more on that too).

What would it be like? Having been to the former USSR and China early on – before they were open and had Starbucks and Big Macs – I was sure that Cuba would be at the lower end of that spectrum…

What would they know of service? Good food? The needs of a business group?

What about Internet and phone, access and services, for a group of hard-core addicts, and would our meeting accommodations meet our demanding standards of comfort and ease?

OK – let me get it out of the way. Internet access is spotty – you buy cards like the cheap lotto, with scratch-off codes, and they are supposed to last an hour – although it always seems less and BTW, it’s not easy to find a ‘hotspot,” as they are constantly going down – which essentially leaves you with a couple of hours online a day – although, to be fair, if you worked it well, you could be on for much longer.

Phone service is better and if you come with the right plan and such you can call and you can text.

Staying with the Internet – I want to be clear — it’s not restricted. Young Cubans get online; they are gamers; they create their own local area networks – you can see the antennas; they don’t feel spied upon – no more than any of us, I imagine…and smartphones are prevalent and plentiful – although we noticed more face-to-face behavior and shared phone activity than we see in other more developed countries.

Moving on to the non-technical…Service was real, genuine and aimed to please. In fact, from a sheer caring point of view, better than many places I have been. Every night, my blanket was folded into a different design and on my last night there was a note signed by “The Maid” hoping that my trip was successful and that I had a good time.

Our conference amenities were fine; the tech worked; snacks were ample and lunch was served in a beautiful space overlooking the city.

Restaurants and clubs were amazing…fresh food, choice choices…


and we saw the Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All Stars….


– now mostly in their 80’s but genuine Grammy winners just the same and amazing show people.



And, of course, we rode around in some of the most amazing dream cars you can imagine…


The streets are clean; the buildings often decrepit but beautiful…a mixture of Spanish, Moorish and mid-American modern (think vintage Miami); the public spaces nice enough and there is art and culture everywhere and very little crime – a benefit of a police state….

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We even had CNN…which we understand is available all over – unblocked and not censored.

So as the United States loosens up travel regulations and soon begins scheduled flights to Havana – rest assured I have been to primitive places – this is not one – although I do worry that the descending hoards will cause a blip as the system goes into overload and before it resets.

But hotel service; food and music; cigars…did I say cigars…and meeting ambience are not the real story.

The power here is in the people. And it’s the people we need to pay attention to, learn from and cheer on as they move forward from the 1950’s and, in my estimation leap-frog so many.

If Israel is Start-Up Nation, Cuba will be the Just Do It Nation – as the Revolution Evolution continues its inevitable journey to a free and open economy. We won’t see the Digibabble Disruption we are used to – we will see stuff that works…that solves real problems – not contrived ones.

This is a place where people have managed, over the past 60 years, to remain optimistic, to keep their 1950s era American cars running and running well, where a population became well educated and culture flourished, where healthcare is on a high standard and baseball is still a passion.

Make no mistake – there is a secret police (some say the best of this kind in the world) and some still fear them – although the young people we spoke to say that its power is in public paranoia and no longer in basement beatings and sudden disappearances…although we did see the result of camera surveillance when the car we were riding in had a mishap in Castro’s home neighborhood and within minutes we were surrounded by motorcycle police – none who had been visible before and certainly none of us called 911 or even a tow….

I must also add that, unlike other places I have been, we saw no military at all.

Today, upwards of 10% now have their own business – not called private business – just their own business – and people in the country feel that within 5 years it will be the standard. However, at the same time, the gap between the super haves and everyone else has become more obvious – as before only government types were haves and that was “understood” – aspiration, it would seem, creates bigger division.

More people own their own homes today. And you are allowed to own two. Beautiful old houses and buildings are being renovated. Restaurants are popping up in the most desirable areas. Lots of talk of owning to sell – and there will be a market – already is, in fact – we ate dinner in a magnificent restaurant owned by a Spaniard from Madrid who is in Havana to get a jump on the market…and by all indications he is…

The car market has heated up as well – who doesn’t want a 1958 Mercury in perfect running condition? And in “fact meets fiction” – Fast and Furious is already filming its next installment in Cuba!

Hard to find Communists in Cuba. In fact we have heard that only a very small percent of the population has any ideological connection to its philosophies. But make no mistake – the Revolution is alive…meaning that no one wants to return to Colonial or Batista-like rule…and, the image of Che and his T-shirts – I bought a bunch — is everywhere….and while dissent is in fact tolerated and has been for some time – according to most – the Revolution is Holy…and is not to be criticized –yet people find their way and speak up.

No one hates Americans – get over it – in fact, the memorial to the Maine is intact and is a shrine to America having done the right thing all those years ago – and so kids are taught in school…

BTW, the former Soviets – now Russians — are reviled by most as creators of the ugliest building in all of Cuba – the Russian Embassy which looks like a B-movie set for the evil Giant’s castle, and the ugliest apartment blocks – built on the East German plan and incongruous to the pre-Castro beautiful architecture…NB – unlike his Soviet; Chinese and North Korean buddies – Castro built very little – no great structures; no monuments – only an Art School and research facilities – the rest pre-dates him…BC as they say — Before Castro.

Christmas and Easter are now back in vogue – since the visits of two popes – and all religions are welcome to worship…without restrictions.

Culture is everywhere.

Music; Theater; Movies; Art – innovative…energetic…no censorship. And this is not new…more importantly – the younger generation is already linking tech to culture and I predict we will see some amazing work coming out of Cuba.

As we stood in Revolution Plaza under the 6-story high depictions of Che and Camilo, one of the young men we were with said, “There is the headquarters of the Secret Police – but who cares? No doubt they are listening and watching – but they don’t care either – once only Castro spoke here with a million people standing and listening as he droned on from in front of the the memorial to Jose Marti.  Today we have popes and popular music stars here.  We face the other way and everyone comes to enjoy – this is the real Cuba.”

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There are still deep societal issues that need to be addressed in Cuba and my intent was not to paper over them.

Rather, I think we all need to benchmark the Island because I truly believe its people will inspire us in ways that not even the Chinese have…

This is not Iran or North Korea – do not make that perceptual mistake – nor is it Russia or China…Cuba is unique…and the unique Just Do It attitude might just make this the Nike Nation….

And although we hear so much about the Cubans who don’t want to go back until Castro is deposed, I can only share with you the experience we had landing here, when the plane – full of visiting Cubans who hadn’t been back in years – broke into spontaneous applause – some crying…like the woman next to me…who hadn’t been here since she was a child….

Powerful stuff going on there folks – stay tuned – and listen:

For centuries, Cuba’s greatest resource has been its people. Pico Iyer

And there you have it.  Many years ago an American President William McKinley said that Cuba should belong to its people – my bet is that it will if, in fact, it already doesn’t – will just take everyone a while longer to figure it out.

One person we spoke to said that once they thought it would take 20 years for total change – and every 20 years she revised her number adding another 20.  Today she said that change will be in 5 years or less.

To recap, make no mistake…human rights need to be fully restored…but don’t make the mistake of judging the people’s lives through any lens but theirs…my closest analogy might be Vietnam….

Finally, let’s be honest. From a marketer’s POV, this is not Iran with 70+ million new potential consumers…Cuba is a small island and the population is around 17 million or so…but…

Let’s see – place your bets; learn and get ready because I do believe they will impact the world.

What do you think?

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