Last week I wrote about some of my experiences on a recent HR study delegation to Cuba. My comments were pretty tough. With another week of reflection behind me, I want to write about the people of Havana, not the systems and political infrastructure of Cuba.
As we look forward to greater cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba in the future, we should be prepared to invest more than money in business opportunities. We should be prepared to invest time, training and social support to a struggling nation of people who want, as I said last week, “to be productive, to live happy lives and provide for their families. In that way they are no different than we are and they are a potential gold mine in the challenging global talent pool.”
It seems to me that the Cuban population falls into two categories: those who are “believers” and those who are “non-believers.” Believers still feel the revolutionary zeal of Fidel, Che and Raul and they are mostly at the top of the food chain. They are the “They” to whom average Cubanos refer when talking about the 630 +/- government decisions makers – whether we talked to university professors, high ranking Ministry officials, grassroots CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) members, high ranking union leaders, grassroots community organizers, workers in state-owned restaurants or owners of paladares (privately owned/run restaurants) – each talked about “Them” as far removed and somewhat unknowable. Not so different from average citizens in our or any other country: disenfranchised, at the mercy of forces they don’t really understand (despite ongoing, artful propaganda), and yearning for a good life, for economic and social stability for themselves and their families and the ability to find meaning in their work and lives.
Think Maslow’s hierarchy:
Cubanos hover between physiological and safety needs – the State tries to provide for social and esteem needs but that’s hard to accomplish when it is a nation whose people live with ration cards for the most basic food supplies, whose people live in homes that are barely standing – many with no windows or real protection from the elements, but whose leaders proclaim a 100% literacy rate, education and healthcare systems the envy of other third world nations, and an employment system where people aren’t fired, they just “become available.”
As many business leaders around the world are dealing with talent shortfalls and struggling with how to ensure their competitiveness in the global marketplace, Cuba’s government leaders are trying to feed, clothe and shelter their talent – whom they also employ. More than 95% of all workers in Cuba work for state-owned enterprises, educational or healthcare institutions, or the government itself. It’s hard for even the unions to be effective championing worker rights when the employer is the government.
Cuba isn’t the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. It makes no effort to hide the reality of its challenges.
It’s pretty clear that Cuba needs significant policy changes at the top in order to bring a chance of prosperity to its citizen workers. If Cuba ever expects to play on the global stage, as an employer it needs to create a culture that moves up Maslow’s hierarchy. Subsistence living conditions do little to build loyalty, or motivate high levels of performance, innovation or learning. The U.S. doesn’t have to be the model. Use the Czech Republic, Hungary or Poland – all of whom have entered the global economy and are making economic and social progress benefiting all of their citizens.
Cuba could be at a crossroads. Raul Castro has said he will not stand for re-election in 2016. It’s hard, however, for both the believers and non-believers to envision a more free society and economy. The future is looming large and unknowable. But we saw a glimmer of hope that perhaps incremental freedoms will soon come at a faster pace and allow for the advancement of a society, economy and people that are all past ready to bloom. This would be good for Cuba and its people – and good for the global economy.