Alice Cassin (Class of 2017) participated in the January 2017 Darden Worldwide Course to Cuba which focused on Cuba’s economy in a state of transition. Alice shared some reflections and key learnings from the course with us:

Prior to this trip to Cuba, I had never set foot in a communist country. The crux of the challenge in Cuba is that introducing reforms that will allow for growth will also increase inequality in a country whose ideology is firmly rooted in equality. Cuba’s government recognizes that it needs to grow to survive and has introduced limited market reforms to drive growth, granting licenses to cuentapropistas who can establish – and maybe grow – private enterprises. It is estimated that 25%* of Cubans are now involved in private sector activities. The government’s decision to open certain industries to the private sector is certainly creating winners and losers. The entrepreneurs who are very successful right now are mostly in the tourism industry.

Cuban entrepreneurs still face many obstacles. These challenges are numerous and range from incredibly slow internet speeds (they jokingly refer to the internet as the “turtlenet”) to the lack of a wholesale market. Additional challenges and obstacles to growth relate to access to finance and the transfer of money. Bank accounts are rarely used, and the vast majority of businesses cannot access loans or venture funding to finance their growth. While the government is encouraging entrepreneurs to start small businesses, it is unclear whether they will allow these companies to scale. Desperate for economic growth, the Cuban government is allowing its small businesses to begin to thrive, while talking about further regulations and potential taxation requirements in the future to redistribute this wealth.

The Cuban government aims to introduce market reforms in certain industries while maintaining its central planning model in an effort to prevent high degrees of inequality. Those of us coming from the U.S. tend to believe in capitalism and “the American dream” – we love the idea of growth spurred by the private sector, with its free market tendencies that allow for efficiency and productivity. I gained a better understanding of the Cuban government’s goals and the rationale behind its policies, as well as the devastation years of economic sanctions have wrought on its economy. However, I also left feeling that the policies of Cuba’s government have led to great inefficiencies and slow growth.

One of my main takeaways from the trip was that it is unclear which ideology is “right” or “wrong.” The trip deepened my understanding of strategy as a choice between a variety of paths, each with trade-offs. We try to make the best decisions based on our goals and our analyses of the various paths we could take to achieve those goals.

* Statistics vary depending on the report; Business Insider estimates 25%:

Alice Cassin (center) with another student and faculty member engage in conversation as they walk to meet with one of the cuentapropistas in Havana.
Student team presents their thoughts at Hotel Nacional to group of cuentapropistas at the end of the week.
Students head out from Hotel Nacional on a vintage car tour of Havana.