For decades it has been the forbidden island.
Just 90 miles off the shores of Key West, Florida, the outcast and ostracized country has been so close and yet so far away.
For the first half of the 20th century, Havana was an American playground. It was Las Vegas before Las Vegas. Entertainers packed the clubs. Gambling and drinking filled the hot, steamy Cuba nights. Rum flowed and music played.
When the Cold War got hot and the efforts to control the country sank into the Bay of Pigs, everything changed. Fidel Castro took over, Cuba went communist and relations—both diplomatic and economic—ground to a halt. A wall was built—not the physical kind that separated East and West Berlin, but an economic one. The U.S. placed an embargo on both visiting the country and doing business there. Nothing in, nothing out, no exceptions. As the second half of the 20th century grew near a close, the world began to change. The Soviet Union, which had long supported the Cuban economy, collapsed and suddenly Cuba was both literally and figuratively an island alone. Castro, who long thumbed his nose at the American authority, grew old and weary. And then…
In 2000, Congress passed reforms to that embargo allowing U.S.-based companies to export approved products to Cuba—albeit under strict guidelines. According to one estimate, U.S. exports to Cuba peaked in 2008 at $711 million, making the U.S. Cuba’s 4th- or 5th-largest trading partner. But that could soon change. The transition the country makes after Castro’s death will be the deciding factor. Will another general take his place and maintain the status quo? Or will the country move to a more democratic and free-market economy?
Staying on the leading edge of business trends is a key component to business—and business education. The most dominant trend in business over the past decade or more has been the emerging global economy, which is why the Williams College of Business has, for years, mandated international business trips for its MBA students. The best way to understand the differences and nuances of international business is to experience them firsthand. So when the opportunity came up to take students to what could potentially be the next emerging international market—Cuba—the College jumped at the chance.
For nine days in March, students toured the island country, immersing themselves in the complex, social, political and economic reality that is Cuba today. They explored the country’s changing and emerging business models and contrasting economic systems and views. They became familiar with the nation’s economic and business development, tourism, legal and banking systems, methods and sources of foreign investments, trading partners and relationship with the U.S. government.
In the end, they were put in a position to better understand what could very well be one of this country’s biggest new business markets, which gives them an advantage over graduates of other business schools. Now with news of the United States normalizing relations with Cuba, more such opportunities will be available for future generations of students.