Editor’s Note: Thank you to our sponsor HiringSolved for making this trip possible.
“One pill makes you larger, And one pill makes you small. And the ones that Mother gives you, don’t do anything at all.” – Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit.
The year was 1967. I was 20 years old, and I remember the first time I heard Grace Slick’s seminal siren song to psychedelia distinctly, and I think I spent most of that summer listening to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow.
It became something of a soundtrack for those months that will be remembered by history (although it’s foggy at best for most of those who actively followed Slick’s suggestion to “free your heads,” which is to say, most of us lucky enough to live through this seminal year).
Some other stuff that happened in 1967, to give you a little bit of context: Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, the Beatles’ Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever were at the top of the charts, Jimmy Hoffa and Muhammad Ali were in jail (the first for jury tampering, the latter for refusing the draft), Vietnam was still a “military action” and a washed up former actor named Ronald Reagan swept into the California governor’s mansion in what was widely considered a stunning upset at the time.
Frank Sinatra dominated at the Grammys, A Man for All Seasons swept the Academy Awards, and a young Dustin Hoffman was informed that “the future is plastics” (here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson). I had a full head of hair. In other words, 1967 is, for most of the world, ancient history, and those of us who happened to be around were living in what seems like another world, at least in the world we live in today.
Return from The Rabbit Hole.
And yet, after returning from Cuba, I can’t seem to get that summer, or Jefferson Airplane’s lyrics, out of my head, the soundtrack to the bucketfull of contradicting images from the last week that I’m still trying to pull together.
As far removed as we are from 1967, it seems odd to consider then, as now, the Castro regime ruled Cuba – as it had for nearly a decade by that point. The antithesis of his initial counterparts in the White House, the fleeting possibility Camelot was cut tragically short, but La Revolucion, then, as now, continued to define Cuba, its people, and its collective psyche.
In 1967, over four years removed from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly sent the US and the USSR over the edge into Nuclear War, of course, I was in college, and like most college students, I argued passionately, poetically and prosaically about the very precepts, from political systems to business structures, that formed the foundation of our ‘society,’ and, naturally, just what exactly the meaning of that ‘society’ was (and should be).
This kind of ideology gets tempered over the years, of course. We get stuck in our ways and worldviews, and largely become more myopic, insular and resigned to the often enigmatic way the world works – the natural byproducts of growing older.
But after spending a week in Cuba, I feel like I last did back the first time I heard Surrealistic Pillow – some sort of challenge to my personal status quo, some whisper in the back of my mind sounding like a clarion call to look closer, to look critically, at the bigger picture of business, society and the inevitable interplay between the two.
First off, let’s start with the facts. Sitting just to the south of Miami, a mere 90 miles off the coast of one of the fastest growing, most celebrated and trendiest urban areas in the United States, lies an island that, in essence, most of us seem to have forgotten even exists – a land so close, yet so far removed, from us.
That small stretch of ocean straddles two very different worlds, and two even more divergent ideologies.
The good news is, these two worlds seem at long last to be finally converging; during the last five years, Cuba has slowly shifted from being the New World’s last bastion of pure Marxism-Leninism to something that, superficially at least, looks a lot like the same sort of hybrid socialism that has propelled Bernie Sanders to the top of the polls on the other side of the Straight.
Emphasis on hybrid; gone is the staunchly socialist society we think of when we think of Fidel (if we even do, these days) and in its place, the first nascent seeds of capitalism are starting to sprout, finally coming to fruition after the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the Communist bloc, leaving Cuba isolated politically and economically, suddenly stripped of its staunchest supporters and their generous subsidies.
Slowly at first, faster now, Cuba has started evolving and moving, inexorably, into a future where 60 years of controls are suddenly being rolled back, loosened or reevaluated in favor of a decidedly different approach than the last six decades or so since the Revolution first swept Castros into power.
But make no mistake, for all the changes in Cuba, that Revolution is not dead, but instead, responding to the necessity of changing the country to meet the needs of its citizens today – those children (and grandchildren) of the Revolution who have long anticipated the day when the regime, and the Island, would finally change for the better.
It’s a change that’s palatable, even if no one seems able to describe what the end goal of that change will be, or even what it will look like within the next year. While there’s the certainty of change, there’s the uncertainty of not knowing what to expect – and it could be no one, not even the Castros, fully know for sure what the future holds for Cuba.
Si Se Pueda.
Whatever it is, this mix represents what’s new and what’s next, and Cubans are fully engaged in seeing that change through to a better society and a better tomorrow. Because for once, the Revolution is looking to revolutionize itself, which is, if you think about it, pretty revolutionary.
It was against that backdrop that I found myself in Cuba, with few expectations about what I would actually learn on the trip; it became almost immediately clear, however, that all the advice I’d been given by my Canadian, British and other foreign friends who have been vacationing and visiting the island for years now was decidedly out of date. Of course, it’s hard to stay up with the breakneck speed of change that’s occurring there, too.
It was less than one year ago – December 17, 2014 – that the United States announced it would be restoring full diplomatic ties with Cuba, and would allow its citizens, finally, to enter the country, albeit under some pretty strict guidelines. And it is as one of these first citizens lucky enough to see the situation in Cuba first hand that I can firmly report that unfortunately, much of what’s in the minds of most Americans – and debated incessantly – isn’t just out of date, it’s decades old.
When it comes to the real Cuba, sadly, we’re seemingly all still stuck in 1967 (if not earlier). While we might have reestablished diplomacy, we still have not lifted our embargo against Cuba, which continues to profoundly, negatively impact Cuban society. Nor, it seems, have we lifted the massive case of cognitive dissonance and ignorance about Cuba from which so many of us here in the US seem to suffer.
It’s a story badly in need of an update, because the chance that it might end with all of us living happily ever after is now more than a pipe dream – it’s a real possibility, and, for HR, a real opportunity, too.
HR in Cuba: The View from the Frontlines.
The week long sojourn I made with 21 HR leaders and TA colleagues may have come to an end, but when it comes to defining an experience that’s more or less inexplicable, it will take a little longer for most of us to unravel. Instead of a central thesis or cogent theory on what I experienced, I’m left instead with a few disjointed scenes I still need to string together.
Our official HR Delegation had official meetings and exchanges with dozens of the top government officials, university professors and academics, state ministers, labor union representatives and the leaders of both some of Cuba’s largest state owned companies as well as the small business owners representing the burgeoning “new modality” of the new Cuba.
We even attended a Bloc Party (pun intended) for the Committee of the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), which is like a nationwide social club for socialists, a kind of neighborhood watch for watching your neighbors that exists in every Cuban neighborhood.
No matter what the setting, no matter who we were meeting, we were allowed to ask pointed questions (as time allowed), and had the freedom to talk to and interact with citizens whenever the opportunity presented itself about their work, their attitudes, their hopes and their dreams for the future. But it wasn’t until the last day, when we travelled to a collective built around a vocational school dedicated to training barbers (of all things) that I finally got what was at stake.
I just can’t describe what those stakes are just yet to my satisfaction – but in this case, a whole community, from the children playing in the salon-themed open air park built by the collective to the senior citizens in the rehab center we visited, as all students in the collective do as part of their service every Wednesday, is thriving thanks to reforms that can best be described as tenuous.
The implications for whatever comes next I’m still trying to put into words, but needless to say, this is a system that encapsulates this new hybridization between socialism and capitalism that is the new Cuba, and all its possibilities and tensions that come with an unknown future, but one that, one would think, has to be better than the past. Best to look to the future, whatever that future may be.
Of course, the trip wasn’t all business – in between our packed schedule of meetings we found time for a recently opened museum dedicated exclusively to contemporary Cuban art that was extraordinary in its scripting, surprising in its quality, and politically explosive in its subversion. The contradiction that such a collection could exist in a state sponsored exhibit with works from artists that have been jailed for their beliefs or for the messages embedded in their art is another tangible sign of the tensions between old and new just now getting sorted out by the state and its society.
We also explored Hemingway’s Cuban home, the respite where his beloved fishing boat, the Pilar, stands sentinel as a reminder of a time when our two countries coexisted, culturally at least, and the trip between Key West and Havana was only a matter of crossing a few miles distance and not a few decades worth of time, too.
We spent a day touring Las Terrazas, an eco tourism park that encompasses thousands of pristine acres of reclaimed coffee plantations and tropical forests just in the foothills of Havana – a site originally built to exploit the local workers, but one that may be the kind of enterprise critical to ensuring their future.
Our delegates took every advantage to absorb what we could. In general, internet access was terrible (or non-existent, in most cases), the food was fabulous, the wine adequate, and the accomodations reasonable – and all, it seems, are only going to be getting better as the service industry evolves and matures in the coming months, too.
But on the trip itself, the conversations – between those on the bus and those ordinary Cubans we met with – will last a lifetime. Here’s hoping that change comes quicker – for both the Cubans, and for all of us, too. Because it’s really quite an extraordinary place.
Stay tuned for comprehensive Cuba coverage this week with exclusive insights and observations as we take the frontlines of HR in Cuba online only at Recruiting Daily.
About the Author: Gerry Crispin, SPHR is a life-long student of staffing and co-founder of CareerXroads, a firm devoted to peer-to-peer learning by sharing recruiting practices. An international speaker, author and acknowledged thought leader, Gerry founded a non-profit, Talentboard, with colleagues Elaine Orler and Ed Newman to better define the Candidate Experience, a subject he has been passionate about for 30 years.
Gerry has also co-authored eight books on the evolution of staffing and written more than 100 rticles and whitepapers on similar topics. Gerry’s career in Human Resources spans is also quite broad and includes HR leadership positions at Johnson and Johnson; Associate Partner in a boutique Executive Search firm; Career Services Director at the Stevens Institute of Technology, where he received his Engineering and 2 advanced degrees in Organizational/Industrial Behavior.
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