“A revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past.”   – Fidel Castro.

w583h583_728423-bay-of-pigs-background-the-cold-warIt’s taken me a while, this post. The reasons, you see, are contrary to popular belief, I actually take great pains not to personally attack people, only institutions – which means that while I can attack “HR Ladies” in general, writing a response to my most recent trip to Cuba would require a bit more nuance than I’m used to.

Second paragraph, second communist quote, but Stalin once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”

And sure, while I spent a couple of weeks on a bus full of “HR Ladies,” this time, something strange happened: I actually got to know them.

And now, I’d feel bad criticizing a group of pretty amazing professionals who, up until now, were all some sort of Coach bag clutching cypher, (and Robin Schooling) who only emerged from their lairs to snag a donut and write someone up for something stupid.

The Struggle Is Real.

Of course, I’ve worked with plenty of HR Ladies when I was a recruiter, but frankly, when you’re on the TA side of that fence, HR is the worst.

They slow down the process or throw up unnecessary policies around stuff like internal mobility approvals and tell you that you have to lose candidates because the comp range they gave you didn’t factor in shit like “compression.”

So in an actual practitioner setting, please know that the fire breathing dragon ladies who had to sign off on my offer letters before the candidate (and always came back with some minor change) deserve every bit of shade that’s ever been thrown their way.

But get them out of the office, and out of their comfort zone, and turns out, they’re pretty nice people with normal lives outside of work, funny stories, interesting anecdotes and the other sort of humanizing stuff that human resources for some reason seems to leave at home along with their sense of humor and ability to somewhat chill the f out once in awhile.

And they were most decidedly out of their comfort zones in Cuba.

I’m not going to go through the litany of complaints they had about the trip, but apparently while I was expecting some fading postcard from the Eisenhower era (complete with Howard Johnson style amenities), or at best the Miss Havisham version of the place where they take out Hyman Roth in Godfather 2, they thought they were going to Club Med.

Bay of Pigs.

I was told not to mention these kinds of complaints specifically because after asking about whether or not I should go ahead and write up my thoughts on the trip that would probably offend a delegation that had become people I thought of as, well, kind of friends (barf, I know). This self-censorship is weird for me, but I was told something to the effect of needing to be me.

The only caveat was a request not to bring up hotel related complaints, because “we’d come across like your stereotypical entitled Americans.”

Here’s the thing: that’s exactly what we were, myself included. I mean, even as a blogger, I make like five years worth of a Cuban state employee’s actual legitimate or skilled work – and bitch about the fact that while some guy is out there sweating his ass off in the tropics while plowing a field with a donkey, I’m having a bad day if I get stuck in a middle seat or have to go to an HR conference in Orlando.

I write blog posts with poop jokes for a living, they weld household objects into rotary fans for 1952 Bel Aires – and not even for a living, but instead, so they can do stuff like go to the store. It’s funny how being immersed, even for a short time, in a completely foreign culture can completely change your perspective on things.

As my realization that the people who append stupid shit like “GPHR” after their e-mail signatures (before the 20 lines of legal disclaimers) are actually decent individuals once they’re off work should prove.

Thing is, after almost a decade of SHRM events, I actually thought y’all were worse outside the office than in it (trust me, drunkasaurus Rex, it’s possible).

So, that changed my perspective on the people who I formerly thought of as Dr. Claw, sitting there stroking their cats and unleashing evil on unsuspecting children and animals – the HR leadership lunch and learn crowd, if you will. “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!”

Miami Vice.

 What didn’t change, though, was the attitudes of the mostly older, mostly female and almost exclusively Caucasian delegation of well fed, wan skinned HR leaders waddling from welcome drink to welcome drink. Which, by the way, was quite welcome indeed as these ubiquitous cocktails inevitably came first thing after getting off a bus filled with HR people, for crying out loud.

I stood there many times, listening to this actually really smart, really accomplished delegation ask things like, “Do you know who Oprah is?” to the head of the University of Havana’s American Studies Department (he lived in New York while serving at the UN for 17 years), thinking: we are doing our jobs as the HR Delegation, alright.

I know why they kicked us out back in the 50s – because some poor kid had to drive pedicabs full of these people through cobblestone streets because they refused to walk a block in the rain back then, too, I’m sure.

Back then, as now some one with enough money to talk about their “vacation houses” (plural) – many of which were likely down the road before they became expropriated for the working class – would come into the market and start negotiating over the equivalent of a few cents just to get a good bargain.

And I’m sure before the embargo, they also ignored the amazing cultural milieu of one of the most vibrant cities in the world in favor of whatever passes as shopping over there.

And then long aloud for a Nordstroms because the shoes she brought were hurting her feet. She was not entertained by my offer of flip flops, although a young boy eyed them wistfully during the exchange.

I’m thinking, ‘lady, I can’t afford that shit and I live in Dallas’. And actually, you know, work and stuff. She seemed quite passionate, however, whenever women’s rights or equality came up, so good on ya, sister. Even at his worst, Castro at least liked baseball and golf and got to chill with Che. But at least he could talk about stuff other than compliance updates in social settings, you know?

He wasn’t, you know, an entitled American – who were the primary supporters of the anti-Communist Bautista regime, who just so happened to also hate dissidents, homosexuals and Jehovah’s Witnesses and systematically slaughtered thousands of them during his regime.

Bautista also started that whole Miami craze (thanks for Don Johnson, by the way) when he fled to his tens of millions in embezzled funds when he was disposed from power, and the US, of course, was cool with that, because at least he was a reliable ally against the Soviets.

If there’s one thing HR can understand, it’s the fear of the unknown and the willingness to look the other way to stay out of trouble, after all.

The Cold War Continues.

This is why, I’m sure, so many of the people on the trip were in the middle of an extraordinary time, in a place that’s always sounded as exotic and unapproachable to me as Timbuktu or Inner Mongolia, and worrying about whether or not we were going to have adequate time at the breakfast buffet prior to the day’s meetings.

When you don’t like change, when you’re afraid to immerse yourself in something different – like a Santeria ceremony or social media –  there’s no “learning agility” (a popular buzzword with this crowd). There’s just a whole lot of bitching about any minor deviance from a familiar status quo.

That’s when I realized why the tongue-in-cheek post I was going to write about how HR is actually the Castro regime, all repression and earth tones, but the thing is, HR is HR, and some systems, particularly those running the show (and status quo), never change. They just run away to Miami.

Those entitled Americans who lost their property to the Cuban state, those entitled companies who lost their assets after the Revolution, these are the same ones who have understandably perpetuated this myth of Cuba as North Korea in the Western Hemisphere and vilify Castro, because they were the ones who “lost” the most in what was, largely, an avoidable situation.

The thing is, they were too busy sitting behind the gates of their huge estates or swimming in the azure waters off the shore where fishermen and locals were forbidden from going near to realize that the will of the people was going to overwhelm them.

And then, one New Year’s Eve, they were stuffing suitcases and running off into the night, grateful for their lives and sure that they’d be back just as soon as all those rabble-rousers got a stern rebuke or some shit like that. 60 years later, here we are. But yet, here we are.

Why were we there, exactly?

Why was it that, without regime change, the Castros (Raul, who led the armies during the revolution while Fidel got photo ops and wrote books about Marxism and occasionally captured and imprisoned, is still solidly in control) would let back in the very entitled Americans they fought a Revolution to drive out?


They, unlike HR leaders, clearly understand that change can’t ever be fully controlled nor avoided, and while the tensions between the establishment and progressives, the young and the old, have occurred throughout human history, the status quo has never won – even if it’s taken a while for a regime to crumble.

Hell, the US is only a couple hundred years old, and Havana was a booming metropolis while the Dutch were cornering the Manhattan real estate market for a couple of beads. It’s all a cycle.

Employment Is A Right And A Duty.

The Castros are letting capitalism (and American tourism) in for one simple, pragmatic reason: because, unlike Bautista, they know that they won’t outlive their legacy, and that without a controlled transition, there’s going to be complete chaos. So they’re protecting what they’ve built by allowing it to be dismantled, and doing so with dignity.

Their revolution, after all, was for the people. In fact, some quotes from that dirty Red whose commie crew the US Department of State still budgets around $40 million a year to subvert through anti-Castro propaganda apparently no one on either side actually looks at (like benefits enrollment notices), but is just one of those policies that keeps on renewing every year because no one said, “hey. Is this really necessary?”

Nope, if the people want reliable internet access, processed foods or to trade stable, guaranteed jobs and pensions for the high risk market that is private enterprise, they’re not going to stand in the way anymore. In the past, dissension has always been dealt with like a problem employee: “If you don’t like it here, then leave.”

After so many did during the Mariel boatlift that the country was left with a skills gap that actually hurt more than the bottom line, they decided this time around, they were going to try a little bit softer approach. “I believe that all of us out to retire relatively young,” Castro once said, and realized that you can’t stay isolated on an island forever. It’s a changing world, and sometimes, you have to know when to step back.

That’s why I think we need to step back and realize that for all we bitch about, for our disgustingly conspicuous displays of capitalism (when Castro wrote, “capitalism is using its money; we socialists throw it away,” he’d clearly never heard of “social recruiting” or “integrated talent management systems), my biggest takeaway came off of the itinerary.

Happiness Is A Warm Gun.

One night, we tipped a doorman the equivalent of like a month’s salary (nothing to us), and he thanked us and offered to take us for a tour of the historic property afterwards.

“You’ve really helped my life,” he said in decent English, and eventually revealed he was a psychiatrist by day, but, of course, his day job didn’t pay nearly as well as his night gig hustling for tips. Which were way more than the $2.10 an hour we pay over here for tipped labor, I’m guessing.

At this point in the week, I’d realized this moonlighting was actually kind of the norm in this changing world just taking its first tentative steps into the future – whatever that might be – was becoming the norm. That “freelance economy” thing we all predicted? It’s just capitalism growing up, which is why that concept over here died with the recession, thank goodness.

I met a girl at a market selling cigar boxes with chintzy “Cuba” decorations who was actually a programmer and knew C# and Ruby, but couldn’t find work because that’s a tough gig to find in a place with 2% internet penetration who over here, as a diverse female computer scientist, could pretty much buy out the entire inventory of the entire open air market many times over with her signing bonus.

Many of the senior leaders from government ministries and the country’s largest trade unions weren’t ashamed to take bags of toiletries and first aid supplies after we’d shaken hands across the boardroom and had our photo ops. Imagine some K street big wig doing that in DC – “yeah, Kotex!” Not so much. Those lobbyists are just on the other side of the Potomac (boom).

This psychiatrist, who openly expressed his frustration with having to be a doorman after spending the day at the hospital, who showed us a picture of him and the Pope shaking hands just a few weeks earlier and talked with shocking frankness of his disdain for Fidel and Raul (I’m so paranoid I’m actually being as sparse on details as possible in case, you know), told me what sounded like bullshit.

There is no depression in Cuba.

Come on, I asked. None? How the hell was that possible?

“It’s because we always have the hope things are going to be better. They can always be worse,” he told me, and I guess that pretty much sums up my thoughts on HR, Cuba, and the intersection that formed one of the most formative experiences of my life.

Which, let the record show, puts me squarely on the revolutionary side of the equation.

So if you don’t like me, well, we’ll end with a Che quote this time:

“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”

And I’m doing my best, dammit.

Editor’s Note: A special shout out to Shon Burton and the HiringSolved team for proving that capitalism isn’t all bad and paying my way on this trip. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and I can’t thank them enough for making it possible.

You don’t have to rule a totalitarian state to know everything about who people are and what they’re doing – turns out, there’s a pretty kick ass sourcing platform for that. Check HiringSolved out today – it’s a killer product, and I’m seriously not just saying that. But I do want to say thanks again. You guys rock almost as much as your technology.


By Matt Charney

Matt serves as Chief Content Officer and Global Thought Leadership Head for Allegis Global Solutions and is a partner for RecruitingDaily the industry leading online publication for Recruiting and HR Tech. With a unique background that includes HR, blogging and social media, Matt Charney is a key influencer in recruiting and a self-described “kick-butt marketing and communications professional.”