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Orfalea Students Explore Havana, Cuba

This past Spring Break, Cal Poly’s OCOB sent 22 of us, business students to Cuba on, perhaps, the most historical trip of our lives. Apart from learning about Cuba’s extensive history of rebellion and communism, we had the wonderful chance to meet with several business and industry leaders throughout the week (and see Obama’s motorcade pass across us in the city of Havana).

And with the help of a very dedicated tour company, Distant Horizons, I was able to set up a one-on-one meeting with Dr. Rena Perez, who had once worked with the Ministry of Agriculture in Cuba, and is now a retired advisor to the Ministry of Sugar. The purpose of our meeting addressed a personal business venture idea, regarding toxic by-products of the sugar industry and distilleries in Cuba. But after speaking with her, I had completely changed from a business-focused perspective to an empathetic one.

She helped me understand just how rapidly Cuba has been changing, and how understated the country is in foreign affairs media coverage. She mentioned several things, but here are some of the most important points of our discussion. The sugar industry has been cut down over the past few years, as the rural labor force is steadily decreasing. Due to the Literacy Project back in the 60s directly following Castro’s revolution, the literacy rate in Cuba has been a high 97% but unfortunately, Cuba does not have the infrastructure or the resources necessary to employ skilled Cubans. Because most things are state-run, their funding comes from the government, rather than foreign direct investment. Educated people try to leave the country, sometimes heading to the US, where they believe there are more opportunities for their skill set. The lack of technology to create more efficient processes hasn’t helped the country either. All of that added onto the recent growth of the tourism industry, are pushing the agricultural sector down.
Yet, Dr. Perez also expressed great hope for the country in the long term, stating that she was confident Cuba would come back to its roots in agriculture eventually.

It was humbling to talk to such an influential political leader within Cuba, and even more humbling to understand a true perspective of Cuban life, rather than getting a sugar-coated version from a mainstream tour.

Posted Apr 2, 2016

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