Spring Break in Cuba: A Student’s Perspective

Courtney Brenner in CubaCal Poly business administration student Courtney Benner talks about her experience on the latest Orfalea International Business Tour to Cuba over spring break in 2017.

Traveling with Orfalea College of Business to Cuba on a cultural tour was an eye opening experience in which I was able to learn all about the Cuban economy and way of life. Our trip was fueled by gaining a “people to people” experience in which we met with local private sector business owners, talked to locals, and received lectures from professors of the University of Havana. Through these relationships, Orfalea students were able to gain a broader understanding of the US Embargo, Government, and different style of living.

Cal Poly students dining in Cuba. Throughout our discussions it became evident that Cuba has suffered a great deal in the past 60 years due to the US Embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there seems to be a lot of opportunity for growth in the future. We learned that Cubans are some of the most hard working genuine people because they are always figuring out how to fix anything that comes their way. We met individuals who created their own 1950 car molds that are no longer produced and a student who taught himself how to speak English and fix computers. It was a constant theme that the Cuban people were always keeping themselves busy.  We also learned that their economy is highly dependent on exporting doctors and cigars. Cuba has a very thorough health care system and sends doctors abroad to help those countries in need of a better medical system and in return receive oil. On the other hand, we also learned that tourism is rising as the leading factor in stimulating their economy—bringing in over 2 million tourists in 2016. With the expansion of private sectors, Cubans are able to open up their home to tourists by creating their own restaurants and bed and breakfasts which are both highly tourist populated.

Students at the Cuba Libre cafe in HavannaThe entire trip was amazing but my favorite visit was the day trip to Viñales. On our way to Viñales we made a stop at the Orchid Farm in Soroa. The farm contained over 800 species of plants, including 200 endemic to Cuba, that all thrive in the humid climate. Once in Viñales we ate lunch at a private farm serving all organic food, grown around where you ate your meal. This meal was accompanied with the most dramatic panorama view in all of Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to rely on sustainable farming methods and due to the shortage of fertilizers and pesticides. Consequently, their agricultural sector largely turned organic. After lunch, we walked to a local tobacco farm in which a local farmer opened the doors to his home and greeted us with fresh coffee and handmade cigars. Tobacco is the third largest source of hard currency for Cuba and is exported to counties all over the world. The tobacco plant is a very time consuming crop and so the government hires private farmers to grow the tobacco that is made into cigars and then exported to the rest of the world. After the farmers make their quota for the government they are then allowed to sell to the public any extra crop produced.

In all, the tours and lectures throughout this trip gave us a deep understanding of the economy of Cuba and allowed us to form our own opinion based on the conversations we had with the local people. This trip has taught us lessons that I know will carry over into my studies here at Cal Poly and even further as I prepare myself for the business world after graduation.