Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Your Man in Havana

IMG_1265Colleen and I just returned from an amazing trip to Cuba that was organized by our friend Larry Dorfman from GWC’s sister company APCO. Our travel companions included dealers, agents and others who, I have to say, were among the nicest people I’ve ever bonded with in the auto space. They were also prodigious rum consumers but what happens in Havana stays in Havana!

Overall, much of what I had imagined about Cuba was true: The cars were mostly pre-1960 American models, the architecture hearkened from the same atomic age and the people were relatively poor but surprisingly happy. We didn’t experience a sense of oppression (in fact, I’ve found Washington DC to be a much more intimidating, security-conscious venue since 9/11) and met a number of Cubans who travel freely in and out of the country. More surprisingly, the television in our hotel included U.S. channels such as Disney, HBO, CNN and ESPN (generally translated to Spanish); i.e., this is NOT North Korea.

Rather, it’s a solidly Communist country where, for more than 50 years and several generations, people have lived peacefully. They’ve received good educations and world-class health care along with provisions for their minimum needs even as they live under an extremely authoritarian dictatorship. However, it’s strange to experience a dearth of stores and markets with virtually no brand competition or other commercial opportunities. As a lifelong American, it’s hard to reconcile the minimalistic living, oppressive government and reasonable contentment of many of the people.

What really struck me was the lack of initiative and innovation. I joked that if Raul Castro simply named 2015 “The Year of Painting” and required every Cuban to pick up a brush and adopt a building, the place would look 10 times better than it does today! And, despite the well-educated population, there do not appear to be any significant inventions being developed to make life easier or better for people (despite the obvious need.) I can only chalk this up to the lack of profit and status incentives to stand out, to innovate, to be better than the rest.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., despite our many internal political challenges and increasing wealth inequality, we continue to rapidly evolve, with new thinking and new businesses leading us to even more relative prosperity. It’s a fascinating comparison with our neighbors only 90 miles south of Miami.

What Am I Reading?

In The Kingdom of IceI’ve been re-telling the “20-Mile-Marchers” story about the 1911 quest to reach the South Pole as relayed by Jim Collins for several years and apparently have unconsciously developed a keen interest in arctic expeditions! “In The Kingdom of Ice” by Hampton Sides takes place a few decades earlier and tells the tale of the ill-fated explorers on board the USS Jeanette who attempted to reach the North Pole. It’s a gripping story of bravery and heroism in the name of exploration. It also demonstrates how little we knew about the world’s geography; some people actually believed that the North Pole was an open circle of warm waters that may have even led to a Jules Verne-esque underground civilization! If only that were true….