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As the son of Cuban exiles, I have heard for over 40 years the pain in the voices of my mother and grandparents as they described leaving everything behind in their "patria" (homeland) to seek their inalienable human rights, after the fall of the island's president in 1959. My mother was part of Operation Peter Pan, a mass exodus of unaccompanied Cuban minors from 1960 to 1962. As a "Pedro Pan" immigrant, one day she went to school, the next day she boarded an aircraft with neither her possessions nor her parents. She spent her first six months on American soil with her aunt and uncle in Miami, where eventually I was born. Growing up there, I always encountered different tales of Cuban heritage—what it would mean to return to Cuba or to dream of a Cuba returned to the exiled.
So I jumped at the opportunity this past September to lead a delegation to Cuba with SHRM's vice president for global affairs, Robert Garcia. SHRM regularly leads global delegations to foreign ministries of human capital to share information and insights. With the aim of understanding how foreign investment will play a role in Cuba's future, my colleague and I led a group of 10 HR professionals and academicians to the island, to engage in dialogues with economic leaders of the nation's Communist Party.
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Personally, it was a chance to see the land of my ancestors and visit my mother's childhood home. Sociologically, it was a chance to see the Cuban "resolver" mentality at work—variously defined as getting by or making something happen (usually to obtain basic necessities or improvise a solution by repurposing scarce resources). Politically, it was a chance to witness a society that rests on principles diametrically opposed to those we follow in the U.S.
Most of all, professionally, leading the SHRM delegation to Cuba with Garcia was a chance to learn from business leaders—on both sides—about the potential for changing the Cuban state through economic development and foreign investment. What we learned from several of Cuba's political leaders and economists provided us with a roadmap for foreign investment.
Would-be tycoons should be aware that foreign investment in Cuba is limited by several factors, starting with the origins of the investment funds. Options for American enterprises are severely limited in comparison to the options for Canadian, Chinese and European enterprises. That said, here are some cautionary lessons.
Cuba is a land of opportunity, but one where the government poses the largest challenge. Navigating foreign investment will involve additional challenges, from human capital to social engineering. I foresee a nation likely to meld its social values with those of other societies creeping in from far and wide. Only time will tell; let's see where the future takes us. Until then, I marvel at the continued evolution of my "patria" with an even greater appreciation for the "resolver" mentality of my compatriots.
Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, is SHRM's senior vice president, knowledge development & certification.
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