Insights From Cuba: HR Isn’t Easy Anywhere

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Nov 24, 2015

Editor’s Note: TLNT contributor Laurie Ruettimann recently took part in an HR delegation that traveled to Cuba on a cultural exchange. This is her report.

In Cuba, it is your right and your duty to work.

There is a labor code that protects workers from social injustice and abuse; however, there are 11 million citizens and only 4 million workers.

That means 4 million people hustle and 7 million people ride the flow.

Cuban citizens are given a free education, free health care, and a free home. Workers are protected by unions, and they are granted access to lawyers to file grievances against unfair labor practices. Food and utilities are subsidized. Children and the elderly are cared for through state programs. And the retirement age is low: for women it’s 60 and for men it’s 65.

But nothing is free.

Human resources in Cuba is complicated

On my recent trip to Cuba, I met with Dr. Nestor Garcia Iturbe. He provided an overview of Cuban-American relations since 1960.

It’s amazing how Baby Boomers in both Miami and Cuba still keep score while a new generation of Cubans and American workers suffer. You think your parents and grandparents are stuck in the past? Try talking to older Cubans about Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar and property rights.

We also met with leaders at ICAP, which translates to The Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples. It’s a required meeting for visitors where we were lectured on why the revolution makes sense.

Laurie Ruettimann and Gerry Crispin in Cuba
Laurie Ruettimann and Gerry Crispin in Cuba

Honestly, I was surprised by our free exchange. Our delegation asked tough, pointed questions. We received honest, albeit limited, answers. One thing is globally common among older adults: when someone is trying to make a point that’s not being heard, they just speak louder.

Then we met with the head of the Ministry of Work and Social Security. We learned more about the labor code and labor laws that govern Cuban workers. If you think your HR job is tough, imagine the challenges of creating a rolling, 10-year plan to manage a workforce during a time when the country is considering Western-style reforms.

Workers want more opportunity

But Cuba is not China. Fidel’s revolution did not envision workers in sweatshops making cheap trinkets for Walmart; however, Cuban workers need cash and opportunity. Wages aren’t rising as they should in Cuba, although we were told that doctors were just given raises. And so the tension mounts.

We also met with a leading professor at the Center for Studies in Public Administration at the University of Havana. We learned about state reforms, governance, and how the current government will look nothing like it might look in 2018 when Raul Castro steps down. There are promises of free elections. Spoiler alert: Cuba won’t look like America.

We also met with the National Union of Jurists, a bunch of lawyers who defend workers against violations of the labor code across the three modalities of employment: government work, self-employment, and cooperative employment. The jurist emeritus told us that there’s no sexual harassment anywhere because it’s outlawed in the labor law. Then he said — Oh yeah, one time this fat old lady sexually harassed two younger male workers.

So, yeah, OK, there’s no sexual harassment in Cuba. None at all. Except once. And it was by a fat, old lady. The revolution has been televised, but our HR group changed the channel.

HR isn’t easy anywhere

We also met with leaders of co-ops who are trying to be entrepreneurs in partnership with the government.CubaChe

We talked to managers of a beautiful eco-tourist park that are attempting to live in harmony with the environment (and government regulations) while managing the requirements of entertaining Canadian and British tourists. And we talked to restaurant owners about running inventory and POS systems on paper — and sometimes Windows NT — while trying to tackle the challenges of managing staff and operating within the labor code while keeping workers engaged.

HR is tough everywhere, and it’s often not done by HR. Sounds familiar, right?

Talent management is universal, and Cubans are just like Americans: they want to encourage hard workers and manage out the poor performers. Their methods are different, but Cuba’s revolution only works if everyone operates at peak productivity.

It’s the same way with our American economy.

Cuba is not yet open for business

While Cuba doesn’t have a formal human resources industry, there are plenty of opportunities where future leaders and managers — and even owners — will be able to learn from HR and leverage agile HR technologies.

First, though, they’ll need to tackle the ongoing political standoff with the United States. While we’ve opened an embassy and restored diplomatic relationships, Cuba is not yet open for business in a way that’s readily available to multi-national corporations.

Good luck with that, Cuba.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to incorporate my business in Grand Cayman and drink tropical drinks on other Caribbean islands. It’s a shame, though, because I had a pina colada with horchata in Havana and it changed my life.

This was originally published on the Laurie Ruettimann blog.