From Cuba With Love – Procurement Lessons From our Correspondent’s Visit

Apropos the recent announcements regarding Cuba, I thought I would share some pictures and my thoughts of the country from my stay in Havana in 2010. Inspired by my colleague Pierre Mitchell, I've injected some of his humorous procurement analogies along the way. Make no mistake, though, this is a brutal place to be, especially if you are Cuban, but making fun of dictators (at a safe distance) is good sport, so here we go.

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I've travelled to many despot-run states around the globe, but I don't think I've ever seen as many police as there were in Cuba. Must be a "jobs initiative," or perhaps it is just because of conscription (all Cubans 17 and older are required to serve in the military or on the police force). As you can see in the picture above, the ever-present police force is not the sharpest or most motivated. Clearly many are just punching the clock, like this duo. Yes, technically this depicts SEPSA - Empresa de Servicios Especializados de Protección, S.A. - a Cuban security company, but that's splitting hairs. Or maybe a sign that outsourcing has reached Cuba? Doesn't look best-of-class though.

Procurement take: Do internal clients think of procurement like the compliance crew above? 

Famous for its frozen-in-time approach (and not just politics), the mix of cars you see in Cuba is unparalleled. Here's a Russian Moskvich on the left, a late model Mercedes, and a 1950s US-manufactured car on the right - a '54 Cadillac, I thought, but William Busch, vice president of account management at Azul Partners, Inc., says it's a '55, so we'll go with that. Cool car, but before my time.

Procurement take: Does this resemble your procurement application portfolio?


Above is a socialist housing project as seen from the road on the way to the airport. It's actually rather identical to "housing" I saw outside Nairobi in Kenya. So much for the success of La Revolución… I have a hard time believing that even Batista’s corrupt leadership wouldn't eventually have resulted in an economy where the average person enjoyed a better quality of living than they do under the Castro regime. Think Las Vegas with a beach, better weather and buildings older than last week - this is essentially what Havana was, and will likely eventually become again.

Procurement take: Shantytown procurement portals erected by local IT groups are a global phenomena!

Donkey delivery! This picture was taken early in the morning as I was out running along the famous Malecón in Havana - why not make an ass out of logistics, it cuts the need for gasoline and gives you some fertilizer along the way. Speaking of fertilizer, wherever I went for a meal, many places grew herbs (yerba buena in particular, which is a kind of mint that when combined with rum and cane sugar is rather delicious) right in their restaurants and bars. Not even this supply chain works in Cuba. Regarding supply chains, a family member has travelled more broadly in Cuba, and he has seen vast fields with tomatoes rotting in the sun because of a lack of basic containers to pick, store and transport them.

Procurement take: When in doubt, build it in old reliable Excel. You might need to cuss and shout a bit, but it'll eventually get you there.


Back to politics a bit, just in case anyone forgot - as you can see from this picture, it's all about not blocking liberty. Wow, what a misread. If you look carefully, you can see that they were still stuck on blaming Bush, or perhaps lacked paint to give it a refresh. This one didn't have the evergreen slogan ¡Socialismo o muerte! (socialism or death), which really should be ¡socialismo es muerte! (socialism is death).

Procurement take: Liberty and "freedom" without real choice… sounds like most e-procurement e-mall websites!


The Cubans are great at creative maintenance – much like us Southerners. In this case, the car is predominantly made from whatever they use as Bondo in Cuba - not much steel from the US left. Most, if not all, US cars in Cuba have been jalopified extensively – often with an entire drivetrain from a Russian diesel vehicle underneath what remains of the Detroit shell. Car guys in Cuba will quickly note that some cars drive around with 3-lug (!) rims – clearly no US parts there.

Procurement take: 1 part SharePoint + 2 parts cloud app modules + 3 parts Excel. Shake well with a BPO provider and you have procurement "robotic automation.” It might not be pretty, but at least you have something to look at.


Compliance - note the little plaque about the "friendly" neighborhood tattletale living here. In Havana, every block has a designated committee leader of the revolution who reports on anyone with "suspicious" spending patterns, or otherwise questionable dedication. "Where did you get that fresh paint from?” "How did you get your roof fixed?" "Show me receipts for that bag of cement." Plenty of power to get anyone in trouble.

Procurement take: You may as well put a button on the center-led corporate procurement implant at the plant site… "Hi, I'm now with corporate procurement, and I'm here to help!"


Don't step on the grass, which I guess the local planning committee has decided that there must be here. It reminds me of my days in the military, back when there were still paper maps, where the standing joke was "if there is a conflict between what's on the map, and what you see out there, the map rules."

Procurement take: Didn't you read the corporate procurement policy manual? The official buying process is in there. Strike one.

The vaunted Cuban healthcare system - the picture above was from a local pharmacy, or so the sign above the door said. The note on the stick in the picture read, "[pharmacy] closed for inventory taking, please go to the pharmacy on..." This inventory task really shouldn't take long, judging by the look of those shelves. It’s the same level of inventory as in Soviet bread shops after 10 a.m. Nada.​

Procurement take: Under the wrong leadership, people and technology really don't make a difference…

Nope, this is not a picture from Rome showing old ruins, it's from somewhere in La Vieja Habana (Old Havana), built about 100 years ago. You can clearly see how this place used to be gorgeous, and probably was up until around the late ‘60s. Now, Pompeii has areas that look better.

Procurement take: This is your ERP system after customization … or … I don't know why suppliers don't like the supplier portal that we built just for them!

Final Notes

Levity aside, life in Cuba is no joke - before I left, the local family I stayed with saw the pictures I'd taken and they were concerned with the one of the sleeping National Revolutionary Police Force (Policía Nacional Revolucionaria) members. They said it's not a good idea to take pictures of the police. (These days, sometimes that's the case in the US too, but that's a separate story.)

I found my stay there interesting and met with some interesting people. I wish them all the best and hope for a quick transition of power away from the Castros and their ilk. Not so sure a detente is the way to go, as we can see with Russia, sanctions can work, but in the case of Cuba, the Europeans and Canadians send a steady stream of tourists to Cuba, propping up the Castro regime with hard cash.

Depending on how the current easing of relations plays out, this might be old advice by the time you visit Cuba, but I brought with me a whole extra suitcase of various consumables (toothpaste, deodorant, band aids, Tylenol, shampoo, soap, shaving gear, etc.), some toys for kids (baseballs, catcher's mitts), as well as some clothes and tchotchkes from tradeshows. Some of all those bags you always get at events are now in use in Cuba - hugely popular, I guess they are deemed unnecessary by the planning committee. Anyway, if you see a Cuban in Havana with an ISM or other procurement related bag, that might be from me.

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Voices (2)

  1. Lisa Reisman:

    Great piece! Now the evil capitalist dollars will pour in. Next stop, a local Target and Wal-Mart. But based on how many people in the US send money back to their relatives in Cuba, anything has to be better than your pictures right?

  2. Pierre Mitchell:

    “Now, Pompeii has areas that look better.” classic!
    It’s funny, I saw the same thing in Cairo when I visited with my Mom who grew up there (there was a large Sephardic Jewish community there back when Cairo was a very cosmopolitan city like Havana) before Nasser took power in the Suez War and my family scattered all over the world. It wasn’t as easy for my Dad though who was a Greek engineer from Alexandria and was useful to the new regime to help keep the Answan dam (and Suez Canal) running.
    I hope that Havana fares better than Cairo. It’s sad. The everyday people in Egypt are amazing – so gracious and warm – they will literally invite you into their homes for a meal right off the street. The Cubans I’ve met are also very warm and hope that economic freedom will eventually improve their daily lives and maybe even lead to broader social freedom. Only time will tell I guess.

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