“SEÑOR  KAPUR – DUMP THE ENTIRE CONSIGNMENT OF VIALS IN OCÉANO ATLÁNTICO”, raged the director de Empresa of a large pharma company in Havana.

This foretold a distressing end to my attempts at business in Cuba. Our goods were being condemned to a watery grave!

The subject of this dispute was our winning and fulfilling a tender for a large quantity of glass vials – we had provided 50 units of vials as samples with detailed dimensional drawings with our bid, strictly complying with requirements – and had won the contract upon techno-commercial evaluation.

The consignments, five containers at a time, were independently inspected by a reputed international inspection agency to avoid disputes regarding specifications. While waiting on payment, we received the summons to visit Cuba immediately.

Cuban ‘jugaad’: Chevvy with Russian engine

I arrived in Havana, a charming city, after a gruelingly long flight. I seemed to have entered a time warp, for it looked like the ’50s after the revolution.  A 1950’s pink Chevrolet, with a 1980s  Soviet engine under its hood, transported me from Jose Marti Airport to the fabled Hotel Nacionale.

Then I discovered that the vials we had supplied the pharmaceutical company were of no use to them! Even though they were consistent with the samples and drawing provided! A medical crisis raged on and distribution of eye drops had ground to a halt!

 The vial required was 10 cc in volumetric terms. While Cuba used tall, narrow vials, we’d supplied short, wide ones! Though we’d supplied samples and drawings, the shape somehow had not been considered while evaluating and signing the contract. Our vials could not fit in their filling machines! It was the old “square peg in a round hole” problem! Worse – we had no approval of drawings in writing!

We were legally in the right but the Director summarily dismissed our case.

Dejected, I came back to the Nacionale, and settling down in the hotel’s ocean sidebar, nursed a minty Mojito and morosely visualized the vials at the bottom of that very ocean.

In the haze of Habanos cigar smoke,  I saw a lady who seemed vaguely familiar. A closer look convinced me I was right – she was the technical director of the pharma company! And had been part of the team I’d met.

With nothing to lose and everything to gain, I walked towards her. ”Buenas noches – cómo está usted?” said I, using my rudimentary Spanish. She smiled and accepted my offer of a drink. This serendipitous meeting proved lucky.

With Cuban jazz and Cuba libre flowing, time flew – we spoke about our families, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro, the Bay of Pigs crisis but I did not raise the matter top-most on my mind – the vials. This stood me in good stead – to talk shop on a Friday evening would have been a social solecism in Cuba!

The ‘pull’ that worked

Pitying the first-time visitor to Cuba, my new found friend decided to show me around Havana over the weekend. We visited Capitol Hill (the grander version of its American counterpart), the famed Cohibas Cigar factory, Havana Club Rum factory and Ernest Hemingway’s much-frequented watering holes – Floridita ( little Florida) and La Bodeguita where his favourite tipple Daiquiri was “ invented”. While walking the cobblestoned old town, Habana Vieja, we came across a sculpture of a bearded man.  “Pull the beard of this mythical man and all your wishes will come true,” said my host. I pulled his beard three times with a silent prayer!

As we settled to lunch in a paladar with Abuela (grandmother style) Cuban cuisine, we started brain-storming based on the premise that the vials could not be taken back under any circumstances! Smilingly, my new-found friend said, “Why not bring the well to the horse if the horse does not come to the well?” I was confused until she explained further.

Why not, she asked, check the cost of a new filling machine, which could handle different sizes of vials, both the existing ones and the ones we had supplied? Great idea!

In the meantime, our legal department back home was busy preparing a strong case to contest our claim based on circumstantial evidence and deemed provisions, etc. My principle, however, was never to talk law to the customer – it antagonizes them, and it is always harder to find a new customer when you lose one.

Back in my hotel, I urgently emailed my office to check on the possibility of purchasing a filling machine. Eureka! Almost immediately, we found a manufacturer who could provide a machine for different vial sizes – both those we had supplied, and the existing ones in Cuba, at a cost of less than 75000€. That was less than 5% of the value of the total consignment of vials. This would replace the buyer’s obsolete machine with the latest machine – a win-win for both sides.

The very next morning, I presented this proposal to the Director which he accepted with alacrity! All that was required to do was get a 5% discount. I found a way around that – if they placed orders for 15% more vials, of the kind currently being used by them, this immediate shortfall would be met. Not only would our loss be made good, but their distribution of medication would also continue uninterrupted.

The Parisienne Cabaret in Havana

Thus ended what promised to be an unsolvable dispute. To celebrate, we went to the famed Tropicana (since 1939) one of the last bastions of Las Vegas-style nightlife in Havana – the kitschy Parisienne Cabaret.

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my Cuban adventure was that when your square peg meets a round hole, rather than trying to find a round peg, try finding a square hole! Of course, other administrative lessons included getting all elements of the contract approved in writing, and avoid raising the prospect of litigation when a creative alternative might be at hand. And, always respect quaint local customs, even if it involves pulling the beard of a mythical man!