October 3, 2011 12:25 am
Cuba opens doors to MBA studies
By Marc Frank
San Carlos y San Ambrosia Seminary is home to the new MBA programme
In what may well signal a slight political and economic thaw in the
communist-run country, Cuba has opened its first MBA programme.
The part-time programme is an educational initiative of the Roman
Catholic Church. Small businesses and the church's educational mission
have traditionally been thwarted in the country and the programme, by
Cuban standards, is a remarkable event.
The MBA is being run from the 18th-century San Carlos y San Ambrosio
Seminary in Havana, home to the Felix Varela Cultural Centre, which
sponsors the MBA. Plans for the centre originated at the Pontifical
Council for Culture at the Vatican, which wants similar centres to be
built in other big cities.
Outside the seminary, on Chacón Street, private taxi drivers trawl for
fares and snack and artisan shops compete with the state for tourist
dollars, attesting to the changing retail scene on Cuba's streets.
"Private business was not favourably looked upon in Cuba just a year
ago. An entrepreneur was even viewed as a criminal, a delinquent," says
Father Yosvani Carvajal, director of the centre. "Today businessmen are
viewed as contributing to society and the economy, but with what tools?
We are going to provide those tools … how to start and run a business,
marketing and the like."
Fidel Castro, the former president, took over the country's retail
sector in 1968 in what he called the "Revolutionary Offensive". Raúl
Castro, who replaced his older brother in 2006, recently described that
decision as a "mistake that was perhaps unavoidable at the time", and
has repeatedly stressed the need for the state to withdraw from
secondary economic activity.
Professors from the San Antonio Catholic University of Murcia in Spain
will teach the MBA classes for a week each month, with students studying
the curriculum under the direction of Cuban economists for the remainder
of the time.
Father Carvajal, a lean, soft-spoken man with a serene and seemingly
permanent smile, says the MBA programme is the first of its kind in Cuba
and marks an important milestone for the church.
"The MBA is just the first course [that] the centre's new Institute for
Ecclesiastic Studies will offer, mainly in the humanities and theology,
for example psychology, in conjunction with foreign universities and
Cuban professors," he says.
"We are not questioning the state's role in education, but the church,
as part of its calling, has always been a teacher and this is now seen
as something positive."
Esade business school in Barcelona, Spain is part of a project led by
the European Foundation for Management Development and financed by the
EU, aimed at improving the management skills of Cuban executives. The
project was due to start last year but is currently on hold.
In recent months, Cuba has lifted a myriad of restrictions on what it
calls "working for oneself", a euphemism in many cases for running a
small business. Working for oneself was first introduced during the
1990s, but subsequently regulated by Fidel Castro to the point of
Last year there were about 150,000 "self-employed" out of a workforce of
about 6m. Today, the "non-state sector" consists of 350,000 licensed
tradesmen, small businesses and their employees, according to the
government, which plans to move 35 per cent of the labour force into
such activities and private farming in the next few years.
When the MBA students gathered last week for their first classes, their
dreams were of bigger ventures than the family operations on Chacón
Street. Local economists believe competition and market forces will
eventually lead to more sophisticated businesses in retail services,
small-scale manufacturing and construction.
"These students will certainly emerge with more than a diploma. They
will have the knowledge they need to compete and that's what this
country needs," one economist said.
Sceptics however, wonder if Mr Castro's reforms will be shortlived,
given the fate of less comprehensive reforms in the past.
"These are surprising, really unthinkable changes for someone who has
always lived in Cuba, so I understand the sceptics," says Father
Carvajal. He points to reforms that make it easier to go into business
on a limited scale and include the right to hire workers, seek bank
credit and do business with the state. "I think this time the door has
been opened and will never again close. That is why we are offering the