Cleveland group going to communist Cuba to learn about capitalism
Print By Robert L. Smith, The Plain Dealer
on October 10, 2013 at 4:00 PM, updated October 10, 2013 at 4:03 PM
Entrepreneurs in America tell of enduring an odyssey of challenges: long
hours, self-doubt, fruitless quests for financing. To that, their new
peers in Havana might say, “Tell me about it.”
After 50 years of Soviet-style economics, Cuba is dipping its toe into
capitalism. The early results — cobbler shops, farm stands and
home-based restaurants — may not look like much against a Cleveland
biotech start-up. But a new economy has to start somewhere.
In Cuba’s nascent free market, some see a chance to glimpse business
creation at its most basic and maybe re-learn some forgotten
fundamentals. Tours of capitalist Cuba, like one being offered by
Cuyahoga Community College, promise a trek through a start-up scene like
“People are amazed at what the Cubans do to make it happen,” said Joseph
Scarpaci, a professor of marketing at West Liberty University in West
Virginia. “What the Americans are going to learn about is the resiliency
of the human spirit.”
That, and the fact that entrepreneurs are pretty much the same
everywhere, he said.
Scarpaci, a Cuba expert who leads tours of the authoritarian state,
increasingly fields requests to design trips with a business focus. In
February, he’ll help guide two dozen or so Clevelanders on a travel
program called “Cuba: Entrepreneurship and Emerging Markets.”
Tri-C this week began marketing the tour to economic development groups
and members of COSE, the Council of Smaller Enterprises.
The seven-day trek blends classic tourism with business meetings and
offbeat exploration. Guests will check into Havana’s historic Nacional
Hotel and take a walking tour of Old Havana. But they’ll also sit
through lectures by Cuban economists and travel the country meeting
small business owners.
“We eat in private restaurants as much as we can, which is fun, because
you eat in people’s homes,” Scarpaci said.
The idea is to catch a free market at the cusp. How much there is to be
learned, or exploited, is debatable.
In the last 20 months, Cubans have been granted the right to start
businesses, hire employees and buy and sell houses and cars — practices
prohibited for more than 30 years.
Scarpaci, who founded and directs the Center for the Study of Cuban
Culture and the Economy, said that has resulted in tens of thousands of
new private-sector workers, most of whom are self-employed.
The Cuban economy remains tightly controlled by the government, however,
and that’s not likely to change as long as the Castro brothers — Raul
and Fidel — hold power.
For now, he says, the island presents more of a curiosity than an
Still, the entrepreneurs add an enticing new dimension.
Scarpaci tells of chefs procuring rice on the black market to make a go
of a seaside restaurant, toymakers carving their own wooden molds and
mechanics retrofitting carburetors to make 1950 Chevrolets hum.
“It’s the simplest form of market development,” he said.
Susan Muha, vice president of workforce and economic development at
Tri-C, sees an opportunity for people to glean new insight into small
business development. She also thinks the investment opportunities will
That’s why she partnered with Scarpaci to sponsor a tour in February
through his study center, which is licensed by the U.S government to
arrange charter flights to Cuba for educational tours. She said the
college might add a second tour if the first proves popular.
“A lot of things have been changing in Cuba,” Muha said. “What are the
emerging markets going to be over the next five to 10 years? It’s an
opportunity to get a good, in-depth look at what’s happening on that
Anne Morrison, director of the Cuban Studies Institute at Kent State
University, plans to go back in June with a class of students to see an
evolution she says is quickening.
“They are broadening the businesses that people are allowed to be
involved in,” Morrison said. “Things are opening up, beyond the
restaurants and the bicycle tours.”
Ana Serrano Berk shares her curiosity but not her enthusiasm. She fled
Cuba as a teenager 52 years ago, joining the small Cuban exile community
in Cleveland, where she became a researcher at Case Western Reserve
Berk, who has supported family in Cuba for decades, said she’s glad to
see the Castros loosing their grip on the economy. But she cautions they
can take back what freedoms they give.
“It’s a communist country. The people don’t have any rights,” Berk said.
“There’s no point carrying on a grudge. I think we should give this a
chance. But be very careful.”
Cuyahoga Community College is sponsoring a tour of Cuba’s new economy
February 8-15. Cost is $3,940 per person and includes a charter airline
flight from Miami to Havana. For reservations or to learn more, call
216-987-4307 or email email@example.com
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