UVA Darden School Students First to Study the New Cuba

07 January 2015

University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Greg Fairchild is traveling in Cuba this week with over two dozen MBA students. This opportunity has come at an interesting time — just as the United States begins to normalize relations with the Cuban government after diplomatic relations broke off 54 years ago. The Darden MBA candidates will be among the first American students to visit Cuba after President Barack Obama and Raul Castro struck a deal to normalize relations.

“Cuba is an interesting animal,” said Fairchild, an entrepreneurship expert. “This is an exceptional opportunity to see a unique economy that’s in transition.”

The 26 Second Year MBA candidates have a busy schedule during their visit to the island country that lies less than 100 miles from the U.S. but is light-years away in political and economic thinking.

The nation of about 11 million people is one of only a handful of communist states left in the world. Under Fidel Castro, and with the help of the then Soviet Union, Venezuela and now China, the country has eked out an existence under the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. In 2008, an ailing and elderly Castro turned his power over to his brother Raul, who has slowly and very modestly begun to loosen restrictions on Cubans and welcomed President Obama’s surprise offer to re-establish relations. But not everybody is happy with that offer. Cuba’s critics point to the country’s suppression of basic civil liberties, lack of respect for human rights and its totalitarian control over politics and the economy as reasons to strike a harder line with Cuba.

One of those critics is Darden Professor Raul Chao, whose Cuban parents fled their native country in 1960. “It’s a closed off society that lacks the most basic human rights that we take for granted as Americans. Imagine living in a society where neighbors are encouraged to report on their fellow neighbors if they suspect someone is not supportive of the Castro regime,” said Chao, an innovation and new-product development expert.  “I have mixed emotions about normalizing relations, particularly since the notion of entrepreneurship in Cuba is a far cry from the rest of the world. We’ll see how it plays out.”

Chao, who helped coordinate the students’ trip, wants to show them “the real Cuba, and not just what the regime wants them to see.”

“I don’t want the students to see Cubans playing guitars and smoking cigars in rustic old Havana and think that’s the daily life of Cubans,” said Chao. “The reality is different as Cubans struggle to meet their basic needs as a result of a failed economic and political system.”

To ensure students gain an appreciation of the political and social history of the country, Chao and his wife, Cristina, who is also of Cuban descent, met with students to discuss the country’s history and culture, its business and economy, the state of human rights on the island and its dissident movement. Cristina Lopez-Gottardi Chao is on the faculty at U.Va.’s Miller Center and teaches courses on Cuban politics.

The students stopped off on 4 January at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies — just before leaving for Cuba — to speak with scholars, Darden alumni who are of Cuban or Latin American descent, and Cuban-American exiles, all of whom have a finger on the pulse of Cuba.

Fairchild knows there is a great deal riding on the trip for many stakeholders in Cuba and here in the U.S.  “Given what’s at stake, many will want to frame the recent announcement of relations with their own slant,” said Fairchild. “It may not always be clear which end is up.”

The students will be in Cuba from 5 to 10 January. The student itinerary includes headquartering at an Old Havana hotel, and visits to entrepreneurial businesses, a tobacco farm, a business that provides supplies to barbers and salons, a museum of fine arts and a hospital.

The students will also have dinner at one of the rare private restaurants in Cuba, stop by the University of Havana and speak with Cuban government officials.

They will also visit a training center for entrepreneurs. That will be a key stop for the students, whose business acumen may be tantalized by a Cuban economy that could allow joint ventures between Cuban and American entrepreneurs.

“I think students will find a chance to do joint ventures with Cubans,” said Fairchild, listing off importable products such as Cuban rum, tobacco, vegetables and fruit. “These are real possibilities. One thing is certain: Cuba will not be the same place in five years.”

Chao is also hopeful. “I hope the students get out of this an appreciation for those things we have taken for granted here in the United States — such as starting your own business and more importantly, the basic freedoms we enjoy.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Sophie Zunz
Director of Media Relations
Darden School of Business
University of Virginia