Opportunity Knocks

October 13, 2003

Although its coast lies fewer than 100 miles from Florida, the island of Cuba -- closed to the majority of Americans since Fidel Castro led the 1959 revolution -- still remains an intriguing mystery. And the allure is not surprising, says Dr. Rick Martinez, assistant professor of management and a sponsor of the two-year-old Baylor in Cuba program. 
"Cuba is Cuba. It's a novelty. A lot of people would like to be able to say they've gone there," he says. 
Because of the trade embargo, though, few have been given permission by the U.S. government to spend American dollars there; even so, Dr. Martinez and Dr. Les Palich, associate professor of management in the Hankamer School of Business and the program's director, were given the go-ahead for summer 2002 to accompany 13 students, mostly business majors, to the socialist country. 
"Cuba is not a place that people think of quickly when they think of places to do business internationally," Dr. Palich says.
The country's political, cultural and economic history, however, is exactly what makes it an ideal case study, Dr. Martinez says. "Business is everywhere. I don't care whether you're communist or capitalist, there's business going on." 
Last May, the two professors returned to Cuba with a larger group, including Dr. Manuel Ortuño, Spanish professor and chair of modern foreign languages, who taught an upper-level Spanish course (see "Finding mi familia" on page 38). This time, nearly two dozen graduate and undergraduate students participated. "It was very much an unfolding adventure," Dr. Martinez says. "The students, to a person, felt like it was one of the greatest educational experiences they've ever had."
The program offers six hours of credit through two courses -- Contemporary Studies in Cuba, which counts as a business class and is required of all the participants, and a customized special studies course. Research papers, based on topics selected before the trip, make up a portion of the grade, as do the journals the students are required to keep. 
United States and Cuban government officials require an itinerary for every day spent in Cuba, with the latter determining most of the sites a group is allowed to visit, Dr. Martinez says. Still, during the two summers, there were opportunities for some spontaneous educational experiences such as tours of textile and cigar factories. "We basically knocked on the door and said, 'Can we come in?'" he says. "The great thing about that was it wasn't scripted, so there wasn't a party line or anything. We just got to see how they did what they do." 
The experience was "eye-opening," says Josh Peacock, a senior real estate and management double major from Houston. "Cuba is one of the last communist countries in the world. You really get to experience what it's like not being in the capitalist market."
Enabling Baylor's future business leaders to observe the shortcomings of Cuba's socialist system is valuable, Dr. Martinez says. "They are able to see what are the things that don't work well. They're able to see what breaks down. They're able to see how the people in the society suffer as a result of that," he says. "The Cubans are pretty industrious -- you work with what you have and they have done that. But they don't have a lot to work with and that becomes pretty clear, pretty quickly."
The students' interaction with the Cuban people, the majority of whom publicly laud the benefits of socialism, made for interesting discussions, says Dr. Martinez, who also kept a journal during the trip. In one entry, he summarizes what happened when the group met with a man with strong convictions about communism: "The conversation was pretty volatile at times. Mr. G is quite ideological, and his views rankled our students quite a bit. Many of our students -- mostly the Americans -- have little experience in facing the contrary views held by others outside the U.S.," he writes.
Costa Rica-born Mario Perez, an MBA student, was one of Baylor's six international students who participated in last summer's program. He credits his extensive exposure both traveling and working within Latin and Central America for helping prepare him for his visit to Cuba. "I try to have the mind-set that, when I'm going to a country, I'm open for embracing whatever that country wants to give me," he says. 
In Perez's case, the lessons were more than academic. He says he was impressed with the Cubans' pace of life and their commitment to traditional values such as respecting elders and prioritizing family. "There are some cities in the world that are too fast and too time-oriented, and you lose complete touch with your life," he says. 
"There's a Cuban phrase, en la lucha, which means 'in the struggle,'" he says. "It's a struggle to be better human beings. ... You see people who aren't necessarily happy where they are, same as in every other place in the world. They want to be better. They want to move. But they're happy that they're doing it at their own pace."
Although other American universities recently have begun to target Cuba for study abroad programs, Baylor is one of the few, if not the only, that's geared its study there toward business -- and Dr. Martinez says there's a reason for that. "The bad relations we have with Cuba are not going to last forever, nor should they," he says. "Once there is more favorable change in the government, trade and travel in Cuba will open up." 
When that happens, American investors will seize the opportunity to expand their businesses and will be looking for people who have some knowledge of Cuba, he says. "We believe it will be an advantage for our students to be able to say, 'I've been there. I've operated in that economy, I'm familiar with the geography, I've talked with the people.'" 
Already, the Cuban government is preparing the way for renewed relationships with the United States, Dr. Martinez says. The sugar industry, long Cuba's only means of revenue, is being phased out; tourism, one way to capitalize on the island's beautiful beaches, is being positioned as its replacement. 
"People will pay money to come and visit Cuba. It's kind of got this romantic, novel feel to it," he says. In recent years, joint ventures between the Cuban government and European corporations have built elaborate resort areas on the coasts, a trend Dr. Martinez believes will continue. That's not a license, however, to say "here's a great opportunity to go exploit the environment. We have a responsibility for stewardship," he says.
Perez agrees that overdevelopment often is a danger in nations that are trying to build tourism industries, but says he's confident the Cuban people will protect their country. "The people have a strong heritage and a strong identity, and they're not willing, in my opinion, to step over that just to create another Caribbean resort getaway," he says. "That's one way of defining progress; it may not be their way."
Preparations already are under way for this summer's return to Cuba, Dr. Palich says. "The program offers such a rich and unusual learning opportunity," he says. "CNN reported that Cuba allowed only 905 American students to visit during the 2000-01 academic year. We would like for Baylor students to represent an even larger portion of that total."