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Spring Break in Cuba? Students Explore Emergence of Private Enterprise

In the first of its kind for Belmont, 21 undergraduate students spent their Spring Breaks in one of the few remaining communist countries, Cuba, studying  “The Emergence of Private Enterprise within the Boundaries of a Communist Economy.” The purpose of this course was to expose students to a unique study abroad academic experience.  Cuba’s economic model has struggled since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and its centrally controlled, state-run economy was in trouble even before the global financial crisis hit in 2008-09.

“During the week the group had the opportunity to hear from professors at the University of Havana, from a retired Cuban  Supreme Court Justice  and other officials who shared their own perspectives about the challenges and opportunities [recent economic] changes mean for Cuban society,”  said Jose Gonzalez who teaches entrepreneurship and led the trip jointly with Dr. Marieta Velikova.

In September 2010, the Cuban government announced the elimination of up to 1.3 million jobs at state-run companies. To counter these massive cuts President Raul Castro instituted a range of economic reforms intended to allow greater private economic activity to reduce government expenditures, increase productivity and raise wages. These free market reforms are aimed at kick-starting the island’s economy.

Castro also opened up the door to private ownership of small business by creating 178 categories of self-employment. Since then, more than 371,000 private business licenses have been issued to micro entrepreneurs, and especially in Havana the number of small businesses ranging from beauty shops, mechanics and small retailers has swelled. After more than 50 years of restrictions, these small private enterprises have been granted the freedom to market some products and some flexibility to hire employees. However, few, if any of these new entrepreneurs, has had any experience with capitalism after 50 years in a Marxist economy.

Gonzalez added, ““The Study Abroad program was a unique opportunity to explore and experience first-hand how this nascent entrepreneurial activity is playing out in the marketplace. While these initiatives  are not a return to capitalism and remain a long way short of the Chinese and Vietnamese market reforms, they are fast taking root around Havana’s prompting Cubans all over to ponder how to get in on the wave.”

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