Cuba MBA's: As Communism Lingers, A New Backdoor To Capitalism Opens

A Spanish university and Catholic clergy in Cuba have joined forces to help train Cuba's business leaders of the future -- even if 'What Future?' remains a looming question as regulations still restrict free enterprise from bloo

Downtown Havana, Cuba
Downtown Havana, Cuba
Daniela Arce

HAVANA – Even before Cuba began cracking its doors open to capitalism, Paulino Garcia always displayed an entrepreneurial spirit. He spent two years at a university in the Soviet Union before returning to his native Cuba to continue his law studies at the University of Havana. After working for a firm called Climex, Garcia eventually managed to open his own restaurant in 1996, thanks to a new law introduced that allowed people to work for themselves.

"I built it from nothing, and with a lot of sacrifice," Garcia says. "I really wanted to have my own restaurant."

When Cardinal Jaime Ortega Alamino told José Luis Mendoza, the president of the Catholic University (UCAM) in Murcia, Spain, that all of the administrators and owners of small businesses in Cuba needed to go to business school, he was thinking about people like Garcia.

At the end of 2010, Raul Castro's government changed the rules and opened up the economy to a small amount of private business. In November, it announced that barber shops and small cafeterias would become private, and that he would allow an expansion in the number of small restaurants like Garcia's. Now people are starting to realize that running a business requires more than just intuition and common sense.

"The cardinal was reflecting on this need, and our president offered to help fill it," says Gonzalo Wandosell, the vice-dean at the Business Management School at UCAM.

The classes began on Sept. 26 in a symbolic building: the old seminary of San Carlos and San Ambrosio, founded in 1689 and home to the Cultural Center of Father Felix Varela. Wandosell indicated that the 45 founding students come from both state-run companies and private companies, and that there is no requirement for students to be Catholic. "They are engineers, lawyers and economists."

The Church's role in the new MBA program has been substantial. Since 1959, the Cuban clergy has been enemy No. 1 of the revolution, although the Church-state relationship has improved substantially since then, especially after Pope John Paul II's 1998 visit.

On the other hand, the financing for the project has come from a Spanish university, the colonial power up until 1898, which many Cubans still refer to as the Motherland. The connections between the two countries didn't chill in the wake of the Communist revolution, with Spanish investment in Cuba still strong today.

In contrast to the costly programs in other countries, the Cuban MBA is free for students, with the costs covered by the University and donations from businesses in Murcia.

According to Wandosell, the Spaniards are taking care of the instructors' salaries and travel expenses, while the Church "supplies the buildings and coordinates with local instructors," as their director, father Yosvani Carvajal, said.

It isn't the first program of its type attempted Cuba. The Argentinian Business School ADEN tried it first, and was followed by a series of other high-profile trials and failures.

The innovation in the UCAM program is that it is the only one directed exclusively towards entrepreneurs and sole proprietors. That is not the case at the MBA program at the University of Havana, where students must be employed by an official state business to be accepted.

Not recognized at home

Majel Reyes Quesada, an MBA student with a Bachelor's degree in English, said he had practical reasons for wanting to do the program. "I see myself doing something in the future, with the possible new economic opening," he said. "Maybe I'll create a small business."

This is a typical student profile, and it can explain the pragmatic character of the curriculum. "In Spain we would call it professional master's degree," explains Wandosell. "It offers advanced training in business management, but is very orientated toward small and very small businesses and cooperatives, which are the type of enterprises that are being started in Cuba."

In spite of the recent reforms, there are still substantial obstacles for potential entrepreneurs on the island nation. On the one hand, the list of authorized activities precludes Cubans from opening businesses likely to grow large. For example, a book-repair shop is ok, but a publishing house is not. An artisan bricklayer can open his or her own business, but not a construction company. No such company can open while Cuba's constitution specifies that "the economic system is based on socialist principles."

In addition, there is no credit or micro-credit system. Without any access to start-up funds, entrepreneurship opportunities remain limited; and finding funding can be a major obstacle even for people with family abroad. And although the Communist Party passed a resolution during their most recent congress to liberalize the wholesale markets, the reforms have yet to be implemented.

Is this the back door to Cuba's capitalist tradition? Father Carvajal offers the Church's non-ideological position: "It is for Cuba's benefit. The graduates are for Cuba."

At the end of their program, the MBA students will have a degree recognized in the European Union, but not in their own country. The Education Ministry will not officially sanction the program until it is paired with a Cuban university.

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo – Andre Deak

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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