Guennady Rodriguez may be a Cuban émigré, but his musical tastes aren’t exactly counter-revolutionary.
Inside his apartment near Miami International Airport, Rodriguez likes to pull out his guitar and strum tunes by Pablo Milanés, a Cuban troubadour who’s considered a favorite of the Castro regime.
It’s when the 33-year-old Rodriguez puts on a suit and tie and goes to work in downtown Miami that his break with Havana becomes obvious. Rodriguez is a senior sales executive at a large international company that organizes corporate events.
“I try to be in contact with the main banks in Latin America,” he says. “I try to understand what they need.”
Rodriguez can understand what they need because, not surprisingly, he has a master’s of business administration degree. But what is unusual is that Rodriguez got his MBA – that iconic symbol of capitalism – in communist Cuba.
He was in fact valedictorian of an entire graduating class. Scores of other Cubans have earned MBAs inside Cuba, making them the little known vanguard of the Cuban Revolution’s newest revolution: learning business.
“This is the fashion now” in Cuba, says Rodriguez. “This is the main topic now.”
Especially now that Cuba and the U.S. are normalizing relations. Later this week in Panama, Cuba will attend the Summit of the Americas for the first time ever. Cuban leader Raúl Castro will join the hemisphere’s other heads of state, including President Obama – who in recent months has been relaxing restrictions on trade with the U.S.’s cold-war foe.
As more U.S.-Cuba business opportunities emerge, MBAs like Rodriguez stand to become commercial bridges across the Florida Straits.
“I understand how things work in Cuba,” says Rodriguez. “Now I understand how things work in Miami. I’ll be really glad if I can do all the help I can. It will be like the payoff of all this.”
The reason Rodriguez and so many others could score their Cuban MBAs is that in 2010, Castro was looking for his own payoff.
To save the island’s shriveled economy, he needed more private-sector businesses. To help build them, he turned to the one non-communist institution he trusts: the Roman Catholic Church.
The church then called UCAM – the San Antonio Catholic University in Murcia, Spain. Gonzalo Wandosell, who heads UCAM’s business department, says as soon as he touched down in Cuba he was overwhelmed by the demand.
“I did not expect the tremendous desire I found among younger Cubans for serious business studies and entrepreneurship,” says Wandosell, who quickly set about designing the one-year MBA course for Cuba. “This was one of the most enjoyable highlights of my career.”
One explanation for that demand: More pragmatic, post-revolutionary Cubans like Rodriguez knew political reform wasn’t coming any time soon. So economics seemed the best arena for promoting change – or at least getting things to work more efficiently.
“At first I thought, OK, business is just about making numbers,” says Rodriguez. “But then you understand business is [about] working with the culture: How people consume, live their lives. So when you’re making a company you’re changing habits, how people think.”
There were hundreds of applications. Rodriguez and some 50 other students were selected, and in the fall of 2011 they started classes at a Catholic cultural center in Havana. None hailed from the communist and military elite, who have access to training like this but only in order to manage state-owned Cuban businesses.
“It was a group made up of very different types of people,” says Majel Reyes, a translator in Havana and a member of that first class. “They included, you know, the typical housewife [who] was trying to do a rental business in her home, to [already] very successful entrepreneurs.”
Tuition was free, picked up by UCAM and the church. But Reyes says studying for the MBA felt like learning another foreign language.
“I was raised in the socialist system,” she says, “and I had no notion how business was conducted.”
The course also had to reconcile business theory with Cuban reality.
Rodriguez recalls Spanish professors would teach classic business start-up methods one day – and the next, Cuban profs would then explain how to navigate the country’s onerous bureaucracy and scarce resources.
“Cuba has a very exotic economic system,” says Rodriguez. “For one thing, it’s a dual-currency system. It’s very difficult to understand even for the people who are inside Cuba.”
After Rodriguez’s year, there was one more graduating class in 2013. But then, suddenly, Cuba’s MBA program ended.
No reason was ever given, and the Cuban Catholic Church declined comment. Most believe a nervous Castro government simply felt the need to rein in Cubans’ capitalist enthusiasm.
“Political conditions changed quickly,” Wandosell remembers.
Many Cuban MBAs have since started small enterprises, including an Internet company and a job-training firm that's become a community development engine. Some took their skills to other countries, including Rodriguez, who emigrated to Miami last year.
But business experts say if Cuba wants its new relationship with the U.S. to work, it should consider educating MBAs again. Cubans with that learning could help U.S. companies understand not just products but body language and other cultural nuances.
“I always tell people, you’ve dealt with companies all over the world – and then there’s Cuba,” says Pamela Ann Martin, who owns Molimar Export Consultants Inc. in Pennsylvania, which does work in Cuba.
Cuban MBAs agree. Reyes now has a thriving translation services business in Havana that often helps U.S. business people. She also just bought her first rental property to manage.
“It’s an exciting time,” she says.
And perhaps, as her MBA classmate Rodriguez might say, payoff time.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.