SSU faculty join rare Cuba visit

Michael Visser (next to statue) Sonoma State University assistant professor of economics, and Geology Department professor and Chair Matthew James (far right) joined a group of scholars from across the U.S. for a trip to Cuba in December 2015 as part of an education and research delegation.

When the unique opportunity to visit Cuba presented itself, two Sonoma State University professors dropped everything to travel to the U.S. embargoed country.

“Economically, Cuba is unique. There are only a handful of truly closed economies in the world, and this is a pivotal moment in their history,” said Michael Visser, SSU assistant professor of economics.

Visser and SSU Geology Department Professor and Chair Matthew James joined a group of 20 scholars from all across the U.S. who traveled to Cuba last December as part of an education and research delegation. They were exposed to current issues in Cuban society and introduced to the growing pains the country is going through.

The trip was created and sponsored by the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC) in collaboration with the University of Havana’s Instituto Cubano de Investigación Cultural Juan Marinello. SSU is the only college in California that belongs to COPLAC.

Both professors have taken students on academic trips to Europe, Canada and elsewhere and said they would like to take them to Cuba and possibly initiate a student exchange program.

Current Executive MBA students in the School of Business and Economics will have an opportunity to travel to Cuba in spring 2016 as part of the international study tour and experiential learning component of the executive-level program.

While Visser described the trip as “surreal,” James called it a “remarkable event, both transformative and enjoyable.”

Until recently, Cuba has remained a very isolated country. The visit was a chance to meet with scholars and hear what life is like in the country now as they struggle to open their country to the world. For Cuba, the visit was a chance to gain sympathetic ears and make connections outside their country.

The U.S. delegation attended daily lectures from experts in cultural history, demographics, economic integration, urban planning and natural recourses management.

“It was an intense scholarly experience,” James said.

The delegation included a mix of faculty from the humanities and social sciences. As the only economist in the group, Visser acknowledged the problems the country faces wanting to maintain its cultural identity and the realities of opening up to the rest of the world.

“They want to make the transition while retaining their national and sovereign identity, which will be a challenge. When the U.S.S.R. stopped sending aid, with few allies, Cuba turned to Venezuela for help, which is now struggling,” Visser said. “With no aid and few allies, I think they have no choice but to open their country. Their changing life will bring challenges and opportunities and they’re going to have to make compromises everywhere.”

One of those challenges is that Cubans cannot study any form of business in school, like marketing or management, which would help prime them to be a major world force, James said.

Cuba also has two currencies. There is the National peso the government issues to workers, and can only be used within the country, and there is another peso which can be exchanged into foreign currency. The question is which one to keep and the challenge will be to resolve the issue without extreme inflation or deflation, Visser said. Currently, with no free enterprise within the country, the government maintains price controls.

The country has its natural beauty and exotic lure going for it, however. The country is experiencing a large influx of visitors from Canada and European travelers who are visiting Cuba, Visser said.

The largest country in the Caribbean, Cuba has a unique series of environs, and the country is ripe for ecotourism.

“It’s low lying fruit. They are in the process of trying to develop ecotourism without giving in to the giant machine of tourism,” Visser said.

Another challenge to its economy is that Cuba imports three times more products than they export. They are currently looking at processing some of those exports, like sugar into molasses, to capture more product value. The problem is finding capital investment, which is scarce.

Cuba also has an aging population and a high number of defecting residents. The population is highly educated, and people enjoy a superior health care system with plenty of doctors. However, they are not paid what their counterparts are elsewhere and as a result a large number leave for other countries.

Local college students who spoke to the group expressed the sentiment that things are definitely changing.

“All are fairly optimistic, even though there are very few details yet,” Visser said.

CYNTHIA SWEENEY, The North Bay Business Journal

January 11, 2016

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