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Management school hosts immersion course in Cuba led by Cuban-born professor

Pictured are students participating in the immersion course in Cuba. The course, which was hosted by Anderson School of Management Associate Dean Gonzalo Freixes, aimed to teach students about the opening of private industry in the country. (Courtesy of Lucy Allard)

By Christopher Buchanan

Jan. 8, 2024 1:48 p.m.

Sixty-two years after Gonzalo Freixes fled Cuba with his family, UCLA finally gave him a chance to return.

When arriving to host a global immersion course in the country, Freixes, an associate dean and adjunct professor of accounting in the UCLA Anderson School of Management, said he had a nostalgic return to his native country, which he realized had developed little since his departure.

Anderson has hosted four-unit global immersion courses since 2008 to allow students to develop their knowledge of business, government and public policy in foreign economic and social environments, said Lucy Allard, executive director of the Center for Global Management.

Allard added that before joining the program, students must complete three orientation sessions and additional campus courses to properly prepare for social situations they may encounter and examine how businesses function in their destination.

Freixes said that while he has hosted over 50 of these courses across South America before, this trip was of special importance because it allowed him to revisit the country of his birth with his Cuban-born wife, Graciela Freixes.

The course was Freixes’ first opportunity to return to Cuba since he fled at age six in 1961.

“My parents and my extended family were very involved first in the revolution against (Fulgencio) Batista, … (but) they turned against the (Fidel) Castro government and were involved in counter-revolutionary activities,” Freixes said. “My dad was arrested and was actually scheduled to be executed.”

According to the United States Department of State, the Cuban Revolution caused a mass exodus to the U.S. of Cubans who sought to defect from Castro’s newly established Marxist-Leninist communist regime. Since then, the U.S. has maintained an embargo on Cuba that prohibits any U.S.-based or majority-owned business from operating in government-owned Cuban industries, decreasing economic interaction between both nations.

Because of historically tense relations between the U.S. and Cuba, making arrangements for the 40-student trip with existing travel restrictions to Cuba was especially difficult, Allard added.

Upon entering his wife’s family’s home in Santa Clara – a city in Cuba – Freixes said it felt as if he was suspended in time. Soviet-era furniture and vehicles mingled with the aged and dilapidated exterior infrastructure of the home, which Freixes said caused strong feelings of nostalgia and grief.

“She (Graciela) sat on the rocking chair that she sat on as a five year old, and she’s now in her 60s,” Freixes said. “They (Cuba) have not been able to progress, and everyone in my family that came to the United States did reasonably well economically, some exceptionally well.”

Hemesh Patel, a graduate student in management who went on the trip, said he thought the architecture of Cuba reflected the current state of its citizens.

“It really opened my eyes, because the Cuban people are suffering, and a lot of people are leaving, and you can see it in the streets,” Patel said. “Their architecture is incredible, but the upkeep is not maintained. It’s just been left there since 1959.”

The Cuban Communist Party officially recognized private enterprise as legitimate in 2016, opening up the development of entrepreneurial and free market opportunities for Cuban citizens, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. Freixes said he believes this amendment has led to significant economic progress, especially concerning small business, which were important for Anderson students to experience firsthand.

Freixes said he believes there is a large subsection of Cuban residents that still opposes the expansion of private business but added that he has also seen more resistance to the Marxist-Leninist economic model in recent years, such as in the 2021 anti-government protests.

As part of the course, students experienced lectures, experiential industry training, and paid visits to private and state-owned businesses, including ones that produce cigars and sugar cane in Havana, Allard and Freixes said.

(Courtesy of Lucy Allard)
Pictured are MBA students at a site visit as part of the course. (Courtesy of Lucy Allard)

Patel, who also works as a physician, said it was fascinating to visit and learn about Cuba’s socialized, government-run healthcare system and some of the treatments they have developed in the country.

However, Patel added that the effects of the U.S. embargo are apparent in the healthcare system.

“In Cuba, they called it (the embargo) the blockade,” Patel said. “We heard stories where there’s a black market for medication: things as simple as Tylenol, Motrin, ibuprofen – they’re not readily available.”

Christopher Evanson, a graduate student in management, said although the embargo has had evident effects on the country’s economy, Cuba has continued to thrive culturally. He added that while the country’s colorful infrastructure was dated, he saw no shortage of cultural expression among the Cuban people.

“If you peel back the onion, and you actually embed and immerse yourself into Cuban culture, the Cuban culture is fascinating, and it’s lively,” Evanson said. “We talked to a lot of people on the streets, and we were welcomed with open arms.”

Evanson, who is also a former Coast Guard member, said that during his service in Florida, he patrolled the Atlantic Ocean to facilitate migration into the U.S. from Cuba. Evanson added that he believed the opportunity to visit Cuba as a student after his service was an invaluable learning experience.

“Cuba is literally so close to the United States, but it’s a completely different world,” Evanston said. “To the Americans in this country, for essentially our whole lives, it’s been an enigma.”

Freixes said there have been radical changes in Cuba’s approach to business, but that he believes government policy has stubbornly remained authoritarian.

“The younger generation in both the U.S. Cuban American community and in Cuba are more open to fostering better relationships between the parties, between the countries, especially on the economic front,” he said. “They tend to go back more often, as opposed to people from my generation like me that hadn’t gone back in 60 years.”

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