By Bonnie Pfister

San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted :
04/15/2003 12:00 AM

HAVANA – It was the shoes that impressed Carlos Mendoza most – the
fact that everybody had them.

During a recent weeklong trip to Havana with 13 fellow students from San
Antonio’s St. Mary’s University, the Mexico City native could not help
but compare and contrast Cuba to his home.

Both welcome foreign visitors with friendly curiosity, especially those
making an attempt to speak Spanish. Both Latin American nations grapple
with underdevelopment. But being poor in Cuba means something different,
something, well, better.

“I didn’t see poverty as I do in Mexico,” Mendoza said. “I define being
poor as people begging who don’t have food to eat every day, (who have) no
house, no job, dirty clothes. In Cuba, I saw a better economic situation.
The basic necessities are covered.

“The shoes: I found that very interesting. I didn’t see one person without

Mendoza, a junior international business major, and his classmates spent
March 14-23 meeting with legislators, health care professionals and
educators, as well as visiting a tobacco farm and cigar factory. They
participated in a graduate-level business administration course designed by
visiting accounting professor Wayne Label.

Waiting to climb aboard a lightly insulated 30-seat Beechcraft for the
one-hour flight from Miami International Airport, the group was not unique.
A half-dozen other licensed tour groups milled about near a baggage claim,
where an unmarked walled-off area allowed for inspection of baggage by U.S.
agents, and for the tour agency which charted the Continental craft to
issue handwritten boarding passes.

Treasury officials say the agency licensed 25,000 visitors in 2002 –
although the agency recently restricted new licenses for non-academic
“People To People” educational visas, the kind under which an alumni group
from a Midwestern college was using that day.

Upon their return, Label, who has taught at universities in Laredo, Rio de
Janeiro and Honolulu, declared the trip a success.

Students visited a local elementary school, where each day starts with a
discussion of current events. That’s something Label says he has since

While propaganda in the education systems is clear, he said he didn’t see
Cuba’s biases as much more pronounced than those in the United States.

“(Each nation) has a perception of history that we choose to teach our
children,” Label said. “But there’s a great statement we learned the other
day from Karl Marx: There is no such thing as a neutral educator.”

Some of the students said they were able to learn specific things about how
Cuba’s unique economy, focused for the past decade on attracting hard
currency, functions.

While hotels, mining and citrus groves are being developed in concert with
international investors, other sectors such as education and the military
remain off-limits.

“They only allow investment with companies that are willing to play along,”
said Greg Johnson, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in economics. Joint
ventures between the state and international firms must employ a certain
number of Cuban workers, who are screened by a government agency set up for
this purpose.

The company pays the workers a basic Cuban salary – between $12 and $25
U.S. dollars a month – and keeps the remaining for the general budget.

“Not a bad cut for an employment agency. Their take can sometimes exceeded
70 percent,” Johnson noted.

According to a 1998 academic case study, Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia’s 11
Cuban hotels, while only 4 percent of the chain’s international investment,
represent 10 percent of the firm’s earnings. That percentage likely has
declined recently with the worldwide downturn in tourism after 9-11.

But most investors are looking beyond short-term gains, Johnson theorized.

“They fact that they are ‘first movers’ puts them in a position to take
advantage when the Cubans decide to open their economy or the embargo is
lifted,” he said.

Culture and politics, however, formed the basis for most of the students’
insights. One morning they heard a briefing on Washington’s policy at the
U.S. Interest Section’s bunkered offices, and several were plainly in
disagreement. Later that day, they sipped strong hot cafecitos around a
table with a top official from the Cuban foreign ministry.

Several questioned the U.S. official’s explanation of the four-decade
embargo, calling it out of sync with reality.

Typically, “every country looks out for itself,” international relations
graduate student Orlando Gutierrez said later. “But Cuba is not that
important now. The level of rhetoric is out of proportion to any kind of
threat a realist might see.”

Havana’s functionary also was peppered with questions. As Cuba embraces
tourist-focused development, several students worried that in the future,
such American franchises as McDonald’s would mar the Malecon, the city’s
seaside promenade.

The official glided past suggestions that development one day might not be
so centrally controlled. Other Cubans just laughed, recalled Sara Castillo,
who graduates next month with a bachelor’s degree in marketing.

“Starbucks on the Malecon; is that really a bad thing?” Castillo said. “At
this point, they would just be happy with the option of being able to
purchase a cup of coffee from Starbucks.

“When the doors are open, Americans are going to swarm to Cuba looking for
business opportunities. If Cuba’s government is wise, (it) will let its
citizens have a chance to build before anyone else.”

Neither the political nor the economic system quite works in Cuba, Castillo

“Obviously, there must be something wrong, or mothers would not be sending
their young children to ask Americans like us for dollars or candy,” she
noted. “But it is not as bad as the U.S. media makes it out to be. I saw
people laughing, talking at Copelia (Park), and generally having a good
time. I didn’t see any people starving. And I was looking.”

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