In what may well signal a slight political and economic thaw in the communist-run country, Cuba has opened its first MBA programme.

The part-time programme is an educational initiative of the Roman Catholic Church. Small businesses and the church’s educational mission have traditionally been thwarted in the country and the programme, by Cuban standards, is a remarkable event.

The MBA is being run from the 18th-century San Carlos y San Ambrosio Seminary in Havana, home to the Felix Varela Cultural Centre, which sponsors the MBA. Plans for the centre originated at the Pontifical Council for Culture at the Vatican, which wants similar centres to be built in other big cities.

Outside the seminary, on Chacón Street, private taxi drivers trawl for fares and snack and artisan shops compete with the state for tourist dollars, attesting to the changing retail scene on Cuba’s streets.

“Private business was not favourably looked upon in Cuba just a year ago. An entrepreneur was even viewed as a criminal, a delinquent,” says Father Yosvani Carvajal, director of the centre. “Today businessmen are viewed as contributing to society and the economy, but with what tools? We are going to provide those tools …how to start and run a business, marketing and the like.”

Fidel Castro, the former president, took over the country’s retail sector in 1968 in what he called the “Revolutionary Offensive”. Raúl Castro, who replaced his older brother in 2006, recently described that decision as a “mistake that was perhaps unavoidable at the time”, and has repeatedly stressed the need for the state to withdraw from secondary economic activity.

Professors from the San Antonio Catholic University of Murcia in Spain will teach the MBA classes for a week each month, with students studying the curriculum under the direction of Cuban economists for the remainder of the time.

Father Carvajal, a lean, soft-spoken man with a serene and seemingly permanent smile, says the MBA programme is the first of its kind in Cuba and marks an important milestone for the church.

“The MBA is just the first course [that] the centre’s new Institute for Ecclesiastic Studies will offer, mainly in the humanities and theology, for example psychology, in conjunction with foreign universities and Cuban professors,” he says.

“We are not questioning the state’s role in education, but the church, as part of its calling, has always been a teacher and this is now seen as something positive.”

Esade business school in Barcelona, Spain is part of a project led by the European Foundation for Management Development and financed by the EU, aimed at improving the management skills of Cuban executives. The project was due to start last year but is currently on hold.

In recent months, Cuba has lifted a myriad of restrictions on what it calls “working for oneself”, a euphemism in many cases for running a small business. Working for oneself was first introduced during the 1990s, but subsequently regulated by Fidel Castro to the point of extinction.

Last year there were about 150,000 “self-employed” out of a workforce of about 6m. Today, the “non-state sector” consists of 350,000 licensed tradesmen, small businesses and their employees, according to the government, which plans to move 35 per cent of the labour force into such activities and private farming in the next few years.

When the MBA students gathered last week for their first classes, their dreams were of bigger ventures than the family operations on Chacón Street. Local economists believe competition and market forces will eventually lead to more sophisticated businesses in retail services, small-scale manufacturing and construction.

“These students will certainly emerge with more than a diploma. They will have the knowledge they need to compete and that’s what this country needs,” one economist said.

Sceptics however, wonder if Mr Castro’s reforms will be shortlived, given the fate of less comprehensive reforms in the past.

“These are surprising, really unthinkable changes for someone who has always lived in Cuba, so I understand the sceptics,” says Father Carvajal. He points to reforms that make it easier to go into business on a limited scale and include the right to hire workers, seek bank credit and do business with the state. “I think this time the door has been opened and will never again close. That is why we are offering the MBA course.”

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