During the winter break, my wife Fredi and I visited Cuba for the first time on a trip conducted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; there is an exception to the U.S. embargo rules for educational visits, and many organizations sponsor them. Like many Americans, I knew comparatively little about Cuban society and its economy. In the event, it was one of the most interesting weeks I have spent in recent years.
Day after day, I learned something fascinating about the history, customs, people, and economy of this beautiful, complex, and beset island nation. The historical architecture of Havana is stunning, filled with beautiful 18th and 19th Century buildings reflecting the Spanish empire in the New World—stunning but crumbling. Cuba is perhaps the most pure version of a classic Communist economy in the world today; until just a few years ago, everyone worked for the state (and most still do) for salaries that differ little according to what job or function you perform and are inadequate for most middle class people. Many of the most well off people in Cuba are artists, who are both well-educated and trained and can sell their work abroad.
There has been a crazy quilt of rules founded in Communist ideology that illustrate how hard it is to run a country with a centrally planned economy. In 1960 the new government decreed that everyone owned the apartment in which they lived—but nobody owned the apartment building itself, and, to avoid “profiting” no one could sell their apartment. Until a few years ago, one could only trade an apartment or house for another.
Through all this, and through the bitter and prolonged collapse of their economy after the withdrawal of the very large Soviet sugar subsidy in 1991, the Cuban people appear to a visitor to be stalwart, charming, and happy—perhaps not with the uncertainty about their future but with life in general. Young people are an exception; they are leaving Cuba in droves because it is unclear where the new government is headed in economic and political liberalization and they cannot discern the shape of their future.
I returned home with not only a wealth of new knowledge but with a reminder of the enormous satisfactions of life-long learning and intellectual curiosity, habits we strive to foster in all of our students. In a 2011 study called “The Hungry Mind,” psychology researchers found that intellectual curiosity constituted a major predictor of student achievement, declaring it the “third pillar,” along with intelligence and conscientiousness, of academic performance. It is also an important predictor of professional success—and satisfaction. It is an important part of a life well lived.
I hope you enjoyed your winter break and I look forward to working with each of you to make 2013 a wonderful year for Pace University.
Stephen J. Friedman