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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Japan and Cuba: Making a Difference through Dialogue

“… nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”

—Mark Twain, May 18, 1867

In April, I had the honor to represent the MSBA and met with President Kenji Utsunomiya of the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) in Tokyo.  The Federation is the umbrella organization of all bar associations in Japan and membership is mandatory for all 30,000 lawyers in the country.

The Federation has established a fund to aid victims of the devastating tsunami and earthquake this spring that killed as many as 25,000 persons.  Unlike general relief funds that provide basic needs, such as Red Cross, the JFBA fund is used in part to aid Japanese lawyers meet the legal needs of those in affected areas.

The members of the JFBA are donating their time, working individually to meet the legal needs of many of the thousands of homeless individuals staying in the approximately 1,100 shelters established around the country.  Additionally, JFBA is contributing funds to help repair and rebuild the offices of lawyers whose offices were damaged.  The Federation is accepting donations to the fund and I urge you to contribute.  Donations can be made to the Federation by forwarding a check made payable to the MSBA with a notation that the payment is for Japanese Relief. Please note that donations are not tax-deductible as business expenses or charitable donations.  Thank you for considering a contribution.

Experience the Difference

Many of you undoubtedly share with me the love of travel, especially international travel.  Observing other cultures is enlightening and enriching and can be personally transformative.  In traveling, I gain a greater appreciation for my life here, empathy for the lives of others, a humbling appreciation for people’s strength of character, and a better understanding of myself.  I suspect others have the same experience.

In October, the MSBA will participate in a program with other state bar associations designed to give American lawyers and judges a better understanding of the role of the rule of law in the Cuban judicial system.  Members of the delegation will meet with Cuban judges, lawyers, and government officials.  No MSBA funds are being used for this mission; all costs are borne by the individual participants.

As you may know, travel to Cuba is currently restricted as part of economic sanctions imposed by the United States Government.  Fortunately, our delegation has obtained a special license for professional research from the United States Treasury Department which will enable our trip and support our access to the highest level professionals in Cuba.

Cuba has, to date, largely been an untapped market for American, specifically Minnesota, goods.  At a time of economic uncertainty in this country, expanding foreign markets for American goods will likely become an irresistible impulse for lawmakers.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, exports of manufactured goods, services and agricultural commodities to foreign countries account for nearly $28 billion in revenues and tens of thousands of jobs statewide, and the value of our exports is growing.  The Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council reported that “every other row of Minnesota’s soybean crop is exported to international customers annually.”

The American Soybean Association (ASA), in testimony to Congress, noted that more than $134 million worth of soy products was exported to Cuba in 2008. According to the testimony, “if the travel ban is eliminated, the number of U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba annually would increase to between 500,000 and 1 million, bringing in hard currency, and enabling the Cuban state-trading agency to buy more U.S. agricultural products. Ending the travel ban would also benefit the U.S. economy by creating much-needed American jobs in the tourism and airline industries.”

Unique Opportunity

This is a very special opportunity for Minnesota lawyers, as no one knows when, or if, economic sanctions against Cuba will be eased.  Having lived and practiced law in Miami for several years, I know how complex and emotional the issues involved in lifting those sanctions are likely to be.  What does seem certain is that the lifting of sanctions would have a dramatic and permanent effect on the culture and landscape of the country.

The excursion to Cuba will give the participants a rare opportunity to communicate directly with Cuban jurists and lawyers, gain some insight into the nature of the Cuban constitution, and learn how criminal and civil litigation is handled.  The delegation will depart Miami on Sunday, October 9, 2011, returning to the United States on Friday, October 14, 2011.

If you wish to participate, call Professionals Abroad at (877) 298-9677 or register via the web at www.professionalsabroad.org. Unfortunately, only licensed attorneys are permitted to travel on the professional license granted by Treasury.  We anticipate a delegation of approximately 25-30 persons.  As of July 21, 15 persons had already registered for the trip.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at brentr@merchantgould.com.

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Brent Routman

Brent Routman was president of the Minnesota State Bar Association from 2011-2012. He is a partner, general counsel, and Asia Regional Trademark Attorney with the intellectual property law firm of Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.