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

Cuba: A Country of Contrasts

Sitting in the Jose Marti Airport on October 17, awaiting the departure of our flight back to Miami and having purchased my last Cuban coffee with my last convertible peso, I reflect on the last eight days.  A remarkable legal and cultural education, paid for entirely by the participants, at no cost to MSBA, but with benefits I hope to share with Minnesota lawyers statewide.

Thoughts and impressions about the country, the people, the judicial system, and the culture flood my mind.  Thirty-three members of the MSBA, including practicing lawyers in various practice areas, an administrative law judge and a family court referee, traveled to Cuba to learn about its courts, the administration of justice, the legal profession, its history, and issues related to the environment.  While there, a small group of interested members met with the president of the Cuban Jewish Community to try to understand life as a religious minority in a socialist country.  A full feature article on the substantive areas of law and the court system is planned for a later edition of this magazine.

Snapshots of Life

Some of what we learned was surprising, others predictable.  The average person on the street seemed welcoming and warm, especially upon learning that we were Americans.  There doesn’t seem to be any anger or resentment by the average person toward Americans (as differentiated from the American Government).  Although it was difficult, perhaps impossible, always to distinguish what was real from what we were being led to believe, it seemed clear that the average person is not an ideologue.

Families care about improving their lives through opportunity; a burning desire for private enterprise is palpable.  The government is slowly and incrementally changing its policies.  Much was made of the recent change that now allows private persons who can afford to own their own car to sell their vehicles to other individuals rather than the government.  Families that can’t afford the upkeep of large homes they inherited or were given now routinely swap with those in smaller homes or apartments and get compensated for the difference with pesos.

However, continuous shortages exist, especially in the form of opportunities to better oneself.  Professionals (e.g., doctors and lawyers) earn less than tradesmen. Tour guides make more than both.  Individual persons struggle to live on an average of $150 a month.  Even if a person has cash, there is little available on many store shelves.  The absence of simple things like over-the-counter medications, pencils, pens and paper for education is striking.

Yet, the state provides free education, including university classes, and health care is free.  The public has grown comfortable with those benefits and would not want to part with them.  Homelessness is rare or nonexistent,
in part because the culture in Cuba (and many other parts of the world) provides that you live with the parents of your spouse.

As far as the free flow of information is concerned, while we were told that the internet is available (for those who can afford it), cell phones are uncommon due to cost and clearly the media is not independent.  The homes of average Cubans make New York apartments seem large.  The Cubans are a people who have grown accustomed to doing without and many buildings have suffered from neglect since the Soviet pullout in 1991.  The Soviets accounted for 80 percent of the Cuban economy and the loss of that support started a ten-year economic depression known in Cuba as the “Special Period.”  Cuba then began to rebuild through tourism, largely from Europe and Canada.  If you happen to live in the historic part of Havana, government aid is available for home repair and beautification.  If you live in other parts of Havana, you’ll just have to wait (a very long time).  Affluent parts of the city look very much like Coral Gables in Florida.

Law and Politics

We heard much about the American embargo of Cuba (referred to as a “boycott” by the Cubans, as it has a far greater impact on the country than just being cut off from the U.S.) and many Cubans’ belief that the embargo has resulted in great hardship.  The Cubans explain that the embargo affects relations with other countries and foreign-owned companies partly owned by U.S. interests.  Foreign investment is permitted in Cuba but the Cuban government will always own at least 51 percent of any joint venture or corporation.

We learned too about the Cuban Five—the five Cuban intelligence officers convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and murder in the U.S.  Cuba has taken the position that the five men were sent to observe and infiltrate the antirevolutionary Cuban-American groups in Miami, which the Cubans contend are terrorists.  And we discussed with our Cuban hosts the plight of Alan Gross, the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor who was convicted in Cuba and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for illegally bringing sophisticated telecommunications equipment into the country.

I have been fortunate to have traveled internationally a fair amount in my life.  However, the trip to Cuba stands out for me as remarkable.  I believe I can safely say it had that effect on the others in the delegation.  Not only were the country and its people special, the bonding within our delegation was memorable.

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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.