In October, I accompanied 31 HCBA and Minnesota State Bar Association colleagues (including HCBA Secretary Tom Nelson and Past President Sonia Miller-Van Oort) on a legal education trip to Cuba. In this article I’m going to share my overall personal impressions of Cuba. More about the Cuban legal system will be covered in an upcoming Bench & Bar article written by several of my traveling companions. In addition, Brent Routman wrote about the trip in the November MSBA president’s column. Brent and co-host Bob Enger did a fantastic job of planning and leading this trip.
We met with lawyers, judges, law professors, and government officials in Havana to talk about Cuba’s legal system. The speakers were all very professional and excited to talk with us. They readily answered [most of] our questions and were more open than I expected, although at times the political spin was obvious. They wanted us to go home and tell our government to lift the blockade. Cubans refer to it as a blockade and not an “embargo.”
I was told that visiting Cuba would be like stepping back in time; and in a way that was true. We saw a lot of classic American cars from the ‘50s, and people lined up waiting to use pay phones. Although beautiful, Havana was in a state of overall disrepair. Some buildings were kept up nicely, while most were dilapidated and crumbling. There was very little advertising—other than political billboards honoring Che Guevara or proclaiming “viva la revolucion,” 53 years later. There weren’t many stores in Havana (a city of about 1.5 million people). The few stores we did find had mostly-empty shelves. Old Havana is home to a large, bustling arts-and-crafts market, so most of us managed to do our part in supporting the local economy by leaving a bunch of pesos there.
Our hotels had internet service as well as CNN, ESPN, and other television stations. A local tour guide told me that satellite TV was available to everyone—for a price. Cuban citizens must pay over $100/month for such service. Compare that to an average wage of $35/month and you can imagine very few Cubans know what is going on in the world other than what they are told by state-owned radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers.
The Cubans I met seemed healthy and well-educated; the government provides free education and health care. They love their country, yet are hungry for more change and freedom. People we met on the streets were curious about us. Several made a point of saying that they like U.S. people, but do not like what the U.S. government has done to their country. When asked what they thought of Fidel, Raul, or communism, many looked uncomfortable and changed the subject. I can’t help but wonder how much of Cuba’s problems are due to the U.S. trade embargo, and how much to the communist principles imposed over the past 50 years.
Visiting Cuba was an amazing experience, one that is difficult to put into words. When someone told me it took six weeks for mail to reach the U.S. from Cuba, I sent myself a postcard. Five weeks later, I’m still waiting to hear from me!