When our delegation met in Miami on December 14, 2002, the night before departing for Havana, I told the delegates that they were about to embark upon one of the most fascinating adventures of their professional and personal lives. I spoke to them of a country that was beautiful and appeared to be frozen in time. I spoke to them of the Cuban people, who are warm and wonderful and who appear to be in need of everything. I mentioned that they were a people of good humor and attitude who place a high value on national dignity and are proud of their social accomplishments. When a question was asked of me, by a delegate, for which the answer did not seem logical by American standards, I simply stated, “You will understand once we arrive there.”
Our delegation embarked upon our Cuban experience without a political or social agenda. We were American lawyers and guests, who were about to “taste of the forbidden fruit”, which had been brought about because of our embargo. As it was the Christmas season, this evening before departure was, in an adult sense, similar to “The Night Before Christmas.”
What follows is an account of the eight days in Cuba. It does not pretend to, nor can it, capture all of our impressions, thoughts, or feelings about Cuba and its people.
The night before departure, our travel manager, Jamey Conrad, and I told the delegation many things. But what I did not tell them was that when they left after eight days and seven nights in Cuba, they would leave a little bit of their hearts with the people.
Cuba is many things to many people. On the surface, it is a charming country, with beautiful historical buildings, vintage 1950ish American cars that seem to have come out of an automobile museum and friendly, wonderful people.
But as you probe, one finds many interests, some of which are competing. For example, the Cuban exiles and their lobbyists are at one extreme and the old breed of Cubans who participated in the 1959 revolution and those who have a personal stake in the embargo not being lifted are at the other extreme. Yet we must ask these three questions: First, do the views of these extreme represent the views of the people in their respective countries? Second, can Cuba survive and be a full member of the world community if it does not change its internal policies and practices? Third, doesn’t the lifting of the embargo further American interests more than maintaining the status quo?
In between the extremes we found a Cuba with many faces and many complexities. We found a country that is black and white. We found an old generation of Cubans who are proud of the Revolution and who point to the safety nets in the current Cuban society, such as a free education and medical care. At the same time, we found a new generation of Cubans who long for a market economy, who feel trapped in a society that does not reward accomplishments and who have very little materially.
In fact, we found two Cubas. One if the “government”, which is very controlling and is, in many respects, helped by the current embargo. The other is the “people”, who have very little and bear the brunt of the embargo. In this Cuba of the people, there is an undercurrent for a new Cuban revolution. For example, many commodities can be purchased only with dollars, yet the Cubans are paid in pesos. Because the U.S. dollar is difficult to obtain, two parallel societies exist.
Our role was not to judge, criticize or impose our values. Many things are uncertain in today’s Cuba, but some things are not. What is certain is that Cuba is changing almost daily. What is certain is that if our country wants to help direct this change it must take a positive role. What is also certain is that the lawyers of both countries will play a critical role in future U.S. – Cuba relations.
BY: Richard Pena