Thursday, June 18, 2015
Last week I posted the first of three posts regarding doing business in Cuba. In my initial post I discussed some concerns that observers have regarding Cuba’s readiness for investors, the lack of infrastructure, and the rule of law issues, particularly as it relates to Cuba’s respect for contracts and debts. Indeed today, Congress heard testimony on the future of property rights in Cuba and the claims for US parties who have had billions in property confiscated by the Castro government- a sticking point for lifting the embargo. (In 1959, Americans and US businesses owned or controlled an estimated 75-80% of Cuban land and resources). Clearly there is quite a bit to be done before US businesses can rush back in, even if the embargo were lifted tomorrow. This evening, PBS speculated about what life would be like post-embargo for both countries. Today I will briefly discuss the Cuban legal system and then focus the potential compliance and ethical challenges for companies considering doing business on the island.
Cuba, like many countries, does not have a jury system. Cuba’s court system has a number of levels but they have both professional judges with legal training, and non-professional judges who are lay people nominated by trade unions and others. Cubans have compulsory service to the country, including military service for males. Many law graduates serve part of their compulsory service as judges (or prosecutors) and then step down when they are able. The lay judges serve for five years and receive a full month off from their employer to serve at full pay. Although there is a commercial court, only businesses may litigate there and are then they are at the mercy of the lay judges, who have equal power to the professional jurists. This lay judge system exists even at the appellate level. Most lawyers and law firms are controlled by the Cuban government, unless they work for a non agcricultural cooperative. More important, although I have received differing opinions from counsel, it is possible that hiring and paying a local lawyer there could violate US law related to doing business in Cuba. Notwithstanding these obstacles, many companies are trying to get an OFAC license to do business in Cuba right away or are planning for the eventual life of the embargo. In my view, getting there is the easy part. The hard part will be complying with US law, not because Cuba is in a nascent state of legal and economic development, but because of the sheer complexity of doing business with a foreign government.
The first challenge that immediately comes to mind is compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it illegal for a person or company to make “corrupt payments” or provide “anything of value” to a foreign official in order to obtain or retain business. Since almost everything is a state-owned enterprise or a joint venture with a state owned enterprise, US firms take a real risk entering into contracts or trying to get permits. There is no de minimis exception and facilitation payments- otherwise known as grease payments to speed things along- while customary in many countries- are illegal too. Legal fees and fines for FCPA violations are prohibitively expensive, and those companies doing business in Cuba will surely be targets.
Another concern for publicly-traded US companies is compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank whistleblower rules. Unless the law changes, most US companies will have to follow the model of Canadian and EU companies and enter into joint ventures or some contractual relationship with the Cuban government or a Cuban company (which may be controlled by the government). Most US employees are afraid to report on their own private employers in the US. How comfortable will a Cuban employee be using a hotline or some other mechanism to report wrongdoing when his employer is in some measure controlled by or affiliated with the Cuban government? As I will discuss next week, the biggest criticism of Cuba is its human rights record related to those who dissent. I have personally dealt with the challenge establishing and working with hotlines in China and in other countries where speaking out and reporting wrongdoing is not the cultural norm. I can imagine that in Cuba this could be a herculean task.
The last concern I will raise in this post relates to compliance with a company’s own code of conduct. If a company has a supplier code of conduct that mirrors its own, and those codes discuss freedom of association and workers’ rights that may be out of step with the Cuban law or culture, should the US firm conform to local rules? Even if that is legal, is it ethical? Google's code is famous for its “don’t be evil”credo and it has received criticism in the past from NGOs who question how it can do business in China. But Google was in Cuba last week testing the waters. Perhaps if Google is able to broaden access to the internet and the outside world, this will be a huge step for Cubans. (Of note, Cubans do not see the same TV as the tourists in their hotels and there are no TV commercials or billboards for advertisements).
There are a number of other compliance and ethics challenges but I will save that for my law review article. Next week’s post will deal with the role of foreign direct investment in spurring human rights reform or perpetuating the status quo in Cuba.