Friday, July 16, 2021
I have 3,000 pictures of Cuba from my four visits to research and speak on business and human rights. I’ve written three law review articles and met with farmers, judges, lawyers, families of people who have “disappeared,” restaurant owners and others. For the law review articles see, Ten Ethics-Based Questions for U.S. Companies Seeking to do Business in Cuba, The Cuba Conundrum: Corporate Governance and Compliance Challenges for U.S. Publicly-Traded Companies, and You Say Embargo, I Say Bloqueo—A Policy Recommendation for Promoting Foreign Direct Investment and Safeguarding Human Rights in Cuba.
This is a different kind of post. It's more personal.
My first visit in 2016 was during the Bienal art festival, where some of the most talented artists in the region had their work featured by the New York Times. I visited some of them in their homes. Later in the trip, I spent time with members of the Florida bar to learn from local lawyers and economists. One lawyer who spoke with us had to move to the US after someone misreported what he had said to us in a closed door meeting. Our tour guide reminded me that while we had dozens of cheeses and fruits to choose from in our hotel, the average Cuban had to use a ration card. Afrocuban women who walked into nice hotels were stopped because they were assumed to be prostitutes.
I met with Black lawyers in bufetes in Santiago de Cuba during a visit with the National Bar Association and Ben Crump. I sat on a panel with Cuban judges and received a copy of their Constitution as a gift. I was careful to use “bloqueo” instead of “embargo” in my remarks and gently corrected the interpreter when she put a slant on my words about human rights. The Cuban government searched all of our luggage when we landed and unlike other colleagues, my materials weren't confiscated because I made sure not to have hard copies. I destroyed my online version of my presentation as soon as I concluded. This was not any different from my past visits to do business in China and prepared me for my trip to teach in Pakistan in 2019.
The 2018 trip to Cuba was different from my other three visits. I smoked my first and last cigar in Cuba on a tobacco farm in Vinales. I walked the malecón every morning at sunrise to talk to fishermen. I didn't have to use government tour guides who were always watching. One upside of the Trump rules related to Cuba limiting US hotels was that Cubans opened their own AirbnBs. I met with a former accountant who wasn't making any money in his chosen profession but could now afford to travel overseas to get more materials for his Airbnb. He also restored old family cars and made more in a month hiring drivers to take care of his guests than he had in a year. I went to a baseball game with locals, met with Afrocuban millennial entrepreneurs to learn about ceremonies, ritual, and culture, and watched a 21-year old driver marvel at being able to use the internet on his phone to find a date. The government had just opened up widespread internet access to Cubans the week before. He worried about using up his minutes like we used to ten years ago. Things weren't great, but they were looking up.
I fell in love with the people and the culture. With each visit, I saw changes and more cautious, skeptical optimism from people. I had planned to visit again after Covid to see the effects of reforms. That will have to wait. I’m so proud of the Cuban people for standing up for themselves with the protests. The rise of the internet gave rise to the government’s worst fear. Artists and their music helped to motivate the people to ignore their fear of repercussions. Cuba is about so much more than rum, salsa, and restored cars. #soscuba