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Robert S. Duxstad
Daniel P. Bestul
Lance A. McNaughton

Cuba - A Different Place - A Different Perspective

Posted: 9.03.2019  |  Author: 

Attorneys Duxstad, Bestul and McNaughton, together with their spouses, participated in a five-day educational tour to Cuba with other Wisconsin lawyers last February through a partnership between State Bar of Wisconsin and Cuba Cultural Travel. The purpose of the trip was to educate lawyers about Cuban culture, the Cuban legal system, and U.S.-Cuba relations.


We explored Cuban music, food, art, and culture and heard daily presentations about Cuban law, the legal system, and U.S. - Cuba relations from local professors and lawyers. The experience provided a first-hand perspective on Cuba; particularly in light of divergent views on what our relations with Cuba should be.  Some encourage a restoration of relations between the United States and Cuba, whose people have long suffered in economic poverty. Others remain steadfast in their conviction that U.S. policy should continue its embargo policies against Cuba, citing a repressive socialist government.


It has been 60 years since Castro led the Cuban Revolution that confiscated privately owned property in the country. After nationalization, the United States began enacting economic sanctions against Cuba, and it cut diplomatic ties.  The embargo prohibits the transport of U.S. goods on ships owned by companies that transact business with Cuba, and prohibits foreign aid to countries that provide foreign aid to Cuba.  President Kennedy also banned travel to Cuba, in 1963, through legislative authority. Travel restrictions have changed many times over the course of many administrations.  We traveled to Cuba just before President Trump imposed more travel restrictions in response to Cuba’s backing of the governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua.


Because of the embargo, Cuba at times resembles a time capsule. Many of the American cars exported to Cuba in the 1950s still buzz the streets of Havana, using makeshift parts made in Russia or China. Our tour guide, who has family in both the United States and Cuba, said Cubans understand that the U.S. and Cuban governments, not their people, are at odds, and the Cuban people embrace all things American.  It is apparent that the Cuban people take pride in their culture, despite adversity, poverty, and other challenges. “I saw a fierce national pride everywhere I went,” says Bestul. 


A mix of colorful Spanish colonial-style buildings line many of Old Havana’s cobblestone streets, leading to dramatic and sun-soaked plazas where Cubans and tourists alike take in music and afternoon mojitos.  American, French, Italian, and Soviet architectural influences, including Baroque-style cathedrals, mark time periods in Cuban history, as does the poverty Cuba has experienced over time. Many of the buildings and structures, however, are in disrepair.  Yet, there were many signs of an economic resurgence, including our first-class hotel.


The Soviet Union’s financial support of Cuba, heavily reliant on Cuban sugar exports in exchange for oil, ended when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. The “special period” that followed in Cuba “was a time of major suffering and shortages for the Cuban people.”  China has now largely replaced Russia as a major contributor to the Cuban economy.


Dan Bestul noted, “It was interesting to hear how the nation responded; their ability to handle adversity is amazing. I got the sense that modern Cubans draw great strength from what they have dealt with over the years, and that includes the challenges posed by their neighbor to the north. We also got to see some of the resilience of the Cuban people in the post-Soviet era that some of the lecturers talked about – like farmers plowing fields with oxen because fuel for tractors, and tractors themselves, are hard to come by.”


President Obama announced a move toward normalization with Cuba in late 2014. But the preceding laws prevent any U.S. President from unilaterally lifting the embargo.  A series of Obama executive orders in 2016 eased relations, including restrictions on trade and travel that allowed Americans to travel individually to Cuba for “people-to-people” engagement without a special U.S. travel license and to bring more Cuban goods back to the United States.  In addition, Obama lifted restrictions on “family remittances,” the value of goods and money that family members could send to relatives in Cuba, and increased the amount allowed for nonfamily remittances (donations) to Cuba. Remittances are a crucial source of income for many Cubans. The U.S. State Department estimated remittances of about $3 billion in 2016.


President Donald Trump has reversed course on some trade and travel restrictions with new rules that bar most individual travel to Cuba, once again requiring licensed group travel. Some of the restrictions that Obama lifted remain in place, such as the value of goods that Americans can bring back from Cuba. Importantly, President Trump has put a halt to the normalization efforts between the United States and Cuba.


In 2008, Raul Castro first announced a shift away from a socialist economy, in which all public services are provided by the government and the socialist state owns all property, with some limited exceptions, such as personal earnings. Cubans receive free education and health care, and other governmental assistance, but until recently, the majority of Cubans worked for the government and received meager salaries, on average, the equivalent of $30 per month.  That includes Cuban lawyers, who cannot run private law firms. Most Cuban lawyers work in government-authorized law firms.  We saw many instances of persons working second jobs, often related to tourism, to supplement their incomes.  More Cubans are taking advantage of expanded opportunities to be “self-employed” in government-listed categories, to earn money in the private sector. For example, we enjoyed a fabulous gourmet meal at a restaurant operated from the home of its female chef.


Cuba’s judicial system is very similar to those of most civil-law countries, with a supreme court, provincial courts, municipal courts, and a military court. However, much of the discussion with local Cuban lawyers and professors centered on constitutional reform in Cuba, under now President Miguel Diaz-Canal, who was born after the revolution.


In March 2019, about 76 percent of Cuban voters approved the first constitutional reforms in Cuba since 1976, after more than a year of public debate in Cuba’s National Assembly, comprised of more than 600 elected leaders from different electoral districts. Socialism endures under the one-party system, but the government will be re-organized. Although some have criticized the process and the result, the constitutional reforms allow private-sector business to grow and operate, with more foreign investment, expanded private property rights, and strengthened rights for those accused of crimes.   Interestingly, one of the most debated provisions was to legalize gay marriage in Cuba.  The new constitution limits the length of time the President may serve and places age restrictions on the Presidency.  Both provisions would have prevented Fidel Castro from serving as long as he did as President of Cuba.  Bestul noted, “We take our Constitution for granted sometimes, and it was fascinating to hear the process they had used to restructure so many aspects of the political and economic climate.”


Cuba has settled the issue of nationalization of private property with every country, except for the United States.  The United States is the only country in the world that does not have normal economic and diplomatic relationships with Cuba.   My personal takeaway is that the United States needs to end its embargo with Cuba and normalize relationships, regardless of how the issue of nationalization of private property is resolved.   Sixty years of a strained relationship with a country just ninety miles away from our shores, does more harm than good.  Re-development of business opportunities and more people-to-people contact will best serve both country’s interests.


Attorney Duxstad wishes to acknowledge the State Bar of Wisconsin and Joe Forward, its legal writer, for being the substantial contributor to this article.

Robert S. Duxstad's practice includes representation for criminal and traffic law, personal injury, civil litigation and OWI in both Green and Lafayette Counties in Wisconsin.  He can be reached by e-mail at duxstad@duxstadlaw.com.


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