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Global Research Seminar takes Penn Law students to newly opened Cuba

March 13, 2017

In January 2017, Penn Law faculty members Wendell Pritchett and Fernando Chang-Muy led a delegation of sixteen students to Cuba as part of their year-long Global Research Seminar (GRS). One of Penn Law’s signature offerings, GRS programs challenge students to explore today’s most complex legal issues by combining academic study with overseas field research on specialized topics. The group’s mission was to meet with local stakeholders to better understand the impact that the recent normalizing of relations might have on human rights and economic development in Cuba.

The visit to Cuba fell one month after the mourning period for Fidel Castro and two weeks before the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It was a time of great transition for both nations, and it quickly became apparent to participants that while the Cuban people had strong opinions about the recent changes, they remained unsure what the future might bring.

The research trip enabled students to be on the ground during this unique moment in history. President Obama announced the end of the longstanding “wet foot, dry foot” policy mere days after Penn Law students engaged in a candid discussion of this same policy with the U.S. Embassy in Havana. This overturns the rule that a Cuban reaching U.S. shores will automatically be granted resident status as a refugee.

This particular course of study was unique to a law school, noted Pritchett, Presidential Professor of Law and Education and an expert on urban policy and housing law. Law students usually study countries with stable legal systems. But the recent changes in Cuba have put the country in flux.

“By the time we got to Cuba, we were informed about so many different aspects of Cuban life and Cuban politics,” said Esther Clovis L’17. “It made meeting with the stakeholders much more productive because we had interesting questions to ask that we had been thinking about all semester.”

This seminar used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the framework for students’ analysis of Cuba, explained Chang-Muy, Thomas O’Boyle Lecturer in Law and Penn Law’s specialist in refugee law. In the fall, students split up into teams and looked at specific human rights, such as the right to free speech, freedom of the press, and the right to education. They then conducted in-depth research exploring how those rights were playing out in Cuba, and what specific questions they would seek answers to on the ground.

Chang-Muy is a proponent of students gaining real-world experience in addition to classroom instruction. “Going and actually seeing the people, the economy, the health and education system is crucial,” he said. “Any kind of teaching that has a practical component will make the students more engaged and more interested.”

In Cuba, the group discussed the state of rights in the country with attorneys, economists, journalists, diplomats, health authorities, urban planners, entrepreneurs, and law faculty. The program spent four days in Havana, with one day in the agricultural region of Viñales.

Through their discussions with experts, students made important connections in both their academic and professional careers. They met with the only foreign attorney currently based full time in Cuba, having already held pre-trip discussions on transactional challenges with partners from the U.S. firms of Greenberg Traurig and Covington and Burling.

JD/MBA Jennifer Reich L’18, will be working first-hand on those particular issues as a summer associate at Covington and Burling in a few months’ time, and took advantage of the opportunity to speak with two lawyers from the firm about the legal issues involved in Cuba’s economic development.

The country is experiencing record interest in foreign investment, particularly in the steadily increasing Cuban tourism sector. But the newfound economic development in Cuba hasn’t come without growing pains, particularly in consideration of the looming population crisis, a frequent topic of conversation during the visit.

“The recurring theme we heard was: ‘Is Cuba ready for this?’” said Chang-Muy. As an example, he noted that people who own restaurants can’t buy food wholesale to serve to guests; they must seek it from local sources, often at great difficulty. At the time of the group’s visit, Havana was experiencing a growing food shortage.

“[The Cuban Government] is interested in foreign investment; they’re interested in foreign tourists; they’re interested in engagement and producing exports,” Pritchett noted. “But only to the extent that those things do not interfere with their fundamental goals of protecting the socialist system.”

With the country’s newly opened status, and a “shadow economy” already in place, there is a growing tension between state income and private enterprise.

JD/MBA student Christopher Morales L’18 has focused his research on economic development — specifically on the viability of Uber in the Cuban market — and spoke on Cubans’ long-standing legacy to “resolver” by supplementing the state salary given to citizens, which is only about $30 per month. (Cubans who rent rooms in their homes out to tourists can make that amount in a single night.)

Racial boundaries also shape the private sector in Cuba, which still relies heavily on remittances There is a class divide between Cubans with relatives in the United States who send back money, explained Clovis, and those who don’t have that extra source of income. Very often, that division falls on racial lines, as fewer Cubans of African descent have family members in the United States.

Multiple members of the course — both students and faculty —had personal connections to the country. Chang-Muy was born in Cuba. His father had left China and come to Cuba in 1949 to escape Communism. His family left Cuba for Miami in 1961 after the Cuban Revolution.

Ernesto Sanz L’17 had always been interested in Cuban history, ever since his grandparents left the country and settled in Miami after the revolution. During one of the days off on the trip, he visited his grandmother’s former house in Havana, which is now part of a medical complex, and the town she grew up in, on the outskirts of Havana. The people of the town remembered his family and happily pointed him to his great-grandfather’s former house.

Visiting these places important to his family felt a bit strange, Sanz explained. After hearing so many stories from his family, all these sites were familiar to him, even though he had never been to Cuba.

“It’s almost like I had been there before,” he said.

Reich was able to compare the “family lore” from her mother’s Cuban-American family with her own experience traveling in the country. During some of her free time on the trip, she visited the Havana Cathedral to light a candle for her grandmother.

Morales had the opportunity to see the apartment in Havana where his mother and grandparents lived before they came to the United States in 1968.

Clovis’s family is from Haiti, and she grew up hearing more complex ideas about the country than she experienced in American media. Haitian newspapers and radio described how Cuba was educating doctors and sending them to Haiti, she said. Reconciling the Haitian and American viewpoints she heard growing up was a big reason she wanted to come to Cuba and experience the country for herself.

The Global Research Seminars encourage Penn Law students to think critically about complex legal problems while considering every perspective on a given issue — skills in today’s global legal market.

“Every legal system has its contradictions, and it is important for students to be exposed to challenges presented by the actual application of the abstract principles that law always represents,” said Pritchett. “In the case of Cuba, where so much is changing so rapidly and the history is so fraught, the experience of seeing the disconnect between the “theory” and the “real world” is even more meaningful and important. Our job as teachers is to train lawyers who can bridge the gaps between the legal structures and the needs and desires of clients and the broader public. This class was a great example of that effort.”

Last year’s Global Research Seminars brought students to Japan to study the legal implications of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and to Belgium and Germany to study comparative corporate governance and financial regulation. In March 2017, Professor Regina Austin will lead a research trip to Kampala as part of her Global Research Seminar on “Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights in Uganda.” For more information on this innovative program, visit the Global Research Seminars web page.