The death on Friday of Fidel Castro brought back memories of the time, less than a decade ago, when I almost dined with the longtime Cuban dictator.
The occasion was a trip to the island nation in the Caribbean in spring 2008 by a group of about 30 legal personnel, mainly lawyers from the U.S. and Canada, sponsored by the National Lawyers Guild, a leftist-leaning trade association of attorneys with affiliates in many places, including here in the Twin Cities. The weeklong expedition took place in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, long before President Obama’s normalization of relations and ultimate formal recognition of the Communist country, matters that President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to roll back.
While some travel restrictions had been relaxed, it still was not common at that time for Americans to travel to Cuba. Our group had to obtain special approval from the State Department as an “educational” mission, which it was, because our itinerary included attending employment and labor law conferences featuring an international cast of characters as well as making presentations to the group about legal issues, as I did on a couple of occasions, one successful and one not so. But more about that later.
One attraction for the excursion was the opportunity to meet with high-level Cuban officials, including the distinct possibility of a luncheon or dinner with the Cuban leader and some of his labor factotum.
But, alas, it was not to be. The ailing Fidel, then 81, had been in ill health for a while, and shortly before our arrival he had turned over the reins of power to his younger but still aged brother Raul, who has been in charge ever since. So, our expectation to meet and eat with Fidel was dashed, and we didn’t get to meet with his sibling successor, either.
As a consolation, we had an audience with some labor union leaders and upper-echelon officials comparable to our Department of Labor. Surprisingly, they were rather candid in describing some of their own labor law issues and problems, pointing out that the country’s dysfunctional transportation system and decayed infrastructure caused many absences from work or tardy arrivals, which led to contested disciplinary proceedings against workers.
They also shared dissatisfaction about stagnant wage levels, foreshadowing the concerns about “pay equity” arising about the same time and continuing in the U.S.
Even though we never got our dinner with the Castros, we dined a lot, both when visiting the countryside and at our base of operations in Havana. But, like the disappointment with not meeting Fidel, the food was far from satisfactory. It consisted mostly of pork and some chicken, a fowl widely seen strolling in household yards in just about every community. Not only were the vittles unappealing to those, like me, with vegetarian inclinations, but the servings were bland and lacked the Caribbean flair that many of us anticipated.
Other deficiencies were notable, too. As for food, the shelves of a few grocery stores I visited were nearly barren; in one shop in central Havana, I spotted three cereal boxes and a bottle or two of ketchup in a long aisle of emptiness.
Medical supplies were also lacking.
At a hospital we visited in a rural area, the doctors were thankful for our smuggling in aspirins, which constituted the strongest medicine available to them. Similarly, teachers at an elementary school outside Havana were delighted that we brought them little tablets and pencils from the U.S., items noticeably lacking at the facility, whose library seemed to have no reading materials less than 20 years old.
The week before our arrival, Raul’s version of Glasnost began with the allowance of Cubans to have access to cellphone technology. But it was a hollow hope, because there were no cellphones available, at least for the vast majority of Cubans.
Many of these shortcomings, I am told, still exist and may even be worse, although “normalization” is expected to alleviate some of them.
Despite these drawbacks, the conference went well — sort of. We learned a lot about the Cuban legal system, which somewhat surprisingly has a number of features similar to or better than our civil and even criminal law systems.
I managed to give my two presentations, both with Spanish interpreters. One went well, comparing and contrasting our two civil law processes. The other, an explanation of the American unemployment compensation system, did not seem to register on the audience of about 60 attendees; even a couple of my jokes fell flat.
Later, I learned, the lack of interest — and laughter — may have been because my interpreter and I were addressing a group of Brazilians, who spoke Portuguese, not Spanish.
Now that travel to Cuba is much easier, encouraged and economical, I plan to go back there. When I do, I hope to have a chance to eat with Raul and, if I do any public speaking, I’ll make sure to have the right interpreter.
Marshall H. Tanick is a Minneapolis employment and labor law attorney.