A year after the United States and Cuba announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, setting aside the Cold War chill of 50-plus years, Suffolk Law students sat in classrooms and explored Havana with their Cuban counterparts as part of a collaboration between Suffolk Law and the University of Havana School of Law.

The journey was a component of the Law School’s semester-long Cuba Seminar: Issues in Contract Law, Trade, and Foreign Investment. In addition to legal training, it offered deeper insight into the state of relations between the two countries through interactions such as a debate between Suffolk and University of Havana law professors about the U.S. trade embargo.

"One of the unique aspects of this trip and course was that, unlike the very few other law schools that have had students in Havana, the Suffolk students were the first—last year and this —to have classes at the law school on the university campus,” said retired Superior Court Judge Isaac Borenstein, a Suffolk Law faculty member who organized the trip. “Other schools historically had students stay in a hotel, where typically the classes would be held in a conference room. Suffolk students had Cuban law professors and students in a law school classroom setting.”

Hope and fear

What emerged was a recognition of the mixture of hope and fear felt by Cubans, especially given the adverse economic impact of the longstanding U.S. embargo, said Professor of Government and Vice Provost for Student Success Sebastián Royo, who traveled as part of the Suffolk delegation.

The professors’ debate centered on U.S. responsibility for the embargo and a number of claims, including that it was needed for national security. The Cuban professor, who had been a UN ambassador in Geneva, argued that the embargo was really a blockade, not justified, and pushed the island nation into the arms of Russia.

Royo said that the Cuban faculty and students were focused on a hurting economy, not so much on politics. “Their focus was largely on investment and how to improve their economy and their economic prospects. They were proud of the revolution and want to build on its foundations,” said Royo. “It is a country in the midst of transition, with extraordinary opportunities, but also challenges.”

Making connections

Many of the Suffolk Law students enrolled in the seminar are interested in international or immigration law. But Shakesha Coleman, was more focused on an arbitration-mediation component of the course and also saw the experience as an opportunity to polish her Spanish-language skills.

“Most of us tried to communicate first in Spanish,” said Coleman, who works in Suffolk Law’s Family Advocacy Clinic and is the editor-in-chief of Dicta, the Law School student newspaper. “These students had learned English, and we thought we should try to speak with them in Spanish.”

Coleman often works with vulnerable populations and says many of her clients are Spanish speaking. She said that gaining firsthand experience in a Latino culture will make her a better advocate. “To be a better advocate, you need to understand what the client’s background and goals are, and how the two are intertwined,” she said. “There is no better way to understand than to see for yourself.”

Before immersing themselves in five days of classes taught by University of Havana Law School faculty Borenstein, and Suffolk Law Professor Elizabeth Trujillo, the American and Cuban students spent three days getting to know one another, sightseeing, and learning about Cuban history and culture, said Coleman. Suffolk Law School Dean Andrew Perlman also spent a few days in class with the American and Cuban law students.

A proud nation

Royo noted that it was important for the Cubans they met to feel a sense of mutual respect.

“There is pride on their part that, despite the pressures of history and the embargo, they remain independent. Their attitude is: We have paid a high price to maintain our sovereignty, but we have our dignity and respect. They were exceptionally generous with us. We all learned so much from them.”

“These students were donating their time to us, but they would be offended if we tried to pick up a check,” said Coleman. “We explained it as gratitude. But they had a sense of pride, of ‘We’re doing OK.’”

Frank conversations

Royo was surprised at how open some Cubans were in discussing their country’s challenges.

“I’ve encountered people who fear to talk freely in countries with dictatorships, but that was not the case in Cuba. People were open” he said.

Coleman said that most of the students avoided controversial subjects, and yet she was surprised at the one foray she made into a potentially difficult area in conversation with a Cuban student.

“The law student said that the poor in Havana were taking advantage of the system,” she said. “I encouraged him to think about where the culture of poverty comes from, but he insisted that they’re lazy and take advantage of the government.”

In talking with an attorney who received his law degree two years ago, the Suffolk group learned that, of the 53 who graduated in his class, only 11 are still in Cuba.

Seeing the sights

Balancing work with pleasure, the students visited museums, bars and restaurants, enjoyed the sights of Old Havana, strode through Hemingway’s house, and took in a ballgame.

Sometimes “it was like stepping back in time” due to the impact of the embargo, said Coleman.

So while Havana’s Museum of Fine Arts featured outstanding works by Cuban artists who only recently have gained notice outside their native land, Coleman and Royo choked on the exhaust fumes from the Cuba’s beautifully preserved old cars, built before technology addressed environmental concerns.

“Our students stayed in a private homes, generally with Cuban families, moved around the city in a variety of public transportation methods—including the vintage U.S. and European cars from the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s —and otherwise connected culturally in profound ways. Indeed, our students integrated themselves into the city much less as tourists than as residents," said Borenstein.