Saturday, January 31, 2015

Nice to meet you, and you, and you, and you (etc.)

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Today's big events were two meetings, one with a group of jurists (lawyers, judges, etc.), the other with faculty, administrators, and students at the local medical college.

But first, our first morning on the Caribbean, I happened to wake up early enough to catch the sunrise from the beach.

In the shallows you could see sea urchins, some of them further along than others in gathering pebbles and scraps of wood around themselves to make some sort of camouflage.

And I got a shot of the swimming pool in the early-morning light.

On the way into Cienfuegos, Jesus gave us some of the history of the city. It was founded in 1819 by a group of French settlers, and so its architecture bears the imprint of French colonial style more than Spanish.

On the way into town we can see slogans on walls. The one below says, “Por siempre, Revolución”. The “o” in “revolución is the emblem of the CDR, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. We’ll see lots more of those.

“It is the peoples who make revolutions. The Cienfuegans are firm, there are no doubts.” –Fidel.

(Photo: Chris Shaw)

Here’s an example of a horse-drawn taxi, carrying seven or eight passengers and the driver. On the wall behind it, someone has painted, “Always in combat,” and the CDR emblem.

Victor left us off at the main square and Jesús gave us an orientation to the town. What caught my eye was the inscription on the statue of Martí, the national hero, gesturing proudly above the figure of liberty.

(Photo: Chris Shaw)

The inscription is a quote from Martí, “The country requires sacrifices. It is an altar, not a pedestal.” Those words are written on, of all things, a pedestal, on top of which stands Martí. Though to be fair, Martí died fighting for independence, so he lived his words, even if they’ve now been used in an ironic setting.

Some of the establishments on the square cater to tourists, including a couple of art galleries. In one of them there is a wall of small paintings, including multiple renditions of a small selection of photos of Che, including the iconic “faraway look” picture that has sold millions of t-shirts.

Just off the square is a pedestrian street that includes a portrait of Benny Moré, a Cuban jazz great.

Benny Moré carefully considers a Hartwick student
Just down the street there’s a line of people outside the Consultoría Jurídica Internacional. I may be projecting, but they seemed anxious. It was also curious that they had to line up outside, rather than there being a waiting area inside (I would notice this elsewhere as well).

Eventually it was time for our meeting. We met back in the square and walked the block to the offices of the local association of jurists.

My heart sank a bit as the first meeting took shape. There was a long table down the middle of the meeting room, and we 19 (Pat, Jesus the guide/translator, 16 students, and I) took our places on one side, after which the other side of the room filled up with an even greater number of jurists.

I had a flashback to Soviet practice, where the point was not meaningful conversation and dialog, but putting on a good show for the foreigners and all supporting the party line. And I felt awkward about all these people taking time out of what I assumed were their busy days, when it seemed like the vast majority of them would never get a chance to speak.

But my initial anxiety was unwarranted and it turned out to be an interesting conversation: our students asked insightful questions (as they would throughout the trip), and the answers were interesting, sometimes involving back-and-forth among some of the Cubans.

The room was embraced by large portraits, about 2' x 3', facing each other on the longer walls: behind the Cubans a picture of Fidel, and behind us a picture of Che.
(Photo: Pat Dopazo)

The big news for me was the combination of facts that same-sex partnerships are recognized just as much as opposite-sex partnerships, and that there’s no functional difference in Cuban law between documented domestic partnership and marriage. If both those things are true, it means that Cuba has de facto gay marriage. My questions would be, first, whether it really is that simple for a gay couple to have their partnership recognized, and second, whether partnership really is equivalent to marriage, since in the U.S. it’s not. But even the tone of the discussion, the matter-of-fact mention of gays having equal rights in this regard, was striking, given Cuba’s history of rather serious anti-gay discrimination. Later in the discussion, in response to a student’s question about controversial legal issues, they did bring up the application of common-law partnerships to gay couples, which they said is new.

As we’d read in Marc Frank’s Cuban contradictions, it’s only in the last few years that Cubans have been able to buy and sell cars and houses relatively freely. It turns out this has led to a need for documentation of partnerships. It used to matter less what legal status you and your partner had, or whether you had any status at all. As a result, many people didn’t bother getting married or even getting their partnership documented. Now there’s a big increase in registration of partnerships so that the newly recognized couple can deal with its property.

They have various types of courts, including for economic violations. I was concerned that this might mean buying more of a product than you were allowed, or other things that might be in violation of the state’s economic plan but that wouldn’t even be crimes in our system. But it turned out to refer to things like non-fulfillment of contracts. Also, loans are a new thing here, and some people are having trouble repaying—which isn’t surprising, given how low the average income is.

Cases are heard by one professional judge and two lay judges, or in complicated cases a panel of three professionals and two lay judges. Verdicts are reached by simple majority of the panel, so if the two lay judges vote one way and the one professional votes the other, the two lay judges will have determined the verdict.

These lay judges are selected from the community on the basis of their virtues. My notes don’t record who it is who does the selection, though I did jot down a question I didn’t get to ask, as to whether being a reliable member of the Party plays a role in one’s selection.

The Cubans are very proud of women’s status in the society. The law entitles women to equal pay for equal work.

They have parental leave, rather than maternal leave, for up to a year, at which point the child is eligible to go to day-care. The parental leave can even be taken by someone other than the father (or other mother, I suppose, if legal gay partnership is leading to legally recognized parental relationships of same-sex couples). For instance, if a grandparent or aunt or uncle is taking care of an infant, they can be the one who makes use of the parental leave. In all cases, however, the birth mother has to sign off on the arrangement, which seems like a simple, useful measure for ensuring that, say, some lay-about dad isn’t getting the leave while leaving the actual care of the child to the birth mother.

Perhaps as a result of equal pay, generous maternity leave, and universal access to education, 66% of technical and professional employees in Cuba are women.

We were told that, by global standards, Cuba has very low rates of domestic violence and violent crime against women, like rape and assault. But “for us, even one person who is threatened or harmed is a lot.” As a result there’s a lot of work on prevention, not only in health care but in social life as well, with programs to help people be better parents or adjudication services to help defuse potentially destructive situations.

A student asked about environmental law and whether cases are brought. The answer was that most environmental protection is handled by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment. And an environmental analysis, approved by the ministry, is needed before “any action” (according to my notes); given our limited time and the other issues on the table, it wasn’t the venue to get into the details of what was covered under “any action.”

However, they did tell us that, since some modifications to procedural law in 2006, anybody (including a private individual) can bring suit, even if there isn’t damage but simply an alleged violation.

I had another question lined up, about case law, and the role of judges in making law through the interpretation of ambiguities, but I didn’t want to step on the students’ time, so I left it aside.

Outside our meeting room there was an information board announcing various conferences: insurance rights (including insurance as a tool for economic development); Constitutions, democracy, and political systems.

There was also a sign, “Internet access: Tu – Wed – Thu, 2:00 – 3:00”

Most of our group, backed up by Happy Che. (Photo: Pat Dopazo)
We had a little time for lunch and followed Jesús’s recommendation for a nearby pizza place that would be quick and inexpensive. It was inexpensive, and tasty, but not particularly quick. I only had soup, so I got out early and went to look for bottled water which some students had found earlier at a good price.
I didn’t find it, but I did have the chance to notice, along the pedestrian street, doorways that opened onto narrow stairways leading to upstairs apartments, with the lower three to five stairs having been converted into a place for someone to display their wares. Often these were video games, DVD’s, and CD’s.

We gathered back in the main square, some people late because of the slow pizza, and our early arrivals had become the objects of curiosity of some neighborhood children.

Then we were off to the medical college.

Again, it was a room full of more Cubans than there were of us, all these people taking some time out of their days. The dean opened with some introductory remarks about the work of the school and the size of the student body, including 700 foreign students, the largest group of those being from Pakistan.

A student asked about their most prominent diseases, and the answer was cancer and heart disease. They have an aging population, and that brings with it a particular group of pathologies.
(Later in the trip someone commented that, since the Cuban medical system has controlled communicable disease—except for occasional outbreaks of things like dengue—and access to the health system has raised life expectancy to 79, and the Cuban diet is heavy in white bread, white rice, and especially sugar, the Cuban population has a phenomenon of living like the poor but dying like the rich.)

My question was whether they expected changes in Cuban health care as a result of ongoing political and economic changes in the country. The dean’s response was, no. The leaders say there will be no changes to the two main accomplishments of the Revolution: health care and education.

Look at the quantity of Cuban collaboration abroad. There are 40,000 people working in 67 countries. Health care and education are the stronghold of the country’s values and principles. That’s all very nice, but I wonder if it isn’t too confident.

I think Cubans are genuinely proud of what their country has accomplished in these two areas. The World Bank has called their education system the best in Latin America and the Caribbean. Their statistics on life expectancy and infant mortality are comparable to those of rich countries, and far exceed what you would expect given the country’s low level of GDP per capita.
from Spiegel and Yassi, "Lessons from the margins of globalization:
appreciating the Cuban health paradox", Journal of Public Health Policy,
vol. 25, no. 1 (2004), pp. 85-110

from Spiegel and Yassi, "Lessons from the margins of globalization:
appreciating the Cuban health paradox", Journal of Public Health Policy,
vol. 25, no. 1 (2004), pp. 85-110

And yet. Systems for health and education are social choices, supported by the particular social and political constellation that holds sway in a given country. There’s no country in Cuba’s wealth group that has made the same choices in these two areas. As the country changes, I hope it will be able to hold onto its successes in these areas, but I wouldn’t take it for granted.

The emotional center of the conversation, however, was the embargo, or as the Cubans call it, el bloqueo, the blockade. The reason for the distinction in terminology, according to what we were told by our guide, is that the rule doesn’t simply prevent U.S. companies from doing business with Cuba. It extends to foreign companies and products as well. You can be based anywhere in the world, but if your product contains more than 10% U.S.-made product, you risk consequences from the U.S. if you sell that product to Cuba.

An older man of very dignified bearing rose to speak. In his younger years he had been the first director of the provincial health service after the revolution. He was also the first medical graduate after the revolution.

The specific incident he spoke of was a dengue epidemic in 1981. The outbreak killed 180 people, including 101 children. Cuba couldn’t buy the necessary medicine from the U.S. so it had to wait longer to get it from China and the USSR. Similarly, cancer drugs are more expensive without access to the U.S. market, so resources (i.e., money) get used up that could go elsewhere, and some medications are simply not available if they’re under U.S. patent.

The embargo was a repeated theme in other people’s comments as well, including limitations on medical instruments, or parts for medical instruments.

Some students perceived the description of the embargo’s effects as a very personal complaint, directed at us as individual citizens of the U.S. To me, it was simply about a policy that they saw causing harm in their country, and we as individuals weren’t being blamed.

I can’t remember who said it, but the point was made that Cuba is a very humane country. It always puts the human being at the center of decision-making and works from there. This looks to me like an admirable approach, and it reminded me of the point the jurists made, that even one person threatened or harmed was a big deal, but there’s an interesting tension here.

There’s only one legal political party, the Communist Party of Cuba. Radio, TV, and newspapers are all run by the Party or the government. The internet is starting to weaken this grip on the flow of information, but the internet in Cuba is restricted and access to it is limited.

This limitation on people’s choices in politics and information is justified on the grounds that the Party’s control is what ensures the system of access to education and health care. In other words, within the legal system and health care the stated driving force is a concern for the individual, but this system is supported by a sacrifice of individual latitude for the claimed good of the whole. 

Dinner was back at the hotel, included in our lodging fees.

Afterward, I walked toward the beach, and encountered a couple horses grazing on the hotel's grounds, including one tethered to a tree.

Down at the water, a couple of our students had gone to sit in the shallows to watch the sunset and had ended up getting into a conversation with a young Cuban who was strolling the beach.

A young woman asked me if I was interested in a chick, which I wasn't.

I did, however, enjoy the sunset.

Next post: We love you just the way (we think) you are

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