THE 2012 NAELA DELEGATION TO HAVANA, CUBA: A TALE OF TWO CITIES
By: John R. Frazier, J.D., LL.M.
With contributions by Howard S. Krooks, JD, CELA, CAP
I was fortunate enough to be a member of the NAELA delegation, led by NAELA President-Elect Howard Krooks, to Havana, Cuba in December 2012, with a group of attorneys all of whom are NAELA members. The purpose of our trip was to study the long term care system and legal system, as well as cultural perspectives on the treatment of the elderly and persons with disabilities in Cuba; however, the trip went well beyond issues involving elder care.
The trip to Cuba made a significant impact on our group, and Havana, Cuba was not what I expected it to be. After a brief visit, I am not in a position to make sweeping generalizations, yet I can at least offer a few experiences.
I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s hearing my parents recount stories of the fear they experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I have heard many things over the years about the impact that the Cuban expropriation of foreign owned property had on people who owned property in Cuba in the 1960’s. The Embargo between the United States and Cuba is still a significant issue in the news today. Communism in Cuba lives on, and many of the people who spoke to the NAELA delegation still represent the “party line” view of Communism/Socialism. However, the people I met on the streets of Cuba seem to have quite a different view of the world, as compared to the “party line” mentality of the Cuban government.
For example, the NAELA delegates attended a number of meetings at Union Nacional de Juristas de Cuba. We also attended some meetings at Casa de la Amistad. The meetings at these two locations were more representative of the governmental point of view of the political structure in Cuba. Many of the speakers made a number of comments that really caught my attention. In particular there were three general messages that clearly stood out:
First, a retired judge had the following message for our group regarding the U.S. Embargo. His message was emphatically clear regarding the U.S Embargo against Cuba: (1) The Embargo is entirely the fault of the United States government, (2) The Embargo constitutes “economic warfare” against the people of Cuba by the U.S. government, and (3) The Embargo is not only economic warfare, it is a “criminal act” against the people of Cuba.
A second speaker who caught my attention was an economist who is working on a plan to improve the Cuban economy. He spoke about the details of Cuba’s economic plan, and a central theme of the plan is that Cuba is pinning its economic hopes on a normalization of trade between the United States and Cuba. The central element of the economic plan is putting an end to the U.S. Embargo, and normalization of U.S. and Cuban economic relations.
The third speaker who made a big impact on our group was a professor at the University of Havana. For me, the most impactful statement (and a really shocking statement) was that she believed that the expropriation of all foreign property under the Agrarian Reform Laws were “the legal right” of the Cuban government to undertake. She further pointed out that the U.S. Embargo is entirely the fault of the U.S. government. She advised our group that because former dictator Batista looted the Cuban treasury when he fled Cuba, Cuba was unable to pay for the expropriated property in cash. Instead, Cuba offered to pay for the expropriated property in sugar, over time in the future. The United States rejected payment for the property in sugar, which ultimately led to the U.S. Embargo. In effect, she stated that the U.S. Embargo is the fault of the U.S., because of the U.S. failure to accept the Cuban terms of payment in the form of sugar.
Overall, the main points that I learned from these meetings were the following:
- The Cuban government’s position is that the Embargo is entirely the fault of the U.S. government, and the Cuban government takes the position that their actions played no role in the Embarg Cubans universally express a willingness to engage in trade with the U.S.
- The Cuban government wants the Embargo to end, because normalization of U.S./Cuban economic relations is critical to the wellbeing of the Cuban economy.
My personal view is that the Cuban government’s refusal to accept any responsibility for the issues that led to the U.S. Embargo poses a significant barrier to the normalization of the U.S./Cuban economic relations, and an ending of the Embargo.
From a health care perspective, Cuba has a system in place that allows for access to health care (and long term care services) by every Cuban, bar none. Because the island country is so small, relatives tend to live near or with each other, including multi-generations. This allows family caregivers to provide needed care without many of the geographic limitations that exist in the United States stemming from the large size of the U.S. and the mobile society in which we Americans live. Further, because many younger Cubans are unable to afford their own homes, they tend to live with the older generation, in homes owned by the elderly.
This configuration, although undesirable from an economic standpoint, sets the stage for family caregivers to provide much of the needed care in the community. Doctors are assigned a certain number of families in the town in which they live. They are paid by the State, and all families assigned to a particular doctor have all of their physician services met by their assigned doctor. If skilled services are required, they are provided to the extent possible in the home, or if need be, in a hospital setting. Family caregivers are even paid by the State, further promoting community based living arrangements. In fact, only 1% of those in need of long term care are residents of homes for the elderly, or what we would call nursing homes.
Perhaps one of the downsides of this “socialized” approach to health/long term care is that doctors, who are provided a free education at the university and medical school level, are not paid the same way doctors are compensated in the U.S. For example, on our trip, we met a doctor who was driving a taxi to make extra money to support his family. He told us he earned only about the equivalent of $28 per month from being a doctor, and that he not only drove a taxi to earn extra money, but that since many tourists use taxis, he earns more money driving a taxi than he does being a doctor.
Our conversation with the doctor turned out to be one of several candid encounters with the people of Havana. Each personal interaction was so meaningful that I have gained a new perspective of this island country. There is one side of Havana – the “party line” side of Havana. In dramatic contrast, you then have the beautiful people that you meet on the streets of Havana.
In today’s world, with news from Iraq, Afghanistan, and news about Al Qaeda, one gets the feeling that there is significant anti-American sentiment outside of America. However, I was pleasantly surprised that you do not find anti-American sentiment in the streets of Havana! I had two very similar encounters with Cuban citizens that truly epitomize what I experienced.
Although most of the Cuban economy is controlled by the Cuban government, there are some private businesses and street vendors in Cuba. One area we visited had a number of private business owners who owned little stands in the open market where they sold things ranging from Cuban arts and crafts to fresh coconut water (right out of the coconut!).
I met two brothers who were selling their arts and crafts at one of the stands. Everywhere I went in Cuba, I wore my NAELA name tag, which identified me as an American, and that I was with a group of American lawyers. The two brothers read my name tag, and asked me if I was from America. I said “yes I am,” and one of the brothers yelled to me “We love you!!!” He immediately started to tell me that “Raul Castro is in big trouble” and that “Raul needs an attorney.” He jokingly asked me if I was visiting Cuba to be Raul Castro’s attorney. He also engaged me in a discussion about a government produced newspaper he was reading, and he indicated that he thought most of what was in the newspaper was not true. He said that the newspaper spoke favorably about the economies of China and North Korea, and he said he thought it was not true, and that the U.S. economy was the best in the world. By the way, he did not even try to sell me anything! He only wanted to talk to me because I was from the United States, and he wanted to tell me about the great admiration he had for America.
My second similar experience occurred one evening as I was walking along El Malecón. The skies were clear, but the weather was changing, and it was getting windier. Whitecaps from the Havana Harbor were splashing over El Malecón, covering the sidewalk and the street with water. Two young Cuban men were walking nearby, and one of the men slipped in the water and fell very hard. After we helped the young Cuban man up and made sure he was not injured, his friend noticed my name tag and asked me if I was American. When I said yes, he could not control his excitement and he said to me, “You’re an American – we love you!!!” He practically could not contain his enthusiasm about the fact that I was American, and he started talking to me about wanting to visit America and how difficult things were in Havana. He told me he was 19, and he had a young daughter but he only made 60 pesos per month. He was such a nice young man, I decided to give him 10 pesos for his daughter. He could not stop thanking me and he said that 10 pesos was a big portion of his monthly pay. After we finished talking, he told me in Spanish: “Tu eres mi buen amigo” (you are my good friend). The next night walking on El Malecón again, I saw the same young man once more. He came up to me and thanked me again for talking to him the night before. He also thanked me again for the 10 pesos I gave him, and again he told me: “Tu eres mi buen amigo.”
So that is my tale of two cities. On the one side, the party line communist government still exists. On the other side, the people of Havana appear to love the people of America. We return from Cuba with a clearer understanding of its socialized approach to health care and long term care. We heard the party line mentality of the Cuban government. Just as important, we come away from Cuba with fond memories of the beautiful people of Havana who were somewhat surprised to meet Americans, were pleased that we had come, and simply lit up with appreciative and meaningful conversation.
In a world that is sometimes portrayed by the news media to be filled with anti-American sentiment, it is a good feeling to know that America is truly loved by some people in this nearby, small Caribbean island.
I wish to pay a special thanks to NAELA President-Elect Howard Krooks for writing the health/long term care portion of this article. I would also like to gratefully acknowledge his substantial efforts in organizing the trip, all of which made our experience of Havana happen. The Cuba trip would not have been possible without the efforts of Howard.
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