Springtime Thaw


When Fordham Law Professor Catherine Powell and students Lorena Jiron and Tina Milburn visited Havana over spring break, the old buildings and vintage cars gave them the sensation that time had stood still. The English language spoken all around them, however, told them that the Cuban capital was moving forward.

Powell and the two students traveled to Cuba in March to learn how a move toward normalization in the relationship between the United States and Cuba, sparked by President Obama’s visit last year, has impacted Cubans. The group is working on a paper that will include findings from their visit and assess recommendations on what the United States and Cuba should keep in mind for future negotiations.

The idea for the Cuba trip, which was sponsored by the School’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, originated in Powell’s Constitutional Rights and Rights in Human Perspective policy seminar. One project her seminar students worked on concerned U.S. policies aimed at normalizing relations with Cuba and Iran. In that class, one student wrote a paper questioning the impact on the Cuban people of normalizing relations. That question, along with the potential that President Trump would reverse or shut down the new relationship, motivated Powell to seek funding from the Leitner Center to visit the country.

“We thought we would be getting there before the flood of Americans, before Cuba ‘arrived,’ but turns out Cuba has already ‘arrived,’” Powell said. “There were tons of Americans there, for better or worse, many of whom had the same idea we had—spring break in Cuba. It was exciting, but had echoes of spring break in Fort Lauderdale, given the sheer number of college students.” Before long, Powell realized Cuba is an interesting case study of what scholars are beginning to refer to as the “law of tourism,” which analyzes legal implications and distributional effects of the tourist sector.

The group spoke with everyday Cubans—professors, civil rights activists, taxi drivers, hairdressers, restaurant servers—who shared optimism about the infusion of tourist dollars but also expressed concerns about distributional consequences along race, gender, and class lines. For instance, the better educated, particularly those who speak English or have remittances from relatives in Miami, would be better positioned to have the capital necessary to operate an Airbnb property, Powell said.

Jiron and Milburn, both fluent Spanish speakers, recalled a day trip they took to Viñales, a rural town in western Cuba, where they spoke with workers on a tobacco plantation, who described having to pay 90 percent of their income to the government.

“In the 1970s, when the economy was bad and there was less demand for Cuban tobacco—in part because of the U.S. embargo on Cuban goods—the fact that the government would take 90 percent of the tobacco and pay a flat fee in return was very helpful,” Jiron said. “Now there is a high demand, and the government makes thousands per pound while still paying at the rate set decades ago.”

Jiron and Milburn also reflected on conversations they had with Cubans on race, women’s rights, and LGBT equality measures; they discovered that Cuban law, while aspirational, is often not practical in its everyday implementation. For instance, both men and women receive generous parental leave after the birth of a child; however, the students learned from officials at the Centro Martin Luther King that fathers rarely take leave. Meanwhile, mothers often take full leave because there are limited support systems, such as childcare, to allow them to work while also raising their infant.

The students found the Cuban people welcoming and friendly but noted that interviewees expressed fear of their government and were careful with what they said. One woman informed them cameras were all over Havana surveilling residents.

“There’s a sense that you’re always being watched, and it’s unnerving and frightening at times,” Milburn said.

How this relationship between the government and its citizens will change as more tourists visit the island nation remains unclear.

Milburn noted that in her previous visit to Cuba in January 2016—prior to Obama’s trip to the island—no one spoke English, and there were no other Americans around. She predicted that if such changes could occur in one year, the experience they had this spring, such as having extremely limited e-mail and phone access, would look nothing like one they might have five years from now.

For Jiron, the fact that Powell would ask her, a former student, to participate on this unique trip symbolized the essence of her Fordham experience.

“That Professor Powell knew I was a Spanish speaker and had roots in Latin America and asked me to join her on this trip is something another professor at another law school would never have thought to do,” said Jiron, who later invited Milburn, her fellow moot court teammate. “That kind of connection with Professor Powell and other faculty of staff has been so special.”

Powell praised the Leitner Center for providing students and faculty “irreplaceable” fieldwork opportunities that allow them to speak to real people impacted by the law and policy.

“For students to have an opportunity to ask questions about our diplomatic relationship, political relationship, economic relationship, and how law informs all of that in such a dynamic context, was phenomenal,” Powell said. “For the students and for me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip,” she added.


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