Opinion: Yet another Miami-style cold shower

A high-profile Miami Herald conference is hung up on how much the Cuban government will benefit from rising investments

Palli column headBy José M. Pallí, esq.

My one and only hometown newspaper held a breakfast mini-conference on a topic that has, for a long time, been its daily bread: Cuba.

Cuba is one of the hottest topics the world over right now, as a sold-out conference in London, a stone throw away from the British Museum, attested this past weekend — I missed that one.

Driving from my home to the paper’s headquarters in Doral in the early morning Miami traffic made me reminisce of the traffic in Caracas in the 1970s, where I could clearly see the office building where I worked from my apartment’s balcony and still take an hour to drive there.

So I did not expect a lot of people to be at the Miami Herald’s Community Room at 8 am. Boy, was I surprised! It was fully packed, a testament to the pull the Herald has in our community and to the fact that the newspaper is presently run by very bright women (as the world, including Cuba, should and will, hopefully soon).

But the full house was also the result of the incandescence of the topic chosen for the first of two panels, Investing in Cuba (the second panel, for which I was not able to stay, was about tourism in Cuba, something which is still forbidden to most Americans), and the fact the three panelists were very well chosen and of high quality: the president of the one U.S. bank with a presence in Cuba today (the envy of all first movers), one of the most prominent Cuban American politicians of his generation, and a Miami super-lawyer (also a Cuban American whom I have known since I settled here almost 40 years ago, and who is also a top of the line politician, as you must be to become the first Hispanic American to preside over the American Bar Association).

The session was well worth the long trip, even if the panel, except for the banker — the only one presently engaged in business in Cuba — turned out to be yet another Miami-style cold shower for those in attendance who, presumably, were there because of their interest in doing business with Cuba.

The politician — in my book one of the best HUD secretaries since I became an American, despite the fact he gave all kinds of fits to the title insurance Industry I was associated with back then — basically took the usual Cuban exile hardline that is repeated daily and ad nauseam in most Miami media outlets, the Herald included.

The gentleman has never set foot in the island since he left as a child, and he talked about his surprise when he recently heard Raúl Castro say that the return to Cuba of the Guantánamo Base land, and reparations to the Cuban people on account of the effects of the U.S. embargo, are important issues for Cubans in the island. He seems to think these are issues the Cuban side just added, belatedly, to its catalogue of claims and complaints in a negotiation in which they have made no concessions at all. His point seemed to be that a real “give and take” is still absent in Washington’s new Cuba policy, although he also said he is not against the negotiations per se (this despite the fact the embargo law says otherwise: we cannot negotiate with Cuba until it first proves to us it is now Switzerland, as a friend and colleague of mine likes to say).

My lawyer colleague was no less adamant in sticking to the hard line. For years, I tried to convince him to visit Cuba — which he recently did — convinced as I was (and still am) that he is one of those few in the United States who can have a significant impact on moving the chains towards the goal of a better Cuba. He told the audience about the many family businesses his elders saw intervened in the early days of the Cuban Revolution, and shared with us that “All my mom wants to know is, when are we going back to get our houses”.

He emphasized that it is indispensable, before anyone invests in Cuba, to sense that the Cuban legal system is imbued with something akin to what we know as “due process of law” — and I fully agree with him. But my sense of Cuba’s legal system is not the same as his, and I have been going to Cuba (six times in all, since 2002, never staying for more than a week) and interacting with Cuban colleagues for 13 years now. I realize this “experience” does not make me an “expert” in Cuba. But his criticism of the Cuban legal system was not, in my humble opinion, very well grounded, as I know his arguments usually are. For instance, he pointed out Cuban courts are filled with lay justices, seemingly forgetting that our own constitution and legal system also relies on lay persons as jury members. He also compared the treatment given in Cuba to foreign businessmen who bribe Cuban officials to punishing gamblers at Rick’s Café in “Casablanca”.

For years I have asked a huge number of questions to Cuban lawyers about the inner workings of their legal system and most answers I have received are no less sound and complete than those I get from colleagues in any other latitudes. But my friend/colleague/panelist told us “Cuban lawyers have only one answer for all your questions: es muy complicado…”.

I asked the banker one question: Please tell us three “money making” activities you are presently doing in Cuba under the OFAC rules, and tell us which are the three most important things you cannot do today and will be allowed to do once the embargo is gone (the banker was the only person in the panel who advocated for the lifting of the embargo). The gentleman did not seem comfortable answering the first part, and his answer to the second part was far less specific than I expected: Everything will be easier once the embargo is gone…

The last segment of the panel tried to answer the “crystal ball” question: What can we expect? Both the politician and the lawyer in the panel acknowledged that if the answer was what filled the Herald’s community room, the crowd would be disappointed. Their crystal balls were fuzzy, it seems.

But the best of it all was my colleague’s answer: “it is very complicated” — that is, es muy complicado…

You may think, from my commentary, that I am being ironic when I say that the session was well worth enduring the traffic from Coral Gables to Doral. But I am not. I respect the opinions of both, the politician and the lawyer, even if I may find them repetitive and passé. For one, at this day and age, the discussion’s underlying question — what percentage of the money invested in present-day Cuba ends up in the purse of the Cuban government — is hard to fathom, specially when some of those who claim to be concerned subscribe to the type of voodoo economics entailed in, say, the belief in trickle-down Reaganomics. But more than anything, the sticking to the hard line by some of “the best and the brightest” among us underlines how urgent it is for Miami to change its attitude towards the hottest topic in town — not just these days, but for 56 years and counting.

José Manuel Pallí is president of Miami-based World Wide Title. He can be reached a jpalli@wwti.net.

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