Third Year Marquette Law student Andrew Rissler recently had the opportunity to join a delegation from the Sports Lawyers Association to Havana, Cuba, where they attempted to understand how sports and law function in Cuba and the challenges that will be faced by both the sports industries in both countries as relations normalize. The following posts will share some of Andrew’s thoughts and insights about the delegation.
I was thrilled to be able to join the Sports Lawyers Association’s first-ever delegation to Cuba. I have wanted to visit Cuba ever since I learned that Americans generally couldn’t travel there. It had always fascinated and frustrated me that this place, only about 90 miles south of the US mainland, was off-limits to me. I was very excited when President Obama announced steps toward normalized relations in December of last year, and hopeful that my chance to visit Cuba would not be far behind. Sure enough, when the Sports Lawyers Association announced this summer that it was putting together a group of lawyers to study issues pertaining to sports law in Cuba, I jumped at my chance. Our delegation was an eclectic group of ten members, representing the fields of international arbitration, immigration law, contract law, labor law, intellectual property law, and academia. Among the group were professors, arbitrators, litigators, union representatives, and a student, for good measure, all eager to see, learn, and experience what Cuba had to offer.
Stepping off the plane in Havana as an American is truly a surreal experience. There is an overwhelming sense that you are a part of something historic, because you really are. It’s hard not to think about how relatively few Americans have had this opportunity in the past half-century. Our charter flight from Miami consisted of us in the Sports Lawyers Association delegation, other Americans who had arranged for various tours, Cuban-Americans visiting relatives, and a group of high school students from Southern California. Almost everyone on the flight could not help but snap pictures of the Cuban flag and sign welcoming us to Jose Marti International Airport as we walked across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal.
We waited nearly twice as long to clear customs and claim our luggage as the actual flight from Miami to Havana took. The International Terminal at Jose Marti feels more like a Greyhound bus station than anything befitting international travel. As the baggage claim conveyor belt fired up, several televisions, air conditioners, and even car parts made their way around. These were American products that were being brought to Cubans via their American relatives as checked luggage.
After we had all finally claimed our luggage, we met up with our Cuban guide, Arturo, and made our way into Havana. The thing that most of us immediately noticed is that what we’ve all heard about the only cars in Cuba being classic American cars is not exactly true. There are several gorgeous (as well as not so gorgeous) classic American cars on the streets of Cuba, but there are also several modern cars of Asian and European makes. The ratio seems to be about half classic and half modern cars. Arturo would later tell us that Cubans take great pride in being able to restore classic American cars, and even have competitions for restorations. However, they are not the only cars available to the Cuban people, as many Americans might believe. It is sometimes hard to remember that, while there is an American trade embargo against Cuba, Cuba is still free to engage in commerce with most other countries.
On the bus ride in to Havana, several billboards featuring images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro along the highway were stark reminders of just exactly where we were. There are no McDonald’s, no Starbucks, and no commercial advertising along the highways. At one point, we saw a group of goats snacking on the grass on the side of the road in the middle of the city.
On our way to our hotel, we stopped to take photos in the Plaza De Revolucion. The plaza was probably the first time it genuinely hit that I was standing in the capital of a communist country. There was a very eerie feeling seeing the giant monument to Jose Marti and the giant portrait of Che on the side of the Cuban ministry of defense building, all while being watched by men in military fatigues from the Cuban “White House” (Palacio de la Revolución).
We then moved on and checked in to our hotel and relaxed for a bit before heading out to dinner, where the night became much more fun. We enjoyed a fantastic meal and a great view at La Torre, a restaurant located on the top floor of the tallest building in Havana. Before the meal, we were treated to Cuba Libres, which we were quick to note weren’t technically Cuba Libres due to the lack of availability of Coca-Cola products in Cuba. The Cuban substitute did manage to perform admirably, however.
After dinner, we convinced Arturo to join us for drinks at the Hotel Nacional, one of the most historic hotels in Havana. Me being me, I picked Arturo’s brain about Cuban baseball and his favorite players. It was really fun to watch Arturo wax nostalgic about his favorite player, Kendrys Morales, and his days with the Industriales (the “Yankees of Cuba” according to Arturo).
It was a treat for me to be able to hear the perspective of a Cuban baseball fan, and to realize that even when the politics and cultures of two countries are so different, sports have a way of bridging cultural and social gaps between people. I am incredibly excited to spend the next few days here studying and discussing the future of Cuban-American relations, and the major role that our countries’ shared love of sports will have in restoring our relations.
Overall, it was a long but great first day in Cuba, and I can’t wait to be able to explore and learn more about Havana and Cuba in the days ahead.