Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute

Tulane University

Tulane Law Professor Colin Crawford Comments on Cuban Policy Changes

January 8th, 2015

by Colin Crawford

For the past several years, through the offices of the Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute, I have run a course for graduate law and policy students on property theory. The yearlong course has an intensive, one-week field component in Havana, where we use what we have learned about property law and theory up close, looking through the lens of the recent changes in Cuba creating private property rights.

So I have been watching recent events with great interest. If the warming of US-Cuban relations continues apace as urged by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, the likely changes to private property promise to be among the most formative, and the most far-reaching in their consequences.

For the past few years, for example, the Cuban government has allowed some forms of private, small businesses to be created. One of the consequences of those moves, intended to make the Cuban economy more dynamic and lessen the state’s obligation to take care of its citizens from cradle to grave in every way, is that there are clear winners and losers. The winners, on the whole, are whiter Cubans with access to foreign capital (from family and friends abroad). One has to think that these divisions will become more pronounced with time if the thaw in US-Cuban relations allows for greater economic exchanges. These changes will make more egalitarian Cuba begin to look, in social and economic terms, more like the stratified, deeply unequal societies more typical across the Americas. If the Republican-controlled Congress allows even a gradual weakening of the decades-long embargo, Cuban society could very quickly look very, very different.

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Another question that immediately sprang to mind for me as I watched recent events unfold was about property rights claims. In the class I teach with the Cuban field component, students are required to do a research paper. One of the topics that one or two students always choose concerns the property rights, if any, of exiled Cubans to personal and real property seized by the revolution. It is our understanding that lawyers in south Florida are lying in wait to seek devolution of family property seized under the revolution once relations warm. It seems likely that any such claims are not going to be resolved easily or quickly — and they proved very problematic in the former Soviet Union and its allied countries after the fall of Communism in eastern Europe two decades ago. What similar changes would mean for Cuba is unclear. But one thing is certain: any such changes would shake the current shape of Cuban society to its core.

COLIN CRAWFORD, Robert C. Cudd Professor of Law; Executive Director, Payson Center for International Development. Crawford has expertise in international development and law and has lectured and written worldwide on environment and urban issues and related topics. He has practiced international, environmental and land use law in Tokyo and New York City. Crawford recently completed work on an environmental law and policy capacity-building project in Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic through a three-year grant from Higher Education for Development/US Agency for International Development. He has an extensive publications record and is the author of several books, book chapters, and many articles in law reviews, as well as shorter works.