Returning to his homeland where he was born and raised prior to coming to the United States at the age of 13, law professor Alberto Coll and 32 third-year law school students visited Cuba to study its legal system during a momentous spring break week in March that included President Obama, Major League Baseball and the Rolling Stones. Read on to learn more about how Coll, through his new study abroad program to Havana, is preparing lawyers for future foreign trade, investment and business.
How did the study abroad program to Havana, Cuba come about?
I have been visiting, and doing research on Cuba for many years, and have developed many connections with the University of Havana Law School. The program is something that I have been thinking about, planning and discussing with Cuban colleagues for a long time, and finally President Obama's new policy toward Cuba made it all possible. The program was open to law students from any U.S. law school, but because it just started, we got mainly DePaul law students to participate. We focused on teaching law students about the basics on the Cuban legal system, with an emphasis on future investment and doing business with Cuba.
What was it like for you to be able to take these students to Cuba?
This was the first time that I took law students to Cuba, and the experience was simply extraordinary for them. None of them had been to Cuba before, and it was a great opportunity to learn about the Cuban legal system and think about the day when they will be practicing law and advising clients. It was quite transformational, for me personally, and most definitely for them as well. Very few law schools have this kind of program, so DePaul is well ahead of most others in the country.
What kind of future growth do you see for expanded law school programs in Cuba?
I think that as far as the law students go, Cuba will continue to open up more and more. Down the road, I would like to raise funds from private sources to bring Cuban lawyers and legal scholars to the law school. It would be an exchange program through which DePaul College of Law faculty can spend a few weeks in Cuba doing research, and Cuban legal scholars can visit Chicago to network and conduct research as well.
What do you think are some of the takeaways the students came away with after their visit to Cuba?
I am enormously proud of our students. Every one of them mingled with the Cuban people, made many friends, and were quite comfortable moving around in Havana on their own. For example, all of our students wound up staying, not at hotels, but with Cuban families in homes accessed through Airbnb. I was quite impressed with their resourcefulness, independence and openness, and they turned out to be a wonderful group to be with. They learned a great deal about cultural, political, and economic diversity. They had a terrific lesson in how to start learning about another country's legal system, how Cuba's legal system differs from ours, and how a good lawyer needs to be sensitive to those differences if she or he is going to serve their clients well.
Your visit to Cuba coincided with some key events. What was it like to be there at such a significant time?
A few very exciting things happened while our group was in Cuba, so our students were witnesses to historic events. President Barack Obama visited Cuba during our stay. No American president had been to Cuba in more than 80 years. Many of our students even got to see the President's motorcade through town. Also, it was fun to see the Rolling Stones come to Cuba to perform a free concert attended by several hundred thousand people. And lastly, there was a Major League Baseball exhibition game between the Cuban national team and the visiting Tampa Bay Rays. It was a terrifically exciting, busy week for the students to be in Havana and feel first-hand the tremendous opening that has brought to an end the many tragic decades of estrangement and separation between our two great nations.