Brooklyn Eagle’s Cuba Journal: The Brooklyn Bar Association lands in Havana
With butterflies in their stomachs, looks of excitement in their eyes and a strong desire for glory and cigars, the members of the Brooklyn Bar Association (BBA) flew out of Miami International Airport and landed in Havana, Cuba, late in the afternoon on Sunday, Feb. 28.
The group learned the hard way that an hour delay of flights into and out of Cuba is considered “on time,” and they missed their first scheduled lunch. Luckily, any hunger pangs were quickly forgotten upon seeing the classic American cars throughout the streets and, of course, the sight of the majestic Hotel Parque Central. With marble staircases, a rooftop pool and strong Cuban coffee available at the bar, the hotel quickly exceeded everyone’s expectations.
After checking in, the BBA headed to Centro Asturias for dinner, where everyone had a choice between lobster, lamb or chicken. Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello blessed the food and everyone could finally relax for the first time and take in the night air of Cuba.
Each day began with a series of lectures designed to introduce BBA members to the country that many U.S. citizens hear very little about.
The first lecture was about private businesses, their regulations and how they are taxed. This is a relatively new topic in Cuba, as the government owned and ran nearly all businesses up until about three or four years ago. Two women, Marta Elisa Rodriguez and Irina Garcia, who started a business helping other self-employed Cubans set up business plans and navigate complex government bureaucracy, tried their best to explain the new and evolving system.
While some of the rules might have seemed onerous to the BBA members at the lecture, most who attended came away with the impression that Cuba is putting in a real effort to stimulate its economy and change the status quo.
“It was very eye-opening,” said Arthur Aidala, president of the BBA. “It seems like the country is trying to allow individuals to be self-employed and start their own companies, but obviously they have a long way to go.
“What’s interesting is that they realize that adjustments need to be made. It appears that Raul Castro is actually trying to give individuals an opportunity to have a better life.”
After the lecture, the BBA met at the Plaza de San Francisco to explore Havana Vieja with tour guide Lazaro Rodriguez Calvo. It was here that Lazaro got his first taste of how difficult it would be to escort 30 lawyers from Brooklyn as he tried in vain to keep the group together.
It’s hard to blame the group, though. Old Havana isn’t like a lot of places out there in the world — it’s like walking back in time into a city that is part New York, part Rome and part San Juan —and has this incredible charm that comes out of old stone buildings which have withstood decades of hurricanes and neglect. Distractions are everywhere; there is so much to see and there are so many great people to talk to.
After a few hours exploring, coffee, rum and getting lost, the group met back at the hotel before going off to a pre-dinner performance by the unforgettable Havana Youth Orchestra. This impressive group of children performed everything from Ludwig van Beethoven to their own arrangements under Cuban composer Jose Antonio Pepe.
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