International Law from a Cuban Perspective

Recently I returned from a trip to Cuba, where I had the opportunity to interview Celeste Pino Canales, a highly regarded professor of public international law at the University of Havana. I pursued the interview for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to get a sense for what it’s like to be an international law professor in Cuba. Second, given renewed interest in the field of comparative international law, I wanted to investigate whether there might be distinctive Cuban perspectives on topics such as treaty law and custom. The setting was the University of Havana Law School, where the classrooms have framed photographs of a rugged, youthful Fidel and inscriptions like “This is where I became a revolutionary.” Professor Pino Canales and I spoke with the help of a translator, so it’s possible that I missed certain nuances, but she made a number of points that seem worth sharing.


We began by talking about her work, which is both identical to and different from that of legal academics in the United States. I’ll focus on some of the principal differences: Imagine being a professor whose field is international law, but who cannot travel abroad for conferences, use the internet for research, or follow major foreign news sources. How would you track the latest developments in your field, conduct research, and connect with foreign colleagues?

These are the conditions and questions that appear to confront professors of international law in Cuba. Pino Canales and others like her are unable to travel abroad for conferences and other professional opportunities. Although it was unclear whether this is due to limited finances or government restrictions, the consequence is that Cuban academics tend to have exceedingly limited contact with their overseas counterparts. Pino Canales has managed to develop relationships with Bolivian, Venezuelan, Costa Rican, and some African scholars, but only because those individuals traveled to Havana for conferences and presentations. To me, the composition of that group was striking not only because it suggested the existence of a network of scholars with whom most in the West have no interaction, but also because it revealed a general absence of intellectual exchange with Americans in particular. Worlds were colliding as we spoke, in fabulous and disorienting ways.


As for research, the resources simply aren’t there. One problem is that most publications on international law are written in languages other than Spanish. Cubans study English in grade school, but my impression was that most people, including scholars, lack the aptitude to read legal scholarship in English, and that most universities do not have the capacity to systematically translate publications into Spanish. Equally significant, international law professors cannot access most non-Cuban scholarship. All faculty and students at the University of Havana reportedly share a single internet account with bandwidth equivalent to that of one residential account in the United States, so it takes forever even to visit the website of the United Nations, let alone download documents, and the American embargo has further complicated research by blocking downloads of online U.S. publications. To obtain books and articles from abroad, Pino Canales must typically wait for foreign academics to visit, network with them once they arrive, and then request that they physically mail hard copies to her once they return home.

These conditions seem noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, they make it difficult for Cuban scholars to participate in the “invisible college of international lawyers.” Working in substantial isolation and with limited means, professors find it a challenge to follow the latest developments in the field, exchange ideas, and contribute. Much of this is probably old news to those who are more knowledgeable about the country, but I think it’s a useful reference point for American scholars who are accustomed to the luxuries of substantial travel budgets, unlimited internet access, massive electronic databases of legal authorities, a large community of colleagues, and an abundance of publications and conferences in English. These are the practical manifestations of the happenstance of presence in the global core. The Cuban experience suggests that to be an international law scholar without these resources is to be relegated to the status of an intermittent observer of a semi-global conversation, rather than an active participant, and that poverty and political differences stand as major obstacles to the creation of a fully inclusive community of international lawyers.

Second, the professional isolation of those who hold influence over Cuban understandings of international law might in turn foster the development of distinctive national perspectives about the field. As an illustration, the primary Cuban textbook on public international law has Cuban authors, most of whom received their legal training from domestic schools, and cites mostly to legal and academic sources from the 1960s and 1970s, only a small portion of which are American or European. Do Cuban law graduates develop unique or, to the American mind, antiquated views about international law in learning from this sort of text? Quite plausibly, yes. And given that international law requires a certain cross-national harmonization of understandings and attitudes, those who support the idea of effective global norms might fairly view the conditions in Cuba with concern.

All that said, I think the recent steps toward rapprochement could help to mitigate these problems. For example, new federal regulations authorize on a case-by-case basis the export of “items for . . . education” to “meet the needs of the Cuban people.” This reform appears to make it easier for American scholars to share international law casebooks and articles with Cuban colleagues. Likewise, although the Treasury Department has for years allowed travel for certain “educational activities,” expanding transportation and communication links between the two countries will likely make it easier for American scholars to visit for research on international law and to develop and maintain contacts with Cuban colleagues. As one illustration of the potential payoffs of this sort of endeavor, I was able to obtain from Professor Pino Canales a copy of the main Cuban textbook on public international law, which I hope to translate and share with American scholars in the near future. These sorts of activities will make it easier to appreciate differences in perspective and help to generate mutual understanding.

What, then, are Cuban perspectives on international law? I wasn’t able to explore this question as much as I’d hoped, and I don’t know whether Pino Canales’s views are representative, but a few points were clear. First, she seemed skeptical about international law’s claim to legal status. She stated, for example, that the field “is more about politics than law,” and she suggested quite firmly that just as there is “no such thing as a half-pregnant woman,” there is no such thing as soft law—law is either formally binding or not law at all. I had always assumed that Cuba would promote expansive concepts of international law as a strategy to try to constrain its powerful neighbor, so these positions struck me as surprisingly realist and Austinian.

Second, Pino Canales was critical of developed countries for trying to use international law to impose on the rest of the world a “democratic, liberal, and bourgeois” model of society that lacks universal resonance. She expressed skepticism about market liberalization and characterized it as a mechanism by which the powerful reinforce existing global hierarchies.

Finally, although not necessarily issues of international law, Pino Canales explained that Cuba maintains four non-negotiable demands notwithstanding the recent developments in its relationship with the United States. First, Washington must respect Cuba’s sovereignty and the self-determination of its people by removing the embargo, which she described as “fundamentally illegal.” In her view, the recent reforms from the Obama Administration simply aren’t enough. Second, the United States must rescind the Cuban Adjustment Act, which incentivizes a destabilizing exodus of young people to the United States by making it easy for them to become permanent residents upon arrival. Third, the U.S. government must terminate Radio y Television Marti, a federally financed broadcaster that transmits reformist, Western programs in Spanish to Cuba. And fourth, Pino Canales stated that the United States must relinquish control over Guantanamo. She argued that the lease can’t be held in perpetuity, and that the international law doctrine of rebus sic stantibus renders unenforceable the provisions of the 1903 treaty that granted the United States “complete jurisdiction and control” over the land where the military base is located. Assuming that these positions represent the views of her government, it will likely take a lot more than removal of the embargo to develop an amicable relationship. The optimistic view is that American scholars might have a small role to play in that process.

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