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Agricultural Law Center offers experiential learning in Cuba

For three years (and counting), Drake students in the Agricultural Law Center have the rare opportunity to learn agricultural law in Cuba.

Drake Law students made a third trip to Cuba in January 2014 to study agricultural law reforms. Professor Neil Hamilton, director of Drake’s Agricultural Law Center, leads the group along with others.

“Drake Law School was proud to send a delegation of students to Cuba for a rare opportunity to study agriculture and legal reforms,” said Hamilton.

Students meet with people involved in agriculture in Cuba. These opportunities range from visiting local farms and meeting with officials at the Sociedad Cubana de Derecho Agrario (the Agricultural Law Society of Cuba) to appointments with legal scholars and government officials. Students have also had the opportunity to talk with diplomats at the United States Interest Section, Cuba’s equivalent of a U.S. embassy.

The various sessions offered Drake Law students an opportunity to hear about current issues in Cuban agricultural law along with a variety of other topics, including Cuban land reforms.

Michelle Grau, LW’13, said, “The trip significantly changed my understanding and impressions of Cuba. I went into the country expecting a poverty stricken country, but returned having a neat perspective. It is a country that I would love to return to.”

As is the case with many trips abroad, the group learns just as much about Cuba from the unplanned parts of the trip. Whether talking to a taxi driver or eating next to locals in a restaurant, students are fully immersed in Cuban culture.

“I think the biggest lesson for me was learning that while I may not agree with something that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. This nation firmly stands behind and actively supports their own political beliefs…and no matter how capitalistic I am, I must realize that they believe in their way and somehow make it work,” said Elizabeth Burns-Thompson, LW’14.

Food production on underutilized land remains a key issue for Cuba. Progress has been made in several areas including offering state-owned farmland to individual farmers. Students met with farmers in the Havana area, saw “organiponicos” (urban gardens) and toured the Alomar Unit of Basic Production Cooperative, which covers 25 acres and employs 120 cooperative members.

When asked about her impressions of Cuba, Alecia Meuleners, LW’13, responded, “I have a clearer understanding of the situation, including how the embargo and U.S. policy decisions affect the daily life of individuals. I’ve seen Cuba through a human lens, not just a political/policy lens.”

There is little doubt the experience benefits Drake students.

“My students share a fresher, more hopeful perspective on U.S. – Cuban relations – one not laden by the baggage of 50 years of Cold War history or clouded by a lens of ideology,” Hamilton said. “Their perspective is of a beautiful island-nation 90 miles from our shore and a shared culture and history that can be the foundation of a friendly, prosperous, respectful future.”