WATERVILLE — While the government in Cuba opposes free enterprise, you see people engaging in it everywhere. They grow and sell vegetables, create and sell art and rent out old American cars for weddings.

One woman who is considered a high priestess in the Santeria religion earns money by reading fortunes for tourists.

“Whether she’s been licensed by the government or not, I don’t know; but she’s engaging in capitalism under the guise of religion,” William Lee said.

Lee, a local attorney, was talking Tuesday to more than 60 people who attended the Mid-Maine Global Forum to hear him and two Colby College students talk about their trip to Cuba in January with 14 other students.

The visit was part of a course Lee taught at Colby called “Comparative Law: U.S. and Cuban Legal Systems.”

Lee and Colby freshmen Thomas Gregston and Emily Boyce, both 18, talked about what they perceived as a duality in Cuban issues, such as the government’s shunning of capitalism yet people still make money in free-enterpriselike ways. Cuba also has a dual currency system, they said.

“In Cuba, it is illegal to engage in an economic enterprise unless it is allowed by the government,” Lee said.

He pointed out that the “communist party does not govern Cuba, but it does rule it.”

In the one-party system, candidates may be considered for local office by listing their names and biographies in public, but they do not campaign.

“There are no speeches. There are no debates,” Lee said.

Lee and the students met professors, provincial leaders of the Communist Party and judges. Court cases involving smaller issues such as divorce and neighbors’ disputes are heard by a professional judge and two lay judges, they said; more serious cases are heard by two professional judges and three lay judges.

“There is no such thing as a jury trial in Cuba,” Lee said.

This was Lee’s third trip to Cuba. The U.S. government limits travel there by its citizens — with some exceptions, including educational purposes. The embargo began more than 50 years ago, after the Cuban Revolution.

Lee went in 2001 as part of an academic delegation. In 1999, he took Colby students to Cuba at the end of what is known as the Special Period. That period occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Colby professor Lenny Reich asked how Cuba has changed since that time, when Cuba suffered economically from the loss of Soviet support.

Lee said electrical blackouts were common during that time and food was scarce — people even starved to death — and cars were not driven very much because people did not have money for fuel.

“Cuba has improved significantly, economically, from that time,” he said.

Gregston, from North Conway, N.H., and Boyce, Houston, talked about their visit with Yoani Sanchez, an internationally known Cuban blogger who fights for freedom and human rights. Sanchez has won many awards for her work, including the International Woman of Courage Award from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011.

Boyce contacted Sanchez and asked whether Lee and the students could meet with her, and she accepted. Sanchez in the past has been denied many requested trips out of Cuba but has visited Switzerland and now is in Brazil. She mostly fights for her causes from within Cuba, which she loves passionately, Gregston and Boyce said.

“What she’s really focused on is trying to promote the idea of freedom through Internet access,” Gregston said.

Sanchez is seen as a leading force in Cuba but also is considered a radical, they said.

“Yoani is always there to remind the people of what is possible,” Gregston said.

Lee, who also is Waterville’s city solicitor, said after the session that multiple layers of issues between the U.S. and Cuba so far have prevented efforts to normalize relations. They include each side’s unwillingness to release political prisoners, disagreements about immigration issues and Cuba’s contention that the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is illegal. The base also is a detention center and interrogation facility.

“Each side currently is taking the position that until prisoner X is released from your jail, we’re not talking,” Lee said.

Cuba is a remarkably safe place, in no small part because of the fact that it is an island, he said, adding, “You don’t just sneak into Cuba undetected.”

Police and some people in rural areas have guns, but most people do not, he said. There are no gangs, and Cuba does much to eliminate class distinction, he added.

“The racism you see in the U.S. is not as prevalent,” he said.

Boyce said schools are crowded, but the literacy rate is very high. The architecture is beautiful, but it is typical to see buildings where multiple families live right next to a building with a collapsed roof, they said.

Medical care is excellent, but Cuba lacks necessary supplies, including medicine, they said.

Lee said that when he and the students arrived in Cuba from Miami, they had to explain in detail why there were there.

“They didn’t let us through very easily,” he said. “They wanted to see our reading materials.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

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