I went to Cuba in mid-November 2014 as part of a delegation of the ABA Section of Dispute Resolution to learn about the legal system and dispute resolution there. I am grateful to Bruce Meyerson for organizing and leading this trip. I stayed a few extra days as part of a cultural extension of this trip.

I’m not saying that our delegation’s visit was completely responsible for the December 17, 2014 announcements of the plans for the US and Cuba government to normalize relationships. But you can connect the dots.

One of the members of our delegation is named Alan Gross, apparently no relation to the prisoner just released, but he got numerous messages assuming that they were the same person. In any case, our delegation can truthfully claim that we brought Alan Gross home safely.

When I travel, I often make photographic records and write accounts to preserve my memories, which fade so quickly. I also like to share them with friends to give them some sense of coming along for the ride.

I especially wanted to do this on this trip because Cuba seemed so exotic for me as an American. Unlike citizens of virtually every other country, it is not easy or cheap for Americans to go to Cuba. One needs special licenses for things like professional or cultural trips and I was told that the license for our trip cost $500 per person.

As the news reports keep repeating, our governments – and some members of our populations – have been in serious conflict for more than five decades.

For some people, Cuba is a story of heroic resistance to American imperial domination, featuring charismatic leaders like Fidel and Che who are universally recognized with a single name. In this telling, a small country has persevered despite countless subversion, assassination, and coup attempts by the mighty colossus to the north. This small country created systems of free public education, health care, and economic security that surpass those in many wealthier countries. The government established policies to combat rampant discrimination and inequality that were the legacies of the US-backed dictatorship that ruled Cuba before “the Revolution.”

The counter-narrative is a story of a Communist dictatorship that stamped out political and economic freedom. Cuba is a one-party state ruled by a ruthless dictator for decades, followed in office by his brother. The government incited revolution around the world and associated with bad actors like the Soviets and Venezuela’s strongman, Hugo Chavez. The Cuban government controls the entire economy and has prohibited any private enterprise. Opposition to the government is a crime and political opponents have been jailed for decades, often subject to torture. Recent reforms are token “window dressing” that don’t change the fundamental nature of the regime.

As a dispute resolution professional, I usually start with a presumption that there are some elements of truth in different accounts in most conflicts. Although I would like to believe my government, it has not always been honest about foreign affairs, especially when it has a political interest in promoting a particular version of events. So I don’t presume that its story was necessarily accurate. (Indeed, some of the “facts” stated by our news media since the big announcements are at odds with some plausible accounts I have heard and read.)

I didn’t have clear ideas of what to expect in Cuba. I wondered how much of the anti-Castro story of an alien society was true. Would I find a country, like I imagine North Korea, where the large majority of the population apparently live in crushing poverty, constantly terrified of expressing even the slightest criticism of the government?

I was in Cuba for only eight days, visited only two places, and had limited interactions with the local population. So, even though I did some independent reading and our guides seemed remarkably candid, my conclusions are necessarily tentative.

What I found, unlike my image of North Korea, was a place that seemed remarkably familiar. I lived in South Florida for about three years and, except for a few things, I might have thought I had been taken there. The climate, flora, architecture, frequent use of Spanish, and racial and ethnic diversity were remarkably similar. Of course, there were some differences. For example, in Florida, I didn’t see constant images of Che, the remarkable fleet of 1950s-era US cars, and a much more limited consumer market than in the US.

Some people in our delegation were struck by what seemed like great poverty to them. I have seen poverty in many parts of the US that seemed as bad or even much worse than what I saw in Cuba. I understand that many Cubans struggle to make ends meet. So do many Americans. Given the widely different distributions of income and wealth in the two countries, it is hard to make simple comparisons.

Unlike the political zombies I imagined, Cubans seemed remarkably “normal” (i.e., in my naive mind, like Americans). I made a point of venturing away from tourist areas to get some sense of this. If you look at my photos, I suspect that you will get a similar feeling of Cubans as “normal” people, i.e., like you and me and people we see in our society.

Here’s a link to a slideshow of the photos. The slideshow includes some shots by Jeff Krivis and Brian Breiter from the ABA delegation as well as James Campbell from a Kansas Bar Association delegation, who was part of the cultural excursion at the end of the trip. I have noted which shots they took, though I edited and captioned all the shots, so don’t blame them. We took more than 4700 photos between the four of us and I selected about 300 of the best shots providing a range of images of what we saw. Some of the captions may not be quite accurate.

Here’s a link to my travelogue. I finished writing it last month, before I had any idea that the recent political changes were in the works. I haven’t updated the travelogue and you will see that I despaired that the international situation would change any time soon because of the political dynamics in the US. I’m glad that both governments have decided to try to improve their relationships and resolve their differences.

I gather that Cuba has been in the process of major economic and political changes for 5 or 10 years or more. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused a major crisis in Cuba, from which the government and population are still recovering. Apparently, they have initiated reforms as a matter of survival. Hopefully, improved relations between the US and Cuba will benefit both societies.

Befitting a law professor, my travelogue goes on for some length – 28 pages – and includes links for readers to get more information. The first 10 pages provide my general impressions and rest covers particular topics. The travelogue includes sections on legal education, labor issues, constitutional law, family law, court procedures, the Cuban Five, cultural center, legal practice with the legal collectives, and the excursion to Matanzas Province. I created links within the travelogue so that you can jump around between topics you are interested in.

Obviously, it would take some time to absorb the photos and travelogue. Many of these photos are worth 1000 words and you might want to take the time to look at them closely.

If you are interested and have some time during the holiday season, I hope you will enjoy these written and photographic diaries of my trip to Cuba.

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus and former director of the LLM Program in Dispute Resolution, at the University of Missouri, School of Law. He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is also an avid writer and contributor to Indisputably.org