Law Student David Camps Thought to Be First Cuban Resident to Attend UW in Half a Century
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In the fall of 2014, Cuban tour guide David Camps led a group from the University of Washington on a serendipitous bus tour around his native country.
The group seemed to ask a lot of questions, but Camps — a former attorney and top diplomat turned tour guide — thought little of it; clients were often curious about his life in Havana. So he was caught off-guard by the phone call more than a year later that led to him becoming one of the first Cubans to attend the UW as an international student in more than half a century.
“I was very surprised,” Camps said. “You never think someone will remember you and call you a year or two later.”
The 38-year-old is studying at the UW School of Law as one of three 2015 fellows — and the first Cuban — in the Barer Institute for Law and Global Human Services. Launched in 2012 by retired attorney and UW law alumnus Stan Barer, the program pays for attorneys from developing countries to spend an academic year studying issues related to health, education and economic development in their home countries through the university’s Sustainable International Development LL.M. program.
Camps is believed to be the first Cuban student enrolled at the UW while living in Cuba since the U.S. embargo against the island nation in 1960. In the 2014-15 academic year, there were 94 Cuban international students studying in the United States, according to the Institute of International Education. Those include Gerandy Brito, a doctoral student in math who completed a master's degree in Brazil before coming to the UW in 2012.
Camps met Barer on the tour, part of a UW learning trip organized by then-provost and now UW President Ana Mari Cauce, a native of Cuba. Barer chatted with Camps as the bus rolled through the streets and discovered he had previously worked as an attorney in Cuba. Barer was struck by his intelligence and resourcefulness.
“He was just a dynamite guy,” said Barer, a former UW regent. “I was very impressed by him.”
Barer is considered a key figure in Seattle’s international trade community. A founder of the Washington State China Relations Council, he played an integral role in opening ocean trade between China and the United States in the 1970s. When President Obama announced in June 2015 that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba after 54 years, Barer absorbed the news with keen interest — and thought about the bright former attorney he’d met in Cuba.
He tracked down Camps, called him and asked if he might be interested in the fellowship. He also asked Camps to send his resume.
“When I got it, I was stunned,” Barer said. “I thought, he shouldn’t just be a student. He should be a professor.”
A difficult decision
Camps, who grew up in the city of Guantánamo, worked as an attorney for five years before returning to school to complete a master’s degree in international political relations. In a decade with Cuba’s foreign service, he served as a diplomatic attaché in Syria and deputy chief of missions in Saudi Arabia and Equatorial Guinea, among other positions. His research has focused on areas including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Guantánamo Naval Base. He is fluent in English, French and Arabic.
Despite his accomplishments, Camps left foreign service for a more lucrative career as a tour guide. For five years, he led tours for a New York-based company with some high-profile clients (Beyoncé was on one of Camps’ tours). The hours were long, but Camps was making enough money to support his family and a decent wage by Cuban standards.
So when the call came from Barer, Camps was intrigued but hesitant. His father died when he was 6, and Camps was reluctant to leave behind his wife and then 1-year-old son, Alberto.
“It was a very hard decision,” he said. “I grew up without a father. When that happens to you, you don’t want to that to happen to your son.”
And when the call came, Camps was a bit distracted.
“There was a meter and 20 inches of water in my house because it was raining — the rain in Cuba is very heavy — and I was in the middle of an operation to evacuate my family,” Camps said, laughing.
Camps soon decided to accept the offer, but there were hurdles ahead. The U.S. State Department initially denied his visa application, prompting Barer to write numerous letters to the government on his behalf. Other Cuban students have secured visas more easily, Barer said, but Camps’ background made him unique.
“I think the problem was that he had been a top diplomat for Cuba in the Middle East. And at that time, Cuba’s diplomatic missions in there were pursuing a different foreign policy than ours,” he said.
Camps’ visa was finally granted in November 2015, three months after the other two fellows began their studies. He immersed himself in studies on U.S. corporate and trade law, areas he believes will offer significant opportunities as renewed relations with Cuba strengthen and evolve.
“Neither Americans know about Cuban law, nor Cubans know about U.S. law,” said Camps, whose studies at the UW will wrap up in December. “There’s a gap. The majority of Cuban lawyers, for example, don’t have a clue how complicated shareholder agreements can be, because most of the big companies that have shares belong to the state.”
The fellowship, Camps said, is “tremendously important” and unique.
“It provides private resources for the public interest of other countries,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone else doing this in the way that the Barer Institute and the UW School of Law are doing.”
Anita Ramasastry, director of the UW Sustainable International Development LL.M. program, said Camps and the other fellows — which this year include a judge from Uganda and an anti-corruption activist and professor in Nepal — come to UW at critical junctures in their countries’ histories. Previous fellows have included judges, human rights activists and attorneys from Indonesia, Mongolia and Myanmar, among other nations.
“These scholars are change-makers in countries in great transition,” she said. “We are a trade-dependent state, so if we think about Washington’s future, it’s people like David who are going to go home and really help us build important bridges between our economies.”
The law school and the Barer Institute, Ramasastry said, aim to use law to create a framework for greater human prosperity and leaders for the global common good. The Sustainable International Development Program and the Barer fellowship, she said, are clear examples of that goal.
‘The same feeling’
Camps arrived in the United States for the first time in December, landing in Seattle to fill out paperwork before taking a bone-chilling trip to Chicago to visit his brother-in-law. He was expecting cold in Seattle too — not in terms of weather, but people — but said he’s been surprised at how friendly Seattleites are.
As someone who’s spent most of his life on an island, Camps likes the city’s soul-soothing proximity to water. And though Seattle architecture may arguably pale in comparison to Havana’s crumbling colonial splendor, Camps also appreciates the “beautiful” UW campus and the convenience of his temporary digs in a nearby apartment. He misses Cuban food, especially tropical fruits, but has been consoling himself by dining at some of the neighborhood’s ethnic restaurants.
Mostly, Camps said, he’s struck by the cultural similarities between Cuba and the U.S., nations just 90 miles apart but ideologically separated by a generations-old cold war. Camps went to the Mariners season opening game in April and sat in the stands marveling at how far away, and how close, his homeland seemed.
“It’s the same feeling, the same reaction, in a ballpark in Havana and here in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s amazing how different we are in some areas, but how close we are in our point of view.”
Note: This story was updated on 6.29.2016 to clarify that at least one other Cuban international student has enrolled at the University of Washington since the U.S. embargo against Cuba was imposed in 1960.