CWRU Law alumni prepare for China, their third U.S. Embassy post
Chelan and Robert Bliss
Chelan and Robert Bliss, both graduates of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, are helping citizens around the world in their roles at U.S. Embassies. First, they were posted in Kenya, then Cuba. Next up, China.
The couple has been married for 14 years, and they are raising four children -- all while learning foreign languages and cultures, as they assist in major international initiatives, including bilateral relations and immigration.
“We’ve worked in places that are about as different as you can get,” Chelan Bliss said. “Kenya was so security-focused, and in Cuba we are rebooting a failed bilateral relationship. And then in China, we focus on our complicated economic partnerships.”
For the past three years, Chelan has served as one of 30 Foreign Service Officers in Cuba. Her husband, Robert, also works for the U.S. Embassy. He adjudicates immigration cases and also taught classes on social media and blogging, to name a few.
The internet, Bliss explained, has been a huge part of Cuba’s recent progress. The country went from only permitting state media and an internal intranet to suddenly having internet access points. Though not completely unrestricted and very expensive at $2 per hour, the internet hot spots are expected to double from 50 to 100. And Cubans are resourceful, creating a network of sharing thumb drives filled with movies, television and other media.
“Overall, the country is very, very slowly progressing,” Bliss said. “They sort of do two steps forward, one step back. For example, they may open a new area to private employment, but they don’t want individuals to make too much money, so if people are too successful in a particular profession, they will change the rules to prevent that, or they’ll eliminate the career entirely.”
Cubans are paid on average $25 per month and receive subsidized housing and rations, as well free health care and college education. Bliss said a common misconception about Cuba is the existence of only one equal class, but she has seen a growing divide among the middle class and poor. Cubans who left the country after the revolution in the 60s and 70s have sent money back to their families for decades, creating huge disparities.
“There is a lot of frustration here,” she said. “You may have a brain surgeon living next door to a 25-year-old who doesn’t work but who has a much higher standard of living because his uncle in the U.S. sends him money. There are also racial disparities, as many of the Cubans who left in the past and send money to Cuban relatives are white.”
Still, Bliss said, the country has progressed since President Obama announced the reestablishment of relations in 2014. Chelan and Robert participated in the official opening of the embassy with the Secretary of State. They’ve prepped for numerous political visits and delegations. Both spent a very busy March preparing for and supporting President Obama and the First Family’s visit to Cuba. “My site was the Gran Teatro, where the President gave a historic speech live over Cuban television and radio. After weeks of preparing and overcoming little emergencies to pull the event together, when I stood side stage and watched the President give that beautiful speech- that was the highlight of my tour in Cuba.”
“I couldn’t imagine a better time in Cuba, to be here during the process,” she said.
The embassy began its work by focusing on areas of mutual interest, such as law enforcement, environmental cooperation, drug trafficking and maritime rescue at sea. Then it delved into more difficult subjects, including property claims and human rights issues. Free speech is still not recognized as a right.
“It is a concern for sure. They’ve been open to talking about it, to have a human rights bilateral conversation but I don’t think it will go as smoothly as these other topics,” she said. “But overall, there is more cooperation on a range of topics. Soon, we should have regular air service to Cuba on commercial airlines, for example.”
Travel to Cuba has increased, and there are more Americans visiting than ever before. Cuba has the 8th largest population of immigrants in the U.S.
Now that their three-year post in Havana is complete, Chelan and Robert have spent their summer on “home leave” before starting a two year program to study Chinese language and culture.
“We do have a lot of say in where we are going,” Chelan said. “They give us a long list, and we bid for the jobs that are appealing to us. I guess we just have very eclectic interests.”