Cuba is the largest Caribbean island, just 90 miles from Florida and was a popular American tourist destination prior to the embargo. Since the United States placed the embargo against Cuba in the late 1950s-early 1960s, travel to Cuba by Americans has been severely restricted, if not altogether nonexistent. Recently, travel to Cuba has been opened for specific purposes, including professional journalists on assignment in Cuba, and full-time professionals conducting academic research or attending professional conferences. The Nevada Bar Association offered such a trip to lawyers interested in researching the Cuban Legal System. Jennifer Salem and I signed up for the trip, along with the Nevada State Bar President, eleven attorneys and a judge, and we went on a truly unique trip to Havana, Cuba in October.
It was an amazing experience. We got to meet people that we would never have had the opportunity to meet and see a country that is not accessible to most people. It is a very different way of life; for example, not all buildings have running water and even where there is running water, you cannot drink it. The cars were very , very cool. The only disappointment was that we did not get to actually visit the law school or courts. In hind sight, I guess that makes sense, but we were looking forward to it. The people were fantastic. Everyone we encountered was genuinely excited for us to be there to learn from them. They took time from their busy lives to talk with us.
Our flight arrived 3 hours late so we only had time to check into our hotel then go to dinner. Dinner was in Old Havana at El Patio Restaurant in Cathedral Square. This area was built in the 1700s and has spectacular architecture.
We met at the Union of Cuban Jurists, which is equivalent to the Nevada Bar Association. It was founded 35 years ago and has approximately 16,000 members consisting of law professionals, not just attorneys. It has volunteer membership with its main purpose being the study and education of law.
All of our meetings were held at the offices of the Union of Cuban Jurists. The speakers were different each day, but were all attorneys and law professors. They had a passion for the law and seemed very devoted to furthering education of the law as well as updating Cuban laws.
The first topic was a general introduction to the Union of Cuban Jurists and an overview of the historical and current economic situation in Cuba. An interesting issue Cuba has to deal with is their dual currency. They have two types of currency in the Country: the Cuban Peso and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). The CUC was introduced to remove the US Dollar from circulation. The CUC is basically the tourist currency while the Cuban Peso is generally used by the locals.
We then went to lunch at Casa de la Amistad. The afternoon session was a meeting with the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples where they gave a presentation about the Cuban 5 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Five), which was interesting but very politically charged.
In the afternoon, we went on a long walking tour of Old Havana and ended the night with dinner at El Template. There is architecture in Old Havana dating back to the 1500s.
On the way to our morning session, our guide took us to a couple of tourist spots: Revolution Square and John Lennon Park (yes, the Beatles – Fun Fact #1: the statue originally had Lennon’s signature round-lens glasses, but they have been stolen several times so now there is an old security guard sitting next to the bench that places the glasses on the statue). Revolution Square is notable as being where many political rallies take place and Fidel Castro and other political figures address Cubans; it is surrounded by government buildings and the José Martí Memorial.
Our morning meeting topic was family law. In family law, Cuba focuses on the same issue as we do here: best interest of the child. Then we went to lunch at El Ajibe, which was by far our favorite meal. The afternoon meeting was civil law. Cuban law is based on and still follows the 1898 Spanish Civil Code. Cuba does not follow stare decisis/precedence; although, in practice, the attorneys utilize it.
Dinner was on our own and I asked our guide for her recommendation on a good place to get an authentic Cuban sandwich. It turns out, Cuban sandwiches are a Cuban-American creation, not an authentic Cuban creation.
Before our morning session, we were introduced to a senior citizen group that meets every Wednesday at the same location as our meetings. They were very excited to meet us and show off their crafts. The morning session was the teaching of law in Cuba. It is quite different than in the U.S. In Cuba, law is essentially just another choice of a major in college. They have 3 programs: day course, night course, and self-study. School is free, including room, food, and all supplies. There is no bar exam. After graduation, each student is placed into a 2-3 year government internship/apprenticeship then can choose to stay in the position or not. They do not have the same idea of private practice that we do in the U.S. One of our speakers made the comment that “there are no rich lawyers in Cuba,” but lawyers tender to make a higher salary compared to the rest of the population. Lunch was at the 1830 Restaurant. The afternoon session was on penal and constitutional law. Cuban Law is Unitarian – one set of laws. In 1976, the Cuban Constitution was drafted, which contains a modified Freedom of Speech provision. The theory of the Cuban criminal system is similar to the U.S.: each citizen has a right to an attorney which will be appointed by the government; and the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Cuba has the death penalty, but has an unofficial moratorium as it has not been used since 2002.
Dinner was at Havana Café where we had dinner and watched a show – singers, dancers, showgirls. It was a lot of fun. We even got up on stage for a conga line with the dancers. (Fun Fact #2: The conga line was first developed in Cuba and became popular in the United States in the 1930s and 1950s.)
In the morning, we visited a Legal Services Bureau (aka law office) where the attorneys explained the structure and functioning of the law offices. Needless to say, the law offices were very different than any in the U.S. It was very basic and utilitarian and, like many of the buildings, did not have proper running water or bathrooms. We had a farewell lunch at the Unions of Cuban Jurists then had time for our “individual research pursuits” in the afternoon. We chose to research the Santa Maria Beach about half an hour outside of Havana. It was gorgeous. Our final dinner was at the El Café del Orient in Old Havana.