As I Was Telling Fidel…
[This article originally appeared in The Trial Lawyer Magazine, Spring 2002.]
By Walter “Skip” Walker
Some 30 of us litigators trooped off to Cuba in early December under a program fully supported by the State Department. Yes, the embargo is still in effect, but, hey, even Cuba needs cultural exchanges. So we trial lawyers, almost all of us plaintiffs’ personal injury specialists, went over to meet our “counterparts” in one of the last remaining Communist countries on earth. The fact that there is virtually no personal injury litigation in Cuba (or at least none that we could detect) was not an impediment either to us lawyers, or, apparently, the United States government.
And what a bright and shining crew we were. There was the former Chief Judge of the North Carolina Supreme Court, who turned out to be a staunch liberal on everything from the death penalty to “redeeming social value” in the adult film industry to the merits of Castro’s government. There was the Minnesota Trial Lawyer of the Year, fresh from a $20,000,000 settlement and perfectly happy to share his good fortune with any Cuban holding out his or her hand (and there were plenty). There was the recently defeated candidate for governor of Kansas, the former President of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and the man from Little Rock who was personal friends with a former President of an even more prestigious operation.
Our hosts, perhaps no less illustrious in their own country, were marked in our minds by one thing above all: the average Cuban lawyer makes $30.00 per month. Of course, in Cuba not everything is quite what it seems. But more about that later.
We arrived in Cuba by Russian aircraft, equipped with seats that looked like lawn chairs. We had to duck down to enter the plane, giving us the sense that we were entering a submarine, and there were disconcerting vapors that rose from the floor while we were in flight, but we made it. Once in Havana we were whisked off by a Mercedes bus to a stunning tourist hotel run by Spain’s Melia Hotels & Resorts. It was a thing of beauty, with a stream running through it and a wrap-around pool and large rooms with cable TV. Unfortunately, Cubans were not allowed in it.
On our first full day in the country we experienced grueling lectures by the President and Vice President of the National Assembly. No single word was ever used when 100 would do. No simple question was capable of being answered directly. Voting corruption, we learned, has been absolutely eliminated under the present government. Yes, there is only one party, but the people do not have to vote for members of the party. How many candidates are there for a particular office? That question was not answered. Could we see a ballot? asked Bob Perry of Reno. That was not answered either.
Next we met with the former Chief Prosecutor of Cuba, a man now in private practice. He informed us that people who are arrested do not get to see a lawyer for seven days. However, he explained, nothing the person says during those seven days can be used as evidence. The only evidence is what is said at trial. He could not tell us what takes place during the seven days the accused is without counsel, but he did acknowledge that Cuban prosecutors have a very high conviction rate.
Over the next two days we met with “co-op” attorneys both in Havana and in the countryside. lnstead of firms, most lawyers belong to a co-op where their fees are set by the government. They are given little cubicles and cases are administratively assigned. The fees go to the co-op and the lawyers are paid salaries by the government. We saw some client files. They were very thin. Cases are not prolonged in Cuba.
There is no jury system. lnstead, cases are tried to three-judge or five-judge panels. Most cases are heard by three-judge panels, which consist of one lawyer and two people appointed by the government. Oh, of course they have civil litigation. If someone is hurt by the negligence of another then the negligent party has to pay compensation. Still, all medical care is free and with most people making just a few dollars per month there is not all that much compensation to pursue. The concept of general damages was not readily understood by our hosts.
Of perhaps more interest than the questions the Cuban lawyers answered weret he ones they asked. For example, what degree of proof do we require in order to convict someone? Degree of proof did not seem to be a rigid concept in Cuba. And the question I liked best: ls the American judicial system as chaotic and unpredictable as it appears to be in the movies?
On our final night in Havana a banquet was held in our honor, attended by some of the co-op lawyers who had spoken to us. The wine and the rum flowed. And people talked one-on-one without fear of anyone else reporting what was being said. lt turns out that while the Cuban lawyers’ salaries are very low, it is accepted that no lawyer does any work without getting paid on the side. In dollars.
U.S. dollars drive the economy of Cuba, and everyone seems to be doing everything possible to get his or her hands on them. Taxi drivers turn out to be accountants. “Dates” working tourist discotheques turn out to be biology teachers or chefs or even doctors. And what is the best job to have? Well, the doorman in our hotel did well enough in terms of tips for services (some more obvious than others) that he no longer needed to pursue his former profession, which, as his business card showed, was abagado.
As we looked around, beautiful buildings appeared to be crumbling right before our eyes. Offices had been turned into apartments. Once exquisite homes now housed multiple families; others were homes only to foreign diplomats and businesspeople. Laundry hung everywhere. Yet the mere fact that people who had so little placed such a premium on cleanliness was remarkable.
The food, even in the best hotels, was unimpressive. An island nation has almost no fishing industry and agricultural land seemed undeveloped. Havana streets in particular were filled with people who seemed to have nothing to do. Still, and this was the thing that most impressed us Yankee lawyers, there was almost no sense of bitterness. The Cuban people we encountered displayed no hatred and little resentment. lnstead, they appeared to be waiting rather optimistically for things to get better — either just as Fidel has promised, or just as soon as he stops promising. ln terms of looking to the future, the Cuban people do not appear to be alone.
As we were leaving Havana, our place was being taken by a group of American anesthesiologists, there to interact with their counterparts (presumably not the ones who were working the discotheques). lt is, in any event, nice to know that someone in Washington appears to have a plan for Cuba that involves more than setting Castro’s beard on fire.