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August 15, 2018
CABA, International Law Section differ over Cuba trip

CABA’s letter to the ILS

The Cuban American Bar Association is aware of the excursion to Cuba organized by the International Law Section of The Florida Bar for October. After reviewing the itinerary for the trip, many of our members have expressed concerns about the nature of the travel being provided.

Quote Of particular concern is the differential treatment of Cuban-born members of The Florida Bar. The fine print on the promotional materials state that “Cuban born travelers, please contact Cuba Cultural Travel prior to mailing your deposit and registration form. Fees associated with special visas for Cuban born travelers are not included.” When one of our members inquired as to what these additional steps were, he was told that there “are rules the Cuban government has set in place” and, therefore, he had to apply for a special permit. The permit application process requires an additional fee and myriad information, including a “reference in Cuba (must know exact name and address).” It is outrageous that The Florida Bar would acquiesce to Cuba’s policy, which, clearly, remains intent on tightly controlling the nature of any allegedly “open” cultural exchanges between Cubans and Americans, and on prohibiting the type of “tourists” who might inconveniently bring to light Cuba’s deplorable human rights.

Another significant concern is the branding of this excursion as a “cross-cultural educational exchange,” with a glaring absence of any education on the disgraceful human rights issues facing Cubans on the island. The promotional materials for this excursion claim that ILS “promises” to include high-level discussions regarding . . . human rights.” Yet, the cast of “prominent” members that the ILS has selected to “educate” members of our Bar fails to include even one member of the Cuban dissident movement or one human rights activist.

In order to promote liberty and freedom for the Cuban people –– and if the true intent of the excursion is at least in part to educate members of our Bar on Cuba’s human rights –– we suggest that the travelers take time to meet with members of the Cuban dissident movement, human rights activists, and others fighting for freedom in Cuba. To that end, we suggest meetings with, among others: the Damas en Blanco (The Ladies in White), a dissident group comprised of the wives and mothers of Cuban political prisoners who march through Havana in protest every Sunday after attending Catholic mass, resulting in their arrest and detention on an almost weekly basis; Antonio Rodiles, head of Estado de SATS (a forum that was created in July 2010 to encourage debate on social, cultural, and political issues in Cuba), who organized and submitted a petition to Cuba’s National Assembly demanding that the Cuban Government ratify international covenants on human, civil, and economic rights, and who was savagely beaten by Cuban agents in July 2015, a few days before the opening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba; Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, who received a U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom for his efforts promoting human rights in Cuba; Jorge Garcia Perez Antunez, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and human rights activist; and, Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, a former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience and labor leader.

The ILS should be aware that it is sanctioning a trip to Cuba at a time when the Cuban government is still one of the worst violators of human rights in the world. To that end, I would like to bring to your attention a summary of some of the human rights abuses that occur daily under that regime that should be taken into consideration by the ILS and its excursion participants when contemplating this trip:

• Arbitrary Detentions. The regime continues to rely on arbitrary detention to silence dissenters. Detentions are also used pre-emptively to prevent persons from participating in events viewed as critical of the government. In the 10-month period between January 2017 and October 2017, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation received more than 4,500 reports of arbitrary detentions. In April 2017, political activist Eliécer Ávila from the group Somos+ was arrested twice in three days for recording and broadcasting a protest message after authorities confiscated his computer in the Havana airport.

• Severely Restricted Freedom of Speech. The Cuban government controls virtually all media outlets in Cuba and restricts access to outside information. While a small number of journalists manage to communicate information, the Cuban government blocks access to where that information is published. Then, to the extent the government considers the communications critical of the Cuban government, the journalists are subjected to smear campaigns and arbitrary arrests.

• Imprisonment and Political Prisoners. Persons who criticize the regime are charged with crimes, denied due process, and imprisoned. Judicial independence does not exist as the courts are subordinated to the government. As of May 2017, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported scores of political prisoners — including 54 members of the group Cuban Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica de Cuba). For instance, Dr. Eduardo Cardet Concepción, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement (Movimiento Cristiano Liberación), was sentenced three years in prison on March 20. He was detained on November 2016 after criticizing in interviews with international media former President Fidel Castro shortly after he died.

• Unsanitary and Inhumane Prison Conditions. More than 57,000 Cubans are held in overcrowded prisons or work camps. Prisoners who protest conditions are placed in solitary confinement, subject to beatings, restricted from family visits, and denied medical care.

CABA realizes that there has been a significant change in United States policy toward Cuba over the last few years, despite established facts confirming that the regime is just as totalitarian, just as intolerant, and just as repressive as ever. Therefore, we urge the ILS and its members who choose to visit the island to do so not because they are, in reality, being offered a fun-filled island vacation with rides through the crumbling remains of a once world-class city in vintage American ’50’s convertibles, but because they want to make a meaningful contribution to the establishment of a freely-elected government that not only respects the rights of its citizens, but is held accountable to them. We ask our colleagues to keep in mind, as they exercise their freedom and right to embark on this journey, that Cuba continues to be a repressive dictatorship and its people are not free, and more particularly, is a country where our brothers and sisters in the law are routinely muzzled and unable to freely practice our beloved profession.

On behalf of CABA, thank you for your consideration in this matter. Should you wish to discuss any of this in greater detail, please feel free to contact me.

Jorge L. Piedra
President, Cuban American Bar Association

ILS responds to concerns

With reference to your letter to the immediate past chair of The Florida Bar International Law Section (ILS), Arnoldo Lacayo, dated July 2018, concerning the ILS’ planned visit to Cuba on October 19, 2018, as the current chair of the ILS, I would like to offer you my personal assurances that any ILS program in Cuba would not only be sensitive to the obvious human rights issues that concern Cuba, but just as during the two prior ILS visits, we would continue to take all reasonable and appropriate measures to support those in Cuba who have engaged in the struggle to demand the full recognition of human rights. All ILS programs in Cuba, as well as the trip that had been planned for October 2018, were fully discussed in the ILS Executive Council meetings, voted upon, and approved.

Quote Although I was not in attendance at either of the ILS’ prior visits, I am informed that our group went to great lengths to ensure that meetings were held with prominent dissidents in Cuba, including most prominently, René Gómez Manzano, who, as you know, was one of the Group of Four who published the historic declaration called the “La Patria es de Todos” (The Homeland Belongs to All). After spending many years in Cuba as a political prisoner, Mr. Gómez Manzano decided to use his efforts and skills as a lawyer to defend others facing political prosecution including one of the best known dissidents on the island today, Yoani Sánchez. The ILS’s meeting in Cuba with Mr. Gómez Manzano was not an isolated incident. In fact, the ILS went to great lengths to arrange for him to travel from Cuba to The Florida Bar’s Annual Convention in Boca Raton to receive a human rights award from the ILS recognizing his selfless and courageous efforts to preserve the rights of lawyers defending other dissidents on the island. This was because some of our leaders had asked Mr. Gómez Manzano how the ILS could best help and support his causes. Mr. Gómez Manzano replied that the best way to support human rights in Cuba would be to continue visiting the island and meet with as many dissidents as possible and spread the word about those meetings, and that is precisely what the section did. Mr. Gómez Manzano had previously received a human rights award from the American Bar Association but he was not able to attend the presentation of the award because he was in prison at that time. The ILS felt it would be fitting for us to present him with our award at a venue which he could attend, and see our strong international appreciation for his extreme sacrifices. You will see from the attached Florida Bar News article that our event was very well received and gave Mr. Gómez Manzano a receptive audience for his important message.

This human rights award was not only given in the public forum of The Florida Bar Convention, we also ensured that it received media coverage by a variety of news outlets, including TV Martí, which came to our annual meeting and interviewed several ILS leaders, and published and broadcast those interviews on its network. TV Martí also broadcasted several interviews with George Harper and Jim Meyer, our ILS Cuba Committee chair, following our visits to Cuba. Those frank and unedited interviews, which were largely critical of the Cuban legal system, together with interviews on Telemundo and Univision, resulted in both George Harper and Jim Meyer reportedly being placed on a blacklist by the Cuban government.

Moreover, all of our substantive and plenary sessions, which contains our full-day agendas while we are in Cuba, without including any kind of tourism activities, always include a heavy dose of discussions regarding human rights issues in Cuba, as well as a discussion of Cuba’s past and present and discussions about hopes for democratic reform and rule of law in the future. In fact, those discussions have been so frank that when Julie Kay, a former reporter with the Daily Business Review, reported that one of the speakers in our program in Cuba had been critical of the Cuban criminal justice system, the ILS took action to help remove Mr. Osvaldo Miranda from Cuba and facilitate a full scholarship for and placement into the LL.M. program at the School of Law at Duke University. The ILS also engaged in a number of fundraising efforts to ensure that Mr. Miranda would be able to pay his room and board while he was at Duke as well. Mr. Miranda is now a very successful lawyer working at Greenberg Traurig here in Miami.

Mr. Miranda’s experience highlights another issue, which is a possible cause for your concerns regarding the ILS’ planned visit. That is, traveling to Cuba and making the kinds of potentially controversial contacts referenced above, requires a great deal of discretion and sensitivity on our part with respect to the tour company, which has been fully licensed by the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the U.S. Treasury Department, but also requires permission from the Cuban government in order to engage in many of the activities that are required for it to conduct its business. The tour company has made it clear to us that they cannot highlight our interest in human rights issues in their brochures without risking losing their livelihood. They have asked us to be respectful of their concerns in our internal communications as well. Nevertheless, in the cover note of the email from James Meyer to members of the ILS attaching the brochure, you will note that he specifically mentioned that human rights would be one of the primary topics discussed during the events described in the agenda. Certainly, reasonable minds can differ as to whether or not trips to Cuba should be promoted at all. However, given some of the very positive results that we have been able to accomplish during the ILS’s prior visits to Cuba, we would respectfully submit that respecting the tour company’s request to be careful in the wording of the brochure is a very small price to pay for the gains that we have made.

Finally, with regard to your concerns relating to the Cuban government’s additional visa requirements for Cuban-born travelers, please be advised that none of the participants who were registered for the trip were Cuban-born U.S. citizens. Rest assured, however, if any Cuban-born citizens had applied to join the tour, the ILS would have been ready, willing, and able to support them in the process to the fullest extent permitted under U.S. law.

However, as a result of your open letter and the assertions you made therein, we have been recently informed that our tour company, Cuban Cultural Travel, has withdrawn its offer to conduct the tour for the ILS. As you know, under current law, without an OFAC licensed tour operator, the ILS cannot conduct its visit as planned. Therefore, we are very disappointed to inform you that, at least for the time being, our plans of honoring the requests of Mr. Gómez Manzano and supporting the advancement of human rights in Cuba will have to be put on hold. We would hope that you will not see this as victory but rather as a missed opportunity to communicate with likeminded colleagues to advance our common interests for the benefit of the Cuban people. Indeed, I believe that this unfortunate result could have been easily avoided if you had simply made a phone call to ILS leadership (your fellow Bar members) instead of airing your concerns in the most public manner possible.

On a personal note, I should mention that I too have great concerns regarding the human rights, or lack thereof, not just in Cuba but in other parts of Latin America, including the country where I was born, Nicaragua, which I recently visited. In that regard, I would invite and strongly encourage you and your organization to join with me to support those brave individuals in Nicaragua risking their lives on a daily basis to fight for the same human rights of which you speak in your letter. In fact, perhaps we could explore the ways our respective organizations might cooperate for that very purpose.

Carlos F. Osorio
Chair, International Law Section of The Florida Bar, 2018-2019

[Revised: 12-12-2018]