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In an effort to help unfreeze official relations between Washington and Havana and help ordinary people with binational legal problems, three Cuban-American lawyers in Miami have set up an organization to build stronger ties with attorneys in Cuba. The founders are Antonio Zamora, a foreign investment lawyer at Hughes Hubbard & Reed; Jose Manuel Palli, a real estate attorney and sole practitioner; and Jesus Sanchelima, a trademark and patent lawyer. They established the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum to help normalize legal relations between the two countries and promote studies of the two nations’ legal systems. They propose to bring lawyers and legal organizations from both sides of the Florida Straits together through seminars, conferences, research and publications. The effort comes at a time of deteriorating legal relations, due to continuing fallout from the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, a law that penalizes foreign companies doing business with Cuba, and a bitter legal dispute between Bacardi Ltd. and the Cuban government over the rights to use the Havana Club and Bacardi brand names for rum products. “There’s a cool-down,” says Zamora, an of counsel attorney at Hughes Hubbard, who has changed his views sharply since participating in the anti-Castro Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. “That makes contacts at the basic level necessary. There’s a need to keep bridges open at the nongovernmental level.” And normalizing the “absurd” legal relations between the countries is overdue, he adds. The two countries do cooperate on registering patents and trademarks and on immigration issues. But there are major legal gaps that make life for ordinary Cubans and Cuban-Americans unnecessarily difficult, Zamora says. The Elian Gonzalez case highlighted the fact that there are no mechanisms for resolving custody conflicts. There also are no procedures for enforcing child support payments owed by Cuban-Americans to families they left behind on the island. Plus, there are no up-to-date extradition provisions, which has left dozens of criminal refugees on both sides of the strait. Finally, Cubans who inherited money from Cuban-American relatives in the U.S. have not been able to access millions of dollars because of stiff U.S. embargo laws. “We should create a legal atmosphere that is helpful to people,” Zamora says. “There should be a mechanism that allows Cuban courts to enforce custody [rulings] and child support payments.” But one observer of U.S.-Cuba relations dismisses the project as futile. “The position of the Cuban government is totally dominated by Castro,” says Jorge Salazar-Carrillo, director of the economics department at Florida International University. “It’s, ‘Either you do it our way or no way.’ I don’t think there’s going to be a meeting of the minds.” One of the forum’s founders says, however, that the primary goal at this point is simply to prevent further deterioration in the legal situation, not to change any laws. “I’m not too sure we can achieve improvements” in the existing legal framework, says Sanchelima, a sole practitioner. “What we want to do at the very least is to think before [Congress] issues any more laws.” “We’d like to see a government in Cuba that is less dictatorial,” Sanchelima adds. “But not everything the Cuban government is doing is absolutely incorrect. There are governments that have different ways of conducting their economies and affairs, and we have normal trade relations with most of them.” Despite the overall deterioration in legal relations, contacts between U.S. and Cuban lawyers have increased since the early 1990s, says John Kavulich, president of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade & Economic Council. “Since 1994, more [U.S.] attorneys have been going to Cuba,” he says. “The Clinton administration moved far more aggressively to allow U.S. attorneys access to Cuba.” And President George W. Bush has not gotten in the way of these contacts so far, he adds. Zamora, 60, whose father was dean of the University of Havana’s law school in the late 1940s, went through a Saul-to-Paul transformation during the past decade. A former director of the pro-embargo Cuban American National Foundation, he now advocates an end to the blockade. He frequently travels to Cuba to familiarize himself with that country’s foreign investment and real estate laws, and he advises foreign clients — at no charge, he says — on how to do business in Cuba. Zamora hopes to open a forum office in Miami through funding from a charitable foundation. He and his colleagues want the forum to collaborate with the Organizacion Nacional de Bufetes Colectivos and the Union Nacional de Juristas, the Cuban equivalent of the American Bar Association. “We would like to associate in some way with Cuban institutions,” Sanchelima says. “If we are given latitude by the U.S. government, we would like to have more of a presence in Cuba.” For its first event, the forum is planning a one-day seminar in South Florida in October.

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