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Elian’s aftermath lingers, George W. Bush insists on maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and anti-U.S. demonstrations are still the order of the day in Havana. But a new type of day-to-day interaction between Miami and Cuba is quietly emerging. Four of Cuba’s top lawyers visited Miami last week to present their views of that country’s legal system at a conference organized by the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum — a group recently formed by Cuban-American attorneys. The conference looked at a part of the Cuban legal system that U.S.-based lawyers rarely see. “Let’s forget about political influence, which can exist in many judicial systems,” said Antonio Zamora, one of the Miami lawyers who brought the four to the conference. “In the Cuban justice system, 99.5 percent of all cases have absolutely nothing to do with national security. There’s a legal process. People get divorced, business conflicts get resolved.” The only legal contacts between the neighboring countries are in the field of intellectual property law, occasional high-profile custody and commercial cases, more or less regular meetings on immigration issues and spotty cooperation in drug enforcement. Meanwhile, people on both sides of the Florida Straits don’t receive justice. Lawyers in both the U.S. and Cuba lament the fact that criminals don’t get extradited, deadbeat parents don’t even pretend to hide and many, mostly elderly, Cubans cannot retrieve inheritances from relatives in the United States. Zamora’s view of the Cuban legal system is not necessarily out on the edge. The Hughes Hubbard & Reed associate frequently travels to Cuba but in his case, it’s special: Zamora is a Bay of Pigs veteran, a one-time prisoner of the Cuban state, and a former board member and counsel at the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation. And 10 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, with Castro still firmly in power and ships docking in Havana to deliver commercial U.S. goods, the attention in Florida is slowly turning to the realities of the existing legal system in Cuba. Changes in attitude notwithstanding, Zamora and intellectual property attorney Jesus “Jay” Sanchelima, who co-founded the U.S./Cuba Legal Forum with Zamora, were careful to keep the conference low-profile. Florida International University hosted the event, which featured a dozen panelists, an invitation-only audience of perhaps 50 — and no reporters. Among the stumbling blocks in normal legal relations are the high-profile cases against Cuba that regularly play in Florida courts. While the Cuban state makes its case in some court proceedings in Florida, it doesn’t bother when it is a defendant. “In cases against the Cuban state, we don’t believe in the impartiality of the courts,” said Juan Mendoza, a law professor at the University of Havana and vice president of the Union Nacional de Justistas, which is akin to a bar association. “When there’s a case against Cuba, there’s a lot of prejudice, both among judges and jurors.” But the conference focused on everyday law in Cuba. The Cuban justice system, if you believe Cuban lawyers, fares well compared with other countries when it comes to access and efficiency. “We’re faster than most countries in Latin America,” said Rodolfo Davalos, president of the Cuban Society of Business Law and an arbiter in commercial cases. “In other countries, I have very often seen commercial cases, such as a pay dispute, last three or four years. In Cuba, it’s generally a matter of months.” The average duration of the 150,000 cases the Organizacion de Bufetes Colectivos takes on every year is six months. The 2,000-lawyer firm, with offices in all towns, has a near-monopoly on law practice on the island. “The average duration of each case is not longer than half a year,” said Raul Mantilla, OBC’s president. “And that includes simple, complex and really complex cases.” Still, one of the concerns that foreign observers have with Cuban law is the perception that politics interferes in high-profile cases. “I’m under the impression that politics are very rooted in the Cuban court system,” Sanchelima said. “If there’s a case that touches on national security — forget it. That’s a big problem.” But the four Cuban lawyers strongly rejected the notion that the legal is system is remote-controlled. “I’ve practiced for 15 years,” Mendoza said during a roundtable discussion at the Daily Business Review one day after the conference. “I’ve been in all kinds of cases — civil cases, criminal cases. I’ve defended people who stole simple things. I’ve defended people who were threatened with the death penalty. I’ve defended an interior vice minister … . That was a case of national importance. I never received a call from the powers, a hint, or anything in the exercise of my profession.” But Cuba’s legislature, which is tightly controlled by the Communist Party and affiliated mass organizations, has the last word on all judicial appointments. Cuban judges, according to Mendoza, are nominated by the supreme court and confirmed by a general vote in the Popular Assembly, Cuba’s parliament. A “Government Council” within the supreme court nominates supreme court judges from among the country’s judges. The Popular Assembly also votes on supreme court nominations. Judgeships are for life. But Davalos said that parliament doesn’t interfere in the daily practice of law. “How does the Popular Assembly hold the supreme court accountable? It’s about judicial policy issues,” he said. “How many cases did you resolve? In how much time are they resolved? Did they work within budget? How much do they need?’ This is the only way the judicial system answers to power. “There’s absolutely no precedent that the power organ would ask the judicial system, ‘Who did you rule for?’ ‘Who did you not rule for?’ ‘How many times did you rule against Cuba?’ The judges only owe to the law, they’re totally independent in every single case, and nobody has the right to revise a case with a final judgment.” In the criminal justice area, Mantilla pointed out, the way Cuban courts handled the Central American terrorists who exploded bombs in Cuban hotels was considered fair by foreign observers. As to intellectual property law, in one of the rare cases involving a complaint by a U.S. company, Kraft Foods Inc., a Cuban judge decided in favor of the American plaintiff, Mantilla added. Mirroring Cuba’s partial opening to foreign investment and some private initiative since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the legal system on the island has gone through a controlled series of changes. Still, the practice of law is limited mainly to the Organizacion de Bufetes Colectivos. Although the autonomous nonstate organization aspires to make a profit, its mission is mainly to provide everybody access to the law. Founded in 1965, Bufetes Colectivos at first served mostly individual clients. But in the early 1990s, it began to take on economic, financial and commercial cases. Last year, the organization represented some 300,000 Cubans and 1,200 business entities. Bufetes attorneys receive basic salaries and fees for each assignment, but charge ordinary Cubans little or nothing for their services. They receive profit-sharing checks at the end of each year amounting to a month’s salary, according to Mantilla. The law firm gives 25 percent of its profits to the state, on top of a contribution to a social security fund. The remainder goes to the lawyers, who then pay an individual 35 percent income tax. Mantilla says firmly that Cuba does not plan to reintroduce private law practice, abolished in 1974, more than a decade after the revolution. “This is a stage we have already overcome,” he said. “We’ve had bad experiences with that. We have an organization with a social goal that serves the population. Even the poorest have access to a lawyer.” But there are exceptions. The wave of foreign investments and rising tide of foreign trade with capitalist nations brought about change in the area of commercial law. For one, a handful of Cuban lawyers now work as corporate counsel at some of the island’s larger companies, according to Davalos. And a growing number of more business-minded “boutique firms” tend to the needs of the mushrooming group of foreign investors and traders. Carlos Rafael Grillo, one of the four visiting Cuban lawyers, is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Havana and a lawyer with Bufete Internacional. He also has a law practice in Cancun in a joint venture with a Mexican law firm. In one typical case, Grillo represented a Mexican company in arbitration with its Cuban business partners who were eight months behind with payments — a rather common occurrence in cash-strapped Cuba. Grillo said he worked out a compromise payment plan with the Cubans. Grillo also assists U.S. companies that plan to do business in Cuba once the U.S. embargo is lifted. The success of the small conference spurred hopes that it might grow into something bigger. “We have lived separated lives. We’re only 45 minutes apart, but we know very little of each other’s legal system,” Davalos said. “This exchange between lawyers is changing things. If we could make this more frequent it would be very helpful.”

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