Given what has transpired this past week in Cuba, I would like use my first message as Chair to briefly explain why I believe these recent events are so relevant to our Section, and how our Section can become more relevant by getting more involved with the issues which they present.
Since day one as an attorney, I was told of the importance of the International Law Section by Burton Landy, who was our first Chair when we were merely a Florida Bar Committee. Long before his contemporaries, Burt understood that Florida needed to take the lead in promoting the practice of international law. Having attended the University of Havana, he also understood the critical nexus Cuba has with our legal community. At almost 93 years of age, he is still coming to the office on a regular basis and he has most certainly earned the right to say, “See, I told you so.”
Burt’s protégé and the Co-Founder of my firm, George “Rocky” Harper, was Chair of the ILS in the early 1990s. It was a lot of work back then but, rest assured, he had this young associate enthusiastically pitching-in to help him with some of the more laborious projects, including one of the first premier conferences of the Section held at the Intercontinental Hotel in 1991, which was somewhat pre-maturely called the “Post-Castro Cuba Conference.” I like to think of this event as a pre-cursor to what we all now know of as “i-Law.” Rocky, who was “más Cubano que la palma” had his “Post-Castro” moment when he outlived Fidel but he is unfortunately not here with us to witness and guide us through the important events of the past week. For that, we are at a great disadvantage.
Twenty five years later, as the Chair of the ILS’s Cuba Committee, I had the honor of leading four different ILS delegations to Cuba from 2015 through 2018, during which our members participated in important discussions with leaders in Cuban government and judiciary, dissidents, members of the Opposition and several important Cuban law firms about topics ranging from human rights, Rule of Law, reparations and comparative law. Following our first delegation, we invited the renown “Lawyer for the Dissidents” Rene Gomez Manzano to fly from Havana to speak at our Annual Meeting in Boca Raton, where we presented him with a special Human Rights Advocate Award. Our trips were widely covered in the media by Univision, Telemundo, the local television affiliate of ABC News, the Daily Business Review and others. However, it was our interviews with TV Marti which apparently caught the attention of Cuban government and reportedly landed some of us on a “blacklist” of sorts which prevented us from meeting with government officials and law firms on subsequent visits. Not long after our most recent visit, the ILS invited Opposition leader and Founder of CubaDecide, Rosa Maria Paya, to speak at an ILS Human Rights Symposium at the University of Miami. In the recent news clips, you probably saw her organization’s banners flying in the protests on the streets of Havana
This same news coverage correctly points out that the People of Cuba are largely motivated to take to the streets in protest because of a humanitarian crisis in which there is a dearth of food, medicine, and basic necessities not seen since the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba in the early 1990’s, coined by the government at that time as the “Special Period.” However, if we listen close to the current news footage, we can hear that the chants and cries are not just about the deplorable conditions. Theses protests are specifically demanding democracy and human rights. As unfamiliar as this might be in the recent Cuban experience, history has shown that, under certain circumstances, these ideals can become greater motivating factors than even a struggle for physical sustenance or life and limb. If and when that happens, change is inevitable.
The ILS is not a political organization and, as such, we purposefully try not to take any political positions. However, we are an organization which fervently supports universally accepted principles of international law appropriately applied by means of the laws of sovereign nations, which includes the recognition of fundamental human rights and the fair and uniform application of the Rule of Law. From this perspective, the people of Cuba and the lawyers there, who hold fast in defending these principles, require our full support, as do the people and like-minded lawyers of Nicaragua, and the people and lawyers of Haiti. As international lawyers, what better purpose could we possibly have than to offer that support?
In the weeks and months to come, we will be looking to our own Human Rights Committee of the ILS for more opportunities to show our support for those risking their lives in the name of human rights, and I invite all of our members to participate with us and propose further activities to advance these important causes. I hope you will join us on this most important mission for our Section this year and for many years to come.