"The Cuban justice system is seriously corrupt"
For more than 15 years the Cubalex Legal Information Center has been providing free guidance to Cubans, who, lacking resources and information, must grapple with the regime's legal system.
Cubalex also advises Cubans and foreigners with regards to human rights, and drafts reports for international organizations about the situation in the island.
One indication of this independent project's success are the approximately 120 requests for advice that it currently receives per month. Another, the regime's harassment of its members.
What does Cubalex's work consist of?
People come to Cubalex with housing problems, criminal matters, or want to ask us questions. We do not discriminate. Most people have no political motivations. They come to us to solve personal problems.
We ask for documentation, as one of our limitations is that we cannot access records like the lawyers at the Collective Firms can. We conduct a first interview and create a digital record that allows our lawyers to carry out an analysis and assess each case.
We determine whether there have been any human rights violations, what strategy to follow, if it is necessary to appeal to the international level, but first internal legal channels must be exhausted.
The work can sometimes take between 15 to 20 days, because we labor under difficult conditions, but when they come we give them a printed document so they can present it directly to the authorities.
What kind of cases do you tend to receive?
Most of the cases we get at Cubalex are criminal matters, very shocking murders, situations that clearly evidence the violence, often extreme, affecting Cuban society, in which women bear the brunt. Apart from the events themselves, we have also found very serious due process violations.
Prisoners and their families are among our main clients. Most of our services are discussed inside the prisons, as the inmates themselves pass the word on. They ask mothers and wives to come to us.
We are working, for example, with a blind mother who for two years has been unable to visit her son in prison because he was transferred. That mother is raising her grandson because her son killed his wife, the child's mother. Such are most of the cases; people who are facing critical social situations.
How many requests for assistance have you received since the project began in 2010?
I can't venture an exact figure, but I would say more than 5,000. In the last four months some 300 people have turned to us.
There is a lot of domestic violence, injuries suffered by women, murders. The Government does not issue statistics on gender violence, but what we see the most are cases of violence, intimidation and murder. They are disturbing.
How do you work on a project like this, not recognized by the Government? What kind of problems do you run into?
Almost all the cases that come to us have already been heard. Sometimes they come to us during the investigation phase, but those involved are compelled to hire a defense attorney from a Collective Firm, so in this regard we cannot do anything.
What we can is to advise, orient. We say "look for this evidence, do this, present that" because, generally speaking, unless you pay the official attorney, they're not going to show much interest.
We provide technical assistance mechanisms to deal with the mechanisms of the system. A lawyer may charge extra fees of 100, 200 or 400 dollars. Many of the people we see have no money even to pay the attorney they're assigned. So, their lawyer often receives the case immediately before the trial. It is very common to find contradictions between what the lawyer and his client have said.
How serious is the corruption in the judicial system?
The justice system is seriously corrupt. Lawyers, prosecutors and judges ... many charge through the defense lawyers and ask for astronomical figures that it is very difficult for a Cuban to come up with, unless he has family abroad.
We have received cases of Cuban Americans charged with drug trafficking, and in this regard we have achieved positive results. State justice authorities have accepted appeals that we have prepared. We drew up the appeals for a good number of those acquitted in 2015.
How many lawyers work at Cubalex? How do they join the project?
We have only four lawyers working full time at our "offices," which consist of two rooms of my own house. Cubalex also offers advisory services in Camagüey and Granma, where there are two lawyers.
First we look at the evolution of each person and their real interest, and then we integrate him into the team. We don't close the door on anyone, but one of the requirements is that they cannot work with the Government, and they must have a bachelor's degree in Law.
We are now trying to form a multidisciplinary team. We have a psychologist, a doctor and a social and prison investigator, working from within these institutions, with the cooperation of prisoners.
What other lines of work does Cubalex have?
Legal professionals, a prosecutor, for example, do not take into account the issue of gender when applying the law, and sometimes they do so crudely and arbitrarily, in a way that is sexist. We consider this institutional violence.
During the investigative work we have done we have found that most men deprived of their freedom, more than 50%, are from families of African descent living in slums.
This caught our attention, and we are conducting a transversal analysis of the issue of gender, the plight of Afro-cubans, and criminal penal policy. We started working on these research topics to present reports on human rights.
We also strive for civil society to receive more information on human rights.
We started out with workshops, going to organizations, mostly in the eastern region, and with the Damas de Blanco. We managed for them to at least begin to gather information about arrests. We teach them to act as observers and not as victims.
Unfortunately, we have not yet succeeded in getting them to document things thoroughly. We are planning a course for human rights activists, to teach them mainly to document and exhaust internal legal channels before taking their grievances international.
We were struck by the fact that, between December 2013 and December 2014, Cuba had only three complaints at the international level. That is because civil society was not doing its job. How are you going to go the United Nations to report human rights violations if there are no records of complaints?
You mentioned gender violence and racial discrimination.
Crime statistics are secret in Cuba. We do not know, for example, the number of murders, or femicides. The statistics are only those that are issued by institutions such like the Interior Ministry and the Public Prosecutor's Office. Some defense attorney might have access, but not because they are public.
Police pursue lines of investigation based on racial profiling, which constitutes institutional discrimination. Most Cubans of African descent, we have seen in our research, live in marginal areas and their social situations are dire. We have to work on a bill so that, at least, positive measures are taken to address the challenges facing Afro-Cubans.
In the case of black women, they are discriminated against not only due to the color of their skin, but also because of their sex. Almost all live in slums, with rundown infrastructure and dreadful health and hygiene conditions.
How does the regime react to the work of a project like Cubalex?
One of the regime's objectives is to isolate us, and to this end it resorts to harassment. It is totally different from what it does with activists who protest publicly. In our case, it is with threats, interrogations, official citations... But we have a policy of not accepting any citations if they are not signed by a court clerk.
Although until now it has not gone further, the regime has become more aggressive of late. In April they prevented me from giving a talk on the election issue. They surrounded the house and would not let me leave. And, at airports the tactic is to review things, make you uncomfortable, take what they believe is suspect.
There are neighbors who collaborate with State Security forces. There are many who support us, but those closest are watching us. Security forces don't show up directly to repress you, but they use other indirect methods, involving your family and your close circle, to wear you down and demoralize you. Repression takes the form of constant surveillance, threats, and isolation.