Assessment: Cuba is published monthly by PRIMA-News in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. For previous issues, see http://www.idee.org/cuba_chronicle.html.
I Appeal To You: Do Not Forget
Acceptance Speech for the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize
by René Gómez Manzano
On October 19, the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize was awarded to Rene Gómez Manzano, a lawyer and leader of the Association of Independent Lawyers in Cuba (Asociación de Abogados Independientes Corriente Agramontista). Monzano was stripped of his right to practice law in 1995 for defending prisoners of conscience. In 1998, he was imprisoned for four years with the other three signers of the opposition manifesto “The Fatherland Is For All,” which sparked today’s Cuban civic and opposition movement. More recently, he was released this spring after three years’ imprisonment without trial for attempting to participate in a human rights demonstration outside the French embassy.
The Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize, named for a French lawyer who created Europe’s first human rights organization of lawyers in the wake of the Dreyfus affair, is awarded by an international committee established by prominent human rights bar associations in Bordeaux, Brussels, Rome, Lyons, and Paris, among others legal groups, and is considered the most prestigious international award for lawyers.
Rene Gómez Manzano was refused permission by the Cuban government to attend the awards ceremony. The following speech was delivered by videotape. The award was received on his behalf by a former political prisoner and prominent lawyer now living in Miami, Pedro Fuentes Cid.
Distinguished guests, members of the Ludovic Trarieux International Prize Committee, dear colleagues, friends, ladies, and gentlemen, it is a great honor to be given the opportunity to address you today. I wish I could do this in person. Playing a taped speech at the ceremony means that the fiercely unyielding Cuban totalitarian regime has robbed me of this opportunity. The Castro regime has the arrogance to declare itself a dictatorship that respects constitutional norms, [norms that] define Cuba’s single party as the supreme authority of society. It is a regime that has erased from its Fundamental Law any hint that its citizens could freely travel in and out of the country and enjoys the monopoly to decide whether Cubans could make trips abroad. The regime treats us all as mere slaves or serfs who are free to do only what their master has permitted them to.
I am no exception. Unfortunately, the generous support of the president and members of the Prize Committee and their numerous appeals on my behalf have failed: my request for an “exit permit” to travel to receive this award personally has been denied. The request was rejected by Cuba’s new government, which has been led now for more than 12 months by the younger brother of the man who was in charge of the country for nearly half a century.
. . . [M]y absence from the award ceremony is another bit of evidence of the sad reality facing our Homeland today. Notwithstanding alarming developments in the brotherly Republic of Venezuela, Cuba remains the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that is not a representative and pluralistic democracy. Besides the fact that Cuba does not respect internationally recognized human rights, it is a country in deep crisis.
Ladies and gentlemen, my speech should not be too long. . . . But even bound by the need to be short, I still wish to say that there are hundreds of groups inside Cuba that, in one way or another, are making noticeable efforts to promote human rights. They are acting in the face of severe repression unleashed by the totalitarian regime that has turned Cuba, with its relatively small population, into the biggest jail of prisoners of conscience in the Western Hemisphere. Sometimes unaware of this fact, these rights groups continue the legacy of Ludovic Trarieux, whose memory was immortalized with an award in his name. The first Ludovic Trarieux Prize was awarded twenty years ago to Nelson Mandela, the brave fighter against apartheid, and it immediately acquired a prestigious status. I believe . . . this prize recognizes the significant contribution of all organizations across Cuba that disagree with the regime.
I would like to take this opportunity to mention one of the country’s biggest coalitions of independent organizations, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Cuba, which held the first congress of Cuban democrats in May 2005. I consider it a very special honor to be on its three-member executive committee.
I am also honored to chair, from its beginning until now, one of the 350 organizations that make up the Assembly. I am talking about the Agramontist Current, an association of independent lawyers that comprises today some two dozen lawyers, not counting dozens [of collaborators] who had to emigrate because of repression by the totalitarian government. Our small movement is named after Ignacio Agramonte, a prominent lawyer, independence fighter, and martyr for Cuba’s liberation who died a glorious death in the battle against colonial troops in 1873. We can be proud to be the only professional group of lawyers that calls for the establishment of a rule of law, an independent judiciary, independent law practices, and that also demands that Cuban prosecutors be guided by legal and technical criteria, not political ones and that Collegiums of Advocates be re-introduced in Cuba.
It is worth mentioning that although such legal institutions appeared in Cuba back in 1840, the Collegiums of Advocates were the first to suffer as a result of Cuban “revolutionary gains.” First, their democratically elected leaders were forced out; then, these institutions were simply disbanded. A few years later, knowing that no legal institution would agree to represent them formally, Cuban lawyers had to join the National Union of Cuban Jurists (UNJC), a pro-governmental professional organization . . . . . While formally an autonomous body, the Union was established by the totalitarian regime with the single purpose in mind – to institutionalize support for the wearers of the judicial robes for the Castro system. There is also the National Organization of Collective Law Offices or Bufetes Colectivos (ONBC), established in 1974 after the private practice of law was abolished in Cuba. It embraces all lawyers who practice law.
Because of their lack of legitimacy, these two institutions cannot be considered as true representatives of Cuban lawyers. It is indisputable that neither organization has ever volunteered to defend any of its unfairly prosecuted fellow lawyers. We all know there have been plenty of occasions to do so — our Homeland has the sad privilege to be the only country where lawyers have become the target of a politically motivated crackdown. Dozens of jurists across Cuba were arrested, tried and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison. Even the name of this massive attack against our profession had a negative implication: the operation was dubbed Dirty Robe. This Stalin-style purge had another aspect. In 1984, Cuba officially abolished collective law offices that existed at the time. They were replaced by “new” ones. To become a member, a law practitioner had to send a “request for membership.” Due to this trick, 110 out of nearly 800 Cubans practicing law at the time were barred from exercising their profession. To justify these unlawful massive dismissals, the government said the lawyers in question no longer had “moral qualities which accord with the principles of our society” as Decree-Law No. 81 requires. In practice, this euphemism shows that to practice law in Cuba a lawyer is required to have what the Castro regime calls “the revolutionary integration,” in other words, to approve the policy pursued by the single-party state and to be a member of so-called “mass” organizations that have been created by the regime in every neighborhood to elicit public support and formed according to gender, place of residence, profession, etc.
This Decree is still in effect today. It serves as a tool for ONBC leadership when they want to bar from practice fellow lawyers who don’t belong to the system or just don’t like the system. Members of this organization who dare to have dissenting opinions are expelled quite frequently. That’s what happened to your humble speaker in 1995. They did not even bother to start a disciplinary procedure as the law requires. These expulsions would have attracted more attention if we compared their numbers with the declining number of practicing lawyers. It’s a paradoxical situation: compared to other Latin American nations, Cuba has the biggest number of medics and athletes per capita, but the smallest number of lawyers. . . . [R]epresentatives of the ruling regime have begun trumpeting a strange slogan: “What do we need lawyers for?”
We, the followers of Agramonte’s ideas, have repeatedly said that the mechanisms responsible for the execution of justice lack independence. But the current situation is not our only concern. The whole problem goes deeper than that. It stems from the situation reflected in Cuba’s laws and is based on theoretical assertions we cannot share. The ruling regime clearly rejects the division of powers that existed in our Republic from 1902, when the Cuban Republic was born, instead pushing forward a monopolistic concept of the state. According to Article 121 of the Republican Constitution, “The courts constitute a system of state bodies that are set up with functional independence from all other systems and they are only subordinated to the National Assembly of People’s Power and the Council of State.” In Cuba, there are no professional organizations of people employed in the legal field.
Speaking in economic terms, the situation of Cuban lawyers is not much better. The salaries of most lawyers are lower than those of administrative officials. Better lawyers earn the equivalent of $20-$30 a month (at the exchange rate at specially designated agencies). Don’t think it is a slip of the tongue: our best lawyers earn less than one dollar a day.
The sad reality of life in Cuba and the position of the National Union of Cuban Jurists and National Organization of Collective Law Offices — organizations that have never criticized, but always praise and support the regime — are the reasons for the existence of our Agramontist movement. We don’t have official status. Our application for registration, which was submitted 15 years ago in compliance with the Law on Associations, has so far remained unanswered. . . . This has not stopped us from organizing meetings, preparing legal surveys, writing various petitions to the government, and demanding freedom to practice law, an independent judiciary, a full amnesty for political and other prisoners, a legislative reform, and so on.
We publish a legal bulletin, the last issue of which, the sixth, came out at the end of August. Those of us who at one time or another had legal capacity continued to defend our fellow opposition members and rights activists. In addition, we are the only association of Cuban lawyers on the island that has issued an appeal to stop persecution of our comrades who fell victims to harassment and repression and, especially, those who were unfairly convicted. There is another thing I want to say. We don’t have enough fingers on the hands to count lawyers and members of the Agramontist movement who, at one time or another, were held behind bars for several years.
So, my first request is to ask you to express solidarity with my fellow lawyer who needs your support now most of all. I am speaking about the lawyer Rolando Jiménez Posada. He was unfairly sentenced in April 2003 and since then has been held in Guayabo Prison, in his home province on Isla de la Juventud. Early this year, a masterfully orchestrated trial sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Authorities denied Posada’s request to represent himself in court (a right provided for under Cuban law) and he was not allowed to attend his own trial. I believe it’s needless to say that we would be sincerely grateful for whatever support you could give to him and other Cuban political prisoners.
Dear friends, I am asking your kind permission to dedicate this award to those who have suffered and are still suffering for their peaceful efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba — to Cuban political prisoners and prisoners of conscience. I dedicate the award to the so-called Group of 75 and my other comrades in the peaceful pro-democracy struggle who we should remember first of all. To know that my words would encourage you to reaffirm your ongoing solidarity with all those across the world who are suffering from persecution and abuse of human rights would be an inspiration to me.
Ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion, I’d like to say some words in French, to pay tribute in this beautiful language to the Great Citizen of France, Europe, and the World, whose name is commemorated on the award you bestow me, Ludovic Trarieux, who fought against injustice and racism and began the first ever legal organization for the defense of human rights. . . . Second, I would like to say that is a great honor for me, my colleagues in the Agramontist movement, and for all my fellow citizens peacefully fighting for human rights and the triumph of democracy in Cuba to win the prestigious Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize. Third, I would like to appeal to you again not to forget the attorney Rolando Jiménez Posada and the other 300 Cuban prisoners of conscience who are now languishing in Cuba’s jails. My friends and I strongly believe that you will continue to give them your support and show your solidarity.
Thank you so much!
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