By Pedro Pablo Morejon
HAVANA TIMES – It was summer 2006 and the II International Congress on Contemporary Issues in Criminal Justice Policy was about to be held in Havana. A wide range of subjects, from criminal law theory to issues relating to this legal branch, would be discussed at the event. Speakers’ presentations and conferences would take place at the Hotel Nacional’s Salon Rosado.
I was working at a law firm back then, and I still don’t know what the selection criteria was for Cuban lawyers wanting to take part. It’s always open to foreigners who pay a fee in euros or dollars.
I was particularly interested in taking part because, in addition to contributing to my training (I was in love with Law back at that time), it would give important academic credit to people looking to study a Masters or Doctorate degree.
I took part that year, by chance. Three places had been awarded in this province, and one of them went to the Director of my law firm. She didn’t want to go for some reason, she didn’t tell me why, but she called me one Friday to tell me that I could go in her place if I wanted to. It came a surprise because I wasn’t within her close circle. I accepted and early Monday morning, I was getting on the back of a truck.
I gave the driver 10 CUP (Cuban pesos) and he took me to the intersection on the highway bridge with 100th street in Boyeros. I jumped on an old “camello” (long improvised hump back buses that used to travel around Havana’s streets) and I was in Vedado, in the main auditorium of Havana University, subject to accreditation, to attend the event’s inauguration ceremony. I can still remember that moment.
Foreigners were wearing suits and ties. Most Cubans were elegantly dressed too, as the occasion called for. All of them with briefcases, some with laptops, mainly the foreigners and “sacred cows” of Cuban criminal law, and then there was me. I placed my briefcase under the chair as soon as I arrived. I was wearing worn-in shoes, jeans and a striped T-shirt. People looked at me as if I were a freak. I really felt out of place.
After the day’s activities, we walked a couple of blocks to the Lawyers’ Union, where they transported those of us who were from the provinces to Cangrejera, a place on the outskirts of western Havana. The house we stayed at belonged to a member of the Cuban bourgeoisie in the 1950s, I learned. More recently, it belonged to a “bigshot” who left the country in the ‘90s, and it was then seized by the government and handed over to the National Union of Cuban Jurists as a place where they could hold their activities.
It is surrounded by a stone wall that hides it from view, which you can only enter by going through its big gate. Once inside, you can see a two-story mansion with a large backyard. There is an asymmetric swimming pool in the back, with a kind of filter that allows totally purified water to flow in and out.
In short, it was a welcoming place, where we would sit at sunset, lawyers, judges, district attorneys, etc., to talk about legal issues which almost always turned into political discussions, with very critical views about Cuba’s social system. An interesting detail, which I include here for anyone who thinks that Cuban district attorneys and judges are blind to our national reality.
That week was a break from the norm, from my routine, and even diet. I met people from all over the country and some foreigners who I was able to share and compare life experiences with.
It was the night before the congress finished that I spoke with a group of six district attorneys – four Mexicans and two Hondurans -, during a dinner. We started talking about Law as you would imagine, and then you never know where you’ll end up. I always thought that Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua were in a tougher situation than us, but I was able to shake wool from my eyes and wake up to the harsh reality of food shortages we have here that don’t exist in these countries, and that food here is the most expensive in the world, for example. One of the Mexican’s really hit me hard with his words:
“Aside from my own country, I have been to the Dominican Republic and Cuba. I have seen poor people in all three countries, if they weren’t, they wouldn’t migrate to the US, but I haven’t seen people as poor as they are in Cuba, where women even sell themselves for little.”
With my pride hurt and a good dose of chauvinism, I remember thinking about the alleged greatness of Cuba and this man, maybe trying to soften the blow of his comment, told me that we had great potential, and that the day we shake ourselves free from our shackles, we will be at the head of the continent, and that the world was waiting for this moment.
The Mexicans told me that they would be visiting Varadero the next day. They invited me to go with them. When I told them that I couldn’t and they learned that Cubans are banned from entering Varadero, they couldn’t hide their surprise. They clearly didn’t know this, just like many others didn’t.
They asked me for my cellphone number and email so they could keep in touch. I didn’t have either, nearly no one had a cellphone in Cuba back then.
The next morning, I didn’t stick around for the closing ceremony. I already had my certificate and a CD with lots of theory information. I walked nearly two kilometers from Cangrejera, along an unknown path that I was told would lead me to the highway. An hour later, I jumped on a tractor trailer flatbed for another 10 pesos and I was home by noon.