A Bizarre Day in a Havana Courtroom

By Fernando Ravsberg

Outside the Havana Provincial Tribunal. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz
Outside the Havana Provincial Tribunal. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — It’s better not to crash your car in Cuba but, if you do have an accident, let it at least be with a private citizen because if you crash into a State company vehicle, you’ll have to go to the Provincial Court in Havana and then…

“They told us to be there at 8:35 in the morning but the trials didn’t start until after 10 AM. When we asked a civil servant why they had called us to come so early, she replied that it was because we Cubans are always late going everywhere.”

“When we entered the courtroom, they told us to leave our cellphones in a locker where a poster advised us to bring water, a fan and… toilet paper. It was like we were going to a rural boarding school but then we confirmed that these three things were really essential in the courtroom.”

“There were 29 cases and we were all in a room which we couldn’t leave, nobody knew the order in which the cases would be dealt with. The disorder was such that the main judge stopped one of these trials right in the middle because a lawyer friend had asked her if she could prioritize his case.”

“The courtroom was packed and there wasn’t any air conditioning or they’d switched it off in order to save electricity. The truth is that the place was so full of sweaty people and there was such drowsiness among us that one of the three judges began to nod off while one of the cases was being heard.”

“They called a bus driver to testify and asked him how the crash took place. The man, already in his old age, replied that he had never been in a crash. The judge insisted asking why he was there if he wasn’t in a crash and the man said that he’d come because they’d sent him a court summons. The whole room burst out laughing.”

“Another trial took place with the testimony of just one of the parties involved. When they were finishing up, a man stood up and said, aren’t you going to ask me anything? Because I was the one who crashed into this woman and I’ve been sitting here for 7 hours. If you didn’t need me, you could have told me.”

“Finishing up one of these cases, the main judge called for the following ones to take the stand, when the secretary shouted: girl, hold on, I still haven’t finished the last one! To which the judge responded using the same loud voice: You and me are going have a little talk after this!”

“In the midst of this atmosphere, overheated people bored of having to watch trials that they have nothing to do with and don’t care about, we began to talk to each other. You could hear an increasing buzz in the background which forced the judge, on several occasions, to threaten us at the top of her lungs that she would throw us all out of the court.”

“We got out of there at 6 PM but there were still cases that had to be heard. They sentenced us to pay the State-owned company about 400 pesos (16 USD) which in real life wouldn’t even be enough to pay for a tenth of the damage that we’d caused.”

If you crash in Havana... Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz
If you crash in Havana… Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

When I heard this story, a lot of questions came into my mind. The first one was whether it was really worthwhile that a manager and a lawyer from the State-owned company lose a working day to get a small sum of money that won’t fix the vehicle involved in the crash, not even in the slightest.

Doing the math, everything took a more sinister tone. Supposing that Havana’s Provincial Court flies through 29 cases per day and that every trial involves two parties, we’re talking about 120 people who have to miss work.

Now let’s multiply 120 by 25 working days and we discover that 36,000 working days are being lost every year. However, this issue doesn’t end in Havana. There are 14 other provinces in the country plus a Special Municipality who each have their own Provincial Courts.

Together, these other 14 provinces have five times Havana’s population which would mean that this statistic shoots up to over 200,000 working days lost. This issue only gets worse because those who have cars to crash are normally managers or professionals.

All the justice system needs is a little bit of organization so that people don’t have to be packed into a courtroom, without ventilation, water or toilet paper. Why don’t they give each trial a specific time, so that people can arrive at the time they’ve been given?

Why punish everyone into having to listen to trials that they’re frankly not interested in and force people to voice their problems in front of a whole load of strangers? It doesn’t need a lot of organization or resources, only willpower and a little bit of common sense.

5 thoughts on “A Bizarre Day in a Havana Courtroom

  • The very SEAT of the justice system in Cuba, this intrepid piece of investigative journalism will get to the very BOTTOM of this scandalous situation. Sorry but if it was not so serious I would be laughing and it is not a laughing matter, come on people respect property and Mr Castro start looking after your country and more importantly, your people!

  • I visited a court in Havanna a year ago (Tribunal provincial, in Havanna).I was positively surprised to see that it worked like in Sweden. People who wanted to attend a case and witnesses were waiting outside and invited to come in when their case started. When it was finished they all went away, accept me who wanted to attend all the cases that day. No chaos, no screaming, very profesional judges and lawyers.

  • Regarding no toilet seats! I am surprised that some enterprising individual has not started to import or manufacture individual/personal inflatable toilet seats?

  • Thank you Circles for that very entertaining description of a Cuban court operated in 2009, which in combination with Fernando Ravsberg’s article enables us to assess the ‘change’ taking place in the legal processes of Cuba.
    Right now in our home town and despite the fears of a new “special period”, there is butter, Buchanero and – you guessed it – toilet paper available.

  • This article by Fernando Ravsberg brought to mind what I witnessed the first time I went to a court hearing in Havana. It was early 2009 and one of the Havana Times writers had recently been summarily fired from his University teaching job and was appealing at the Municipal Labor Court. Eight founders of HT were on hand to support their colleague. At that time there was no sign inviting people to take in water, toilet paper and a fan (There was also no sign prohibiting it). In fact it was just the opposite. At one point in the trial the judge saw me taking a swig of water from a small bottle and shouted out that I would be removed from the courtroom if I did that again. It was total prohibition on liquids despite the 90+ degree heat and no air flow in the courtroom. Even the judges were not allowed to have a drink of water. As to the toilet paper, forget it. It was made clear that if anyone in the audience got up to go the bathroom they wouldn’t be getting back in. So on the bright side we can see the progress that’s been made in seven years. Imagine what can be accomplished in seven more!

Comments are closed.