AALL 2017 Recap: Cuban Law and Legal Research: A Snapshot During the Deshielo

By Caitlin Hunter

PanelDuring this year’s AALL conference I enjoyed the opportunity to attend “Cuban Law and Legal Research,” a panel discussion by Jorge R. Piñon (Director, Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program, University of Texas at Austin), Julienne E. Grant (Reference Librarian/Foreign & International Research Specialist, Loyola University Chicago School of Law Library), Marisol Florén Romero (Assistant Director for Library Services & Foreign & International Law, Florida International University), and Teresa M. Miguel-Stearns (Law Librarian and Professor of Law, Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Library.) The three librarians explained the theoretical structure of Cuban law, which Piñon tempered with his own practical experiences on the ground promoting trade between Cuba and the U.S.

Government StructureCuba is a civil law country and, more importantly, a socialist legality, where law is an instrument for moving society to socialism and communism. The basic government structure is established by the Constitution of 1976 and includes four branches:

  • The National Assembly of People’s Power, a legislative body that issues laws (leyes) and agreements (acuerdos) and is nominally Cuba’s highest authority;
  • The People’s Supreme Court, the highest judicial body;
  • The Office of the Attorney General, responsible for enforcing the laws; and
  • The Council of Ministers, an executive body that issues decrees (decretos) and is roughly analogous to the U.S. cabinet.

Except for the Council of Ministers, each branch has both provincial and municipal lower levels. Someone bringing a case would file it in a People’s Municipal Court, appeal to a People’s Provincial Court, and finally appeal to the People’s Supreme Court. Correspondingly, in addition to the national Office of the Attorney General, there are also Municipal and Provincial Attorney Generals. The legislative branch has not only Provincial and Municipal Assemblies, but also People’s Councils consisting of delegates elected down to the neighborhood level.

However, Piñon observed, you can rip up the formal chart and throw it out the window. Real power is actually held by much smaller groups. Within the People’s Supreme Court, only the smaller Governing Council issues binding decisions, in the form of instructions (instrucciones), agreements (acuerdos), and opinions (dictámenes.) Both the National Assembly and Council of Ministers also have smaller councils that are responsible for decision-making when they are not in session. The Council of State consists of 31 delegates from the National Assembly, issues decree-laws (decretos-leyes), and handles international treaties (tratados internacionales). The Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers consists of an unfixed number of ministers and issues resolutions (resoluciones). These smaller bodies wield considerable power because the National Assembly meets only two weeks a year and receives its marching orders from the Council of State when it does meet. Raúl Castro is the President of both the Council of State and the Council of Ministers. Regardless of the organizational chart, Castro and the Cuban Communist Party hold the real power.

Sources of LawCuban laws are difficult to find due to a lack of publishers and the government’s low commitment to transparency. There is no Lexis, Westlaw, or CLII Cuba. Government websites are here today, gone tomorrow and not necessarily accurate or intuitive to use. Cuba’s Gaceta Oficial posts Cuban laws in rar format, an old school competitor to the zip file that requires special software to decompress. The Gaceta includes codified Cuban law, but the codes aren’t up-to-date and there are differences even between the HTML and PDF versions posted on the Gaceta’s website. The problem is not restricted to online access. The government’s Instituto Cubano del Libro reviews all books and only authorizes a handful of publishers (e.g. ONBC) to print short runs that quickly sell out. During a recent book-buying trip to Cuba, Miguel-Stearns struggled to find something as simple as the current commercial code and spent hours waiting outside a bookstore while the Uruguayan publishers serving as intermediaries haggled for the handful of books available. Nevertheless, resources on Cuban law are expanding. For years the Supreme Court’s website was routinely down and nearly impossible to access, but following a recent reworking, it is now (usually) up and filled with useful information about the court and its rulings.  Other useful websites are the government-sponsored Granma and EcuRed; the independent Translating Cuba and Havana Times; and Cuba Trade Magazine, which focuses on the growing trade between the U.S. and Cuba.

Piñon believes that promoting trade between the U.S. and Cuba is key to both countries’ interests. Castro is now in his mid-eighties and has failed to identify a sufficiently charismatic, popular successor. Additionally, Cuba is heavily dependent on subsidies from Venezuela, which will end as soon as Maduro’s government falls. The imminent power vacuum could leave Cuba vulnerable to drug cartels. However, if the U.S. helps Cuba build a stable economy now, Americans and Cubans alike can benefit from the buying power of Cuban consumers and the contributions of the well-educated and entrepreneurial Cuban workforce. The Cuban government understands that it cannot continue to support hundreds of thousands of government workers once the Venezuelan subsidies end and is actively pushing both foreign investment and small businesses, such as B&Bs. For their part, American corporations are eager to access Cuban workers and markets and don’t care about the property the Cuban government seized from them decades ago. (Piñon quipped that most American companies would happily settle with Cuba for a dollar–and if Cuba does not have a dollar, they will reach into their pockets and give it the dollar.) The current re-freezing of Cuban relations has nothing to do with Cuba and everything to do with domestic U.S. politics. American politicians support the embargo because they fear losing support for their own policies from colleagues such as Marco Rubio, who in turn fear losing the votes of their Cuban exile constituents. It is up to us to counter this pressure and lobby the politicians who represent us to oppose the embargo.

All of the speakers were passionate and knowledgeable about their subjects and I wished this had been a deep dive so I could have heard everything they had to share. Happily, however, the presenters have also extensively documented their work elsewhere, including on this blog. Grant’s detailed travelogue of the Latin American Law Interest Group’s trip to Cuba is a special highlight. The presenters also provided an extensive handout, documenting and expanding on their presentation. Finally, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the Latin American Law Interest Group’s full guide to Cuban law, forthcoming in the month’s issue of the International Journal of Legal Information.

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