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Cuba does not have a bar association, but rather ‘colectivos’, which are state-run quasi-firms that specialize in particular areas of law. Colectivos form the basic units of the Cuban legal system and lawyers in the colectivos generally work in teams on projects. Our group met with a corporate finance colectivo that receives individual clients, charging Cubans a nominal fee but foreign and Cuban-American clients a flat $150/hour fee. We were told that attorneys are not permitted to practice outside colectivos, but I later met an independent lawyer, e.g. a lawyer forbidden from working in any colectivo. The lack of a bar association, the state-sponsored policy on a dual price structure and independent lawyers were several obvious differences between the Cuban and American legal systems.

Because of the close relationship between the UNCJ and the government, I believe some of our counterparts gave us “the party line” in discussions about voter rights, media law, family law, and freedom of assembly. In anticipation of such discussions, our group had identified two organizations through PSLAW.net as potential partners for public service projects: the Movement for Peace and Disarmament (MPDL) and the Cuban Committee for Human Rights (CCHR).

MPDL is a Spanish-based NGO with offices in seventy-three countries that works to foster political change. Circumstances in Cuba, however, have caused MPDL to undertake only programs of economic assistance. In fact, Cuban law prohibits foreign NGOs from receiving legal status, so MPDL operates on a conditional basis. The regional director told us the Cuban government could confiscate their materials at any moment, although he thought this unlikely to occur. We established a foundation for further cooperation with MPDL on potential public service efforts, including lectures, publications, and dissemination of information about legal issues in Cuba.

CCHR is one of the leading human rights organizations in Cuba. It attempts to educate Cubans about principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which Cuba was an original signatory, and advocates greater adherence to those rights. Like MPDL, CCHR does not have legal status in Cuba, which creates a precarious environment for operating. CCHR believes Cuba systematically violates certain rights such as freedoms of expression and assembly, arbitrary detention, and summary executions. Less than a week after returning to Philadelphia, news reports cited a sweep of journalists and human rights defenders in Cuba. These events confirmed for me not only that systematic violations occur, but also that public service efforts about human rights standards in Cuba must continue.

Upon reflection, I believe this first initiative was an overwhelming success. I spent my spring break learning about and discussing aspects of a foreign legal system, comparing it to the U.S. system, applying knowledge I had learned in classes, and growing closer to classmates. As a group, we established ties with the Cuban government, a foundation for educational exchange with University of Havana Law School, as well as possibilities for continued public service projects.

Matthew Brady is a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He has been a delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights two times and spent his summer in Central Asia doing human rights training, monitoring, and advocacy. His e-mail address is: mbrady@law.upenn.edu. Tina Shaughnessy IL and Loren Stewart IL contributed to this article.
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