October 17, 2021

She Learned Firsthand Just How Lacking in Basic Freedoms Cuba is

Julie Kay

On the day that Cuba was officially removed from the U.S. list of state-sponsored terrorism, I was banned from writing any stories while in Cuba.

So much for change.

I was in Cuba last week with some 30 lawyers from the International Section of the Florida Bar. The trip was controversial from the start. Florida Bar officials, including president Gregory Coleman, insisted that I state that this was not a Florida Bar-sanctioned trip and was not voted on by the Bar’s board of governors, but was the decision of one section of the Bar.

And the president of the Cuban American Bar Association sent a letter of protest to all the members of the International Section, pointing out all the human rights abuses still taking place there.

But I asked to go and was thrilled when Peter Quinter, head of the International Section and a partner at GrayRobinson, agreed.

I knew many of the lawyers going on the trip, including former American Bar Association president Stephen Zack, Squire Pattons Boggs attorney Barbara Alonso and St. Thomas University law professor Marcia Narine. .

I had never been to Cuba, and I’m not Cuban American. But I saw the trip was a great opportunity for a Miami journalist, or any journalist for that matter, with so many changes afoot—the terrorist designation change, imminent opening of embassies and law firms clamoring to open offices in Cuba or establish relationships with Cuban law firms.

Through day two, everything was going fine. Our five-star hotel, the Parque Central, was packed with a cross section of tourists from Canada, the United States and Europe—many attending an international art show, businessmen looking for opportunities and of course, our group.

I attended a lecture by a young Cuban attorney that morning. He spoke frankly about the Cuban legal system, relating how when a Cuban is arrested, he can be jailed without the right to see a lawyer or make a phone call for 72 hours. After a week, the prosecutor decides whether to grant the person bail or not.

He called the criminal system “disgusting.”

The lawyer also discussed how students become lawyers, how the decision is made by the government based on their test scores, and how 79 percent of law students are female and only 10 percent black.

He also had positive things to say about the legal system, noting that bribery and corruption of judges does not exist in Cuba.

After taking copious notes, asking the lawyer questions and snapping his picture after the lecture, I went to the lobby—the only place the Internet worked—to write my story.

That night, while our group was eating dinner at a lovely, outdoor restaurant, our tour guide approached me with his cellphone. Someone had emailed him a copy of my story, already posted online.

“This headline is going to ruin that young lawyer’s life,” he yelled at me. The headline related how a Cuban lawyer declared the country’s legal system “disgusting.”

I later found out the tour guide had failed to tell the lawyer—or any of the speakers—a reporter was in the room. WHAT?

I assume the tour guide had little experience dealing with reporters. “This was supposed to be a positive story,” he said. “You need to filter everything here.”

I was incredulous. I had basically regurgitated everything the lawyer had said. I did no independent research, put no “spin” on the story.

Luckily, we were able to get my web editor on the phone and he changed the headline to something innocuous: “Cuban lawyer assesses Cuban legal system.”

The rest of the dinner was tense. I could see the tour guide was trying to turn the lawyers against me. One—a friend—came up to me and said tersely, “Can you change the headline? I feel so bad for this man.”

Things did not improve on the bus ride home. When we pulled back into our hotel, the tour guide took the microphone and announced to the group that he was kicking me off the tour. “Julie’s a good person,” he said. “But her Cuban American copy editor created this headline. And I have to take a stand.”

I was stunned that not one of the lawyers—some of them my friends—said a word. I later learned they were in shock and had meetings throughout the night about the situation.

Quinter tried to calm me, taking me to the rooftop pool for a chat. I went back to my room a little nervous. I felt bad for the lawyer, but I was also concerned about what might happen to me. I felt like calling a friend but was afraid to even talk openly on the phone.

I woke up that morning feeling better, if not growing a bit angry. Kick me off the tour? After I paid all that money? He better at least get me a ride to the airport, I thought. Anyway, I knew that U.S. Sen. Al Franken was in town for a press conference in Havana on the terrorism designation being lifted. I figured I’ll just go cover that. I’ll find my own stories, I thought.

I parked myself in the lobby to email my editor about what had happened with the tour guide, and Zack approached me. “You’re back on the tour,” they said. “Try to remember the spirit of this tour,” added the tour guide.

I found out that the group of lawyers, instead of hearing the lecture they came to hear about investment schedule for 9 a.m., spent 45 minutes discussing whether I should be kicked off the tour. The tour guide made his best case to remove me, I’m told, and even to write a letter of complaint to the newspaper.

I’m happy to say that none of the lawyers went along with his plan. I’m told they informed him we have something called freedom of the press in our country.

They did, I’m told, agree to write some sort of letter for the young lawyer to have as cover in case the government came calling. I never saw that letter.

Phew, I thought. I emailed my editor with the good news. “We’re back,” I said.

I sat through another lecture about foreign investment, then returned to the lobby to write up my story. That’s when I saw the tour guide approaching again. “What now?” I thought.

“We have another problem,” he said. We had a Cuban tour guide accompanying us through the entire tour. After he had made such a fuss, she had notified her government bosses about the situation. They decided I was banned from writing any more stories during my trip since I had failed to obtain a journalist license.

Now I had specifically asked the guide beforehand if I needed a journalist license. “No,” was the answer, “you’re with a special group.”

I made the decision not to post any more stories while in Cuba and just save them up for when I returned to the United States. I had no desire to see the inside of a Cuban prison.

I enjoyed the rest of the trip anyway. In addition to the interesting lectures, I got to meet taxi drivers and shopkeepers and hear their stories. Like the lawyer, they were quite candid, telling me how they pray for an end to the embargo and how they are suffering. “Socialism doesn’t work,” one taxi driver said. “We’re just people, like you,” a shopkeeper said.

My last heart-stopping moment came at the airport, when I went to check in and the lady behind the counter said, “You’re not on the list.” She grabbed my passport and visa and left for 20 minutes. “Please don’t leave me,” I said to Zack, who was standing next to me. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.

Turns out there was a snafu and I was supposed to be on an earlier flight. They found a seat for me and I was never so happy as when I heard the sound of my passport being stamped.

People keep asking me whether the young Cuban lawyer got into any trouble. As he told me, things happen slowly in Cuba. You don’t get arrested so much anymore, they just make your life miserable.

“I really like that you have freedom to say what you want,” he told me. “We don’t.”

I pray that he’s OK.