Weaponizing Justice: Rule of Law and Cuba’s New Constitution

Tamar Ziff / Inter-American Dialogue

On September 11, 2019 the Inter-American Dialogue hosted the event “Weaponizing Justice: Rule of Law and Cuba’s New Constitution’” featuring panelists Caitlin Kelly, Legal Program Officer at the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights; Luis Carlos Battista, Cuban-American lawyer and host of Nuesta América podcast; Miriam Cardet Concepcion, sister of political prisoner Dr. Eduardo Cardet and independent human rights activist; and Dolia Leal Francisco, founding member of the Ladies in White (Damas de Blanco). Opening remarks were given by Carlos Quesada, Executive Director of the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, and the conversation was moderated by Michael Camilleri, director of the Dialogue’s Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program. 

Quesada opened the event by introducing the panelists and framing the conversation around how Cuban government uses its laws and its justice system to stifle dissent, often veering from or flagrantly violating its own laws or Constitution in order to quash opposition. The International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights wrote about this topic at length in its new report, “Premeditated Convictions: An Analysis of the Situation of the Administration of Justice in Cuba,” which furthermore addressed the particular persecution of the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) and the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UPAC) by the Cuban government for their human rights activism. 

Panelist Caitlin Kelly

Kelly began the panel by presenting some of the report’s findings. Principally, she said, the report found a glaring “lack of respect for the rule of law in Cuba.” The legal system has a lot of loopholes which allow the Cuban government to criminalize human rights defenders, journalists, and “basically anyone that speaks out against the government.” The Penal Code is the principal legal tool used by the Cuban government, and there are many crimes that are not well-defined, leaving a lot of room for discretion by state actors. Furthermore, there is no independent tribunal or body to oversee the acts of the Special Prosecutor and state courts, meaning that they have great freedom to act of their own accord. The Institute also found that defendants’ human rights were violated during the trial process. 

Cardet then spoke about how her brother, who founded the Christian Liberation movement that seeks democratic political change in Cuba, was targeted, persecuted and incarcerated by the Castro regime in 2016, and remains under arrest until this day. Leal followed up with how she co-founded the Damas de Blanco, a group of the wives or family members of incarcerated human or political rights activists in Cuba, and how she was also persecuted and attacked by Cuban government actors for her work. Leal was expelled from Cuba in 2013 and currently resides in Miami. 

Panelist Dolia Leal Francisco

Battista spoke to the contradiction between the rights affirmed in the 2019 Cuban constitution and the criminal codes used by the government, which date from the 70s and 80s and include many restrictive and regressive enforcement measures. This conflict is unlikely to be resolved by the government’s updating its criminal codes to reflect a commitment to more democratic behavior, however: although Cuba has signed on to international pacts such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Social, Cultural and Economic Rights, it has not ratified either, and even if it does, the new Constitution includes a clause that states that the laws of the Constitution supersede any international covenant, which in itself violates the terms of the two Covenants. 

At the end of the event, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights spoke remotely about his concern for the circumscription of freedom of expression and other rights in Cuba. His statement is available here:

WATCH THE FULL RECORDING OF THE EVENT HERE: