When I was growing up, my father used to tell me that there were lots of good times to be had in Cuba. That was before Castro, when folks such as Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel dreamed of extending their mob empire into the Caribbean with chains of “legitimate” hotels and casinos. Cuba was a playground for Americans looking for a good time. Well OK, maybe I don’t really remember my father telling me about that; it’s probably just something I picked up from the movies somewhere along the way. Nevertheless, I still imagine the Cuba of old as a land where the law was subservient to lots of pre-Fidel fun. I am wondering if all of that legal free-for-all changed after the revolution, and it seems as though I ought to find out.
Besides, as a lawyer, I’ve always been attracted to the laws of other nations. I recently visited the Ethiopian Supreme Court, sat through a trial in Kenya and visited the jails in Turkey, as exemplified in the frightening movie, Midnight Express. Okay, I didn’t really visit the jails in Turkey, but I did see the movie. So before visiting Cuba, like any good lawyer, I did some research. I learned that in 1492, Christopher Columbus explored the northeastern coast of Cuba in his search for a westward water route to India. He concluded that Cuba was a Chinese peninsula, hence irrevocably proving the earth was not flat. Then upon his return to “China” in 1494, he visited the southeastern cost of the island, landing at what was to become known as Guantanamo Bay. Eventually, the Spanish established sugar and tobacco as Cuba’s primary products. In the 1800s, Cuba became the world’s most important producer of sugar, and we all know about Cuban cigars.
Today, it may only be a footnote in history, but presidents since John Adams have contemplated annexing Cuba to the United States. Toward the end of the 19th Century, Cuban activist José Martí spent time in the Florida Keys plotting Cuba’s independence from Spain. After his “insurgency” began, the United States sent the battleship Maine to Havana Harbor. It mysteriously exploded, killing 268 crewmembers. The resulting cry, “Remember the Maine,” led to the brief Spanish-American War, and in 1898 President McKinley sought approval from the U.S. Congress to send troops to Cuba, in support of its War of Independence.
For a while, after winning independence, Cuba held presidential elections. I was surprised to learn that the candidacy of President Fulgencio Batista was supported by the communists. When Batista’s authoritarian ways became unpopular, young lawyer Fidel Castro circulated a petition for the removal of Batista on the grounds that he had illegitimately suspended the electoral process. In 1953, when the courts ignored the young lawyer’s petition, he changed tactics in favor of armed force to overthrow the government. The insurrection failed, landing Castro in jail. In one of those memorable historic mistakes, Batista set him free only two years later.
Fidel and his brother Raul sought refuge in Mexico, where they met a charismatic young Argentinian named Ernesto Guevara. In November 1956, Fidel boarded the “Granma” with a group of 82 revolutionaries, including Camilio Cienfuegos, Raul Castro and Che Guevara, and headed to Cuba. That landing didn’t go much better than the 1961 American-supported Bay of Pigs invasion. Batista’s forces killed or dispersed nearly all of Castro’s men. Fidel, Raul and Che escaped into the Sierra Maestra mountain range with perhaps only a dozen men. This small group began a guerrilla warfare campaign and endorsed a general strike in 1958. The strike failed due to lack of support from either communists or labor unions. Nevertheless, Batista’s forces were unable to crush the rebel group, and when Batista fled the country in January 1959, after being pressured to do so by the United States, Castro took over. The cigar-smoking revolutionaries then tilted left and endorsed communism. So what is it like in Cuba now?
My goal in visiting Cuba, besides meeting the people, is to observe Cuban versus U.S. law. My interest in that country’s laws is more than a passing matter, as I will be going to Cuba with some other lawyers and my wife. I’m not worried about the other lawyers; my wife is another story. Cheryl doesn’t have the best track record for behaving like a law-abiding citizen. She had a very controlling father, which gives her an antagonist attitude towards anyone who gives her advice concerning what she ought to do (at least that is the excuse she uses to ignore my advice). I’ve been told that Cuban laws and customs may be a little unpredictable, so I’ve asked Cheryl to educate herself.
One thing we know: Traveling to Cuba is not like traveling to most other places. Even in remote areas of Africa, it is possible to have internet access. I recall visiting a south Tanzanian jungle lodge where my internet access was disrupted because, as the manager explained it, “[T]he hippopotamus knock out the internet.” In Cuba, citizens cannot access the internet from their homes or on their cellphones. In fact, cellphone communications with the United States is virtually nonexistent. Cubans also are banned from sailing on tourist boats. I suppose this is due to concern that they may end up like Martí in the Florida Keys.
As we know, America is experiencing controversy regarding immigration and where immigrants may or may not live. Apparently, Cubans who don’t live in Havana are not allowed to move there without a permit. Although Cuba’s 1976 Constitution allows the right to demonstrate, the country’s Penal Code warns that demonstrators who do not exhibit proper respect could end up being charged with a felony.
A Cuban friend that I am meeting in the south of Cuba tells me that he plans to celebrate my birthday on the beach with a pig roast and lobsters. In Cuba, however, only the state and foreigners have the right to sell lobsters. That’s a law that I would not have anticipated. Additionally, locals are not allowed to pick up visitors in their cars unless they have a taxi license, and bringing artificial fingernails from abroad is another legal violation. I am hoping Cheryl takes hers off. Worse yet, it is considered extremely bad form to blow your nose in public in Cuba. Cheryl has a cold.
Despite a few quirky laws (the United States has some too), I am excited about visiting this island that is the home of cigars, rum, revolutionary ideas and a history of American influence. I don’t want to go to Guantánamo Bay, but my Cuban contact tells me we are going to swim in the “Bay of Pigs.” I always presumed the “Bay of Pigs” was a derogatory name bestowed upon the area by a gloating Fidel Castro after he squelched the Cuban ex‑patriots who had attempted to overthrow his government. I was wrong. The Bay of Pigs, or in Spanish, the “Bahía de Cochinos,” is really the name of that bay, and it was called that long before the invasion took place in April 1961.
Swimming in the Bahía De Cochinos ought to be a lot of fun — as long as Cheryl doesn’t sneeze on anyone. And even then, I will probably come back with a lot of good stories to tell my children. Or at least my children will remember it that way, even if they actually heard the stories from somebody else on the internet.
© 2020 Under Analysis LLC. Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lashly & Baer, P.C. Contact Mark by e-mail at [email protected].