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Government, Judiciary

General Arnaldo, Cuban law, utopian state, lawyer judges, sitting judges

The Council of State and the Ministry of Justice administer the court system. Municipal and provincial courts and the national Supreme Court hear cases and interpret the law. Cuban citizens receive legal counsel from law collectives that are organized from the municipal to the national levels.

Immediately following the revolution, some jurists predicted that the need for laws and courts would disappear as Cuba more nearly approached a perfect Communist state. They envisioned that the state would dissolve and people would live together harmoniously, working for the good of the whole. Norms of social behavior, not laws, would govern their actions. By 1963 jurists abandoned this reasoning because they understood that the utopian state was a long time off. By 1970 new generations of lawyers were trained to serve as counsels for national and international agencies and as civil and criminal attorneys. Between 1970 and 1971, Cuba’s legal codes were restructured to reflect its socialist government. The government issued a number of law codes to formally institutionalize the economic, social, and legal changes Castro had made by decree following the revolution.

The courts at all levels employ formally trained judges, who have attended law school, and lay judges. Lay judges do not have formal instruction from law schools, but they do receive training before assuming their responsibilities. Lay judges compose 95 percent of all sitting judges in the country. They are elected to their posts and serve for a specified period. Lay judges must demonstrate enthusiasm for their work, and they must respect the seriousness of their responsibilities, have adequate education levels, and show evidence of good moral character. They are intended to bring a nontechnical view to court considerations, where they can note mitigating circumstances that lawyer judges might not consider. The lay judges represent community values, and their contribution to deciding cases is a means of democratizing the legal system.

In the municipal and provincial courts, two lay judges and one lawyer judge preside. The lawyer judge is the president of the court. Each member has a single vote, so the lay judges can outvote a lawyer judge in deciding a ruling. In serious criminal and government cases at the provincial and national levels, two lay judges and three lawyer judges decide cases. Lay judges at the supreme court level tend to have university degrees and have served at the municipal and provincial levels before being seated in the most prestigious court. The higher courts hear appeals from the lower courts.

Military tribunals sit on cases involving infractions by military men. These courts, as well as civil and criminal courts, are theoretically independent from political interference and guided by military and national laws, respectively. In the 1989 case against General Arnaldo T. Ochoa Sanchez, however, Castro’s influence was visible to everyone, as five military officers were tried for drug smuggling. Three were executed, despite the fact that Cuban law did not provide for the death penalty in such cases. Many observers saw the trial as a move by Castro to eliminate a potential rival in Ochoa Sanchez, a general whose popularity with the public and influence in the military could have challenged Castro’s authority.

Political prisoners are still in Cuban jails, and it is difficult to ascertain their offenses or to gain access to the legal decisions surrounding their cases. The government occasionally releases prisoners as part of international negotiations or when the prisoners have completed their sentences. Some former political prisoners remain in Cuba, where they are reabsorbed into daily life after serving their sentences. Others may be permitted to emigrate to another country at the end of their jail time. Arrests and releases may occur for purely ideological motives. Just before the January 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II, the government rounded up and detained known dissenters so that they could not use the occasion to demonstrate their opposition to the government. After the Pope’s departure, most were released at the Pope’s request. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and America’s Watch have criticized the Castro government for obstructing investigations into allegations of political arrests, mistreatment, and violations of international human rights agreements.



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