Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The cast of the 2010 Christmas Spirits  (photo by Bill Richert)
Last night about 900  CBA members, friends and family enjoyed an annual holiday treat – the CBA Christmas Spirits show.  This year’s offering is chock-full of talent.  My favorite numbers included a clever Asian Carp number, sung by Bob Canel (to Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea”), an Elvis Blago trial triptych featuring solos by Sam Adam (Corey Berman), Blago (Tony Calzaretta) and Pat Fitzgerald (Kevin Krantz, in a perfect “Elvis in Vegas” jumpsuit), torch song offerings by June Brown (as Oprah) and Kate Kelly (in a wonderful turn on Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” dedicated to Tiger Woods).

Our local politicians, as always, provided much of the fodder for the show.  In fact, Blago should get royalties for continuing to generate material for several years running! 

The cast is wonderfully talented, the spirit is high, and the laughs are many.  My thanks to Mary McNichols, Corey Berman and all the CBA members who put so much time into writing, directing and performing this show.  Special props to my two former partners, Ben Weinberg and Dan Hurtado, each appearing in his first Christmas Spirits, and each landing a featured singing role.  You do the Buster Cluster proud!

Buy a ticket and see Plea this week – the show runs through Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Merle Reskin Theatre.

I joined the cast for a number. At left in the brown sweater is the show's
co-writer Julian Frazin.  (photo by Bill Richert)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Report from Cuba - Day 4

Cuban Supreme Court Justices
Well, we certainly saved some of the best for last in our visit to Havana! We started the day today with a session with three members of the Cuban Supreme Court -- three Judges who sit in the divisions of that court that hear economic and commercial cases. They were very open about their judicial system, and we discussed how disputes over international transactions, environmental disputes and what they call "collective" disputes -- the closest thing Cuban law has to class actions -- are handled.

Some of the art on display
at Jose Fuster's studio

At the Fuster studio

A couple points were of particular interest to me. First, they explained that under Cuban environmental law, the person or entity who builds near an environmental hazard, and not the owner of the hazard, is responsible for protecting residents or workers at the new development from the environmental impacts of the hazard. Second, the judges explained to us that there is a void in Cuban law with regard to consumer protection. As a result, the only recourse consumers have when they are injured is to bring an administrative action charging that a person or entity has violated a regulation. Third, the judges told us that, in anticipation of the new economic reforms that will be implemented next year (see yesterday's blog on that topic), it will be necessary for Cuba to completely revamp its commercial code.

Artist Jose Fuster, second from left,
with Aurora Abella-Austriaco, me, and Beth McMeen
 After the Supreme Court session, many of us visited the studio of a Cuban artist, Jose Fuster. Fuster works in ceramic tile, sculpture and oil paintings. He has decorated his home and all of the surrounding homes in the neighborhood with beautiful sculpture covered with mosaics, as shown in these pictures. Several of us purchased examples of his artwork to bring back to Chicago with us.

This afternoon, Alderman Ed Burke, Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, Professor Alberto Coll of DePaul Law School and I met with the Vice Mayor of Havana, Noraima Tabares, in the official residence of the Mayor of Havana. Alderman Burke delivered to Senora Tabares a letter from Tom Rickets proposing a baseball exchange between the Chicago Cubs and one of the professional baseball teams in Havana. Senora Tabares was very interested in the proposal, and Alderman Burke promised to follow up with the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon our return to Chicago. Senora Tabares is a very impressive and warm woman. Trained as an architect, she was formerly in charge of urban development for the City of Havana. She is also an avid baseball fan, and we promised her a front-row seat in Wrigley Field for the exchange.

About to enjoy lunch

The meeting was one more indication to us that the people of Havana are very interested in normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba (as are all the members of our delegation, as a result of the wonderful experiences we have had and the friendships that we have made here in Havana). We have learned throughout this week that we as lawyers and judges have much more in common with the lawyers and judges of Cuba that we have differences. We have also found that the people of Havana are friendly, warm and giving. It has been a tremendous privilege to visit Cuba, particularly at this crucial time of changes in the nation's economic and political systems. We hope that our visit to Havana is only the first step in establishing relations between the people of Havana and the people of Chicago.

This weekend, we all return to Chicago. We promise you that we will hold seminars and report to you what we have learned about Cuban lawyers and the Cuban legal system. Adios, Havana!

From left, Justice Anne Burke, Vice Mayor of Havana
Noraima Tabares , Alderman Ed Burke, and me.
A group shot from the closing dinner

Friday, December 3, 2010

Report from Cuba - Day 3

An interior at the Ernest Hemingway house

At the Hemingway house
 Today was the most interesting day so far. This morning we visited Hemingway's House, which is in a small village outside Havana.
But that wasn't the interesting part. This afternoon we met with a young Economics professor from the University of Havana, Dr. Omar Everleny. Dr. Everleny is one of the primary architects of the proposed plan recently announced by President Raul Castro to lay off 1 million Cuban state workers and to expand the possibilities available to start free-enterprise small businesses and cooperatives. We all left the meeting thinking if Cuba can pull this off, Dr. Everleny deserves to win the Nobel Prize for Economics.

Dr. Everleny is an out-spoken critic of socialist economics. As he put it, socialism is "interesting, but theoretical, and depends upon the creation of a new type of man who doesn't exist." For 50 years, he told us, Cuba has had socialism and inefficiency. Until 1989, when the Soviet system collapsed, the inefficiency was invisible because the Cuban economy was supported by the former Soviet states. But now, economic growth is declining steadily, and by his calculation while "official" unemployment is only 1%, fully 25% of the Cuban work force is unproductive.
Me ringing the porch bell at
Hemingway's house

Hence, the plan to lay off 1 million Cuban workers. If the plan is adopted, each entity that employs workers will be required to assess job performance and lay off the bottom performers in its work force. Government "businesses" will be streamlined to increase efficiency, services will be consolidated and, as he put it, "whole Ministries will disappear -- government doesn't have to run business, just regulate it." At the same time, the Cuban government will allow the creation of small businesses and cooperatives in many fields in which free enterprise is not currently allowed. The free enterprise businesses will be able for the first time to hire employees outside of the family, and if they earn 50,000 pesos or more a year, will be required to keep formal books and records (thus creating a need for accountants, because currently no businesses must report on their financial status or transactions). The role of cooperatives will also be expanded if the plan is adopted.

Free enterprise entities will pay taxes on income at percentages up to 40%, but the average business is expected to be in the 25-30% tax range. They will also be required to pay social security taxes for the workers who they employ. The taxes will be used, in part, to provide social services to those "particularly vulnerable persons" who are laid off.

Alderman Ed Burke and Justice
Anne Burke at the Old Fort in Havana
Quoting Raul Castro, Dr. Everleny told us, "We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working." Dr. Everleny believes it is significant that Raul, "one of the Revolutionary Generation," is supporting these reforms. He believes that Raul does not want to leave the legacy of the country being worse off after his generation than before the revolution. Dr. Everleny stressed that this plan has just been announced, and discussion is just beginning about it, so many elements of the plan remain to be fleshed out. But President Castro will take the plan to the National Assembly of the Peoples' Power for discussion in December, and to the Communist Party in April 2011.

A poster of Fidel at the School of Economics
 Dr. Everleny firmly believes that the Cuban economy must be changed if it is to survive. "If we have to keep thinking in terms of perfect equality [as in the Socialist economy], that will lead to failure." "Poverty distributed is more poverty."

 The reforms sure sound like capitalism to me. It was refreshing to hear Dr. Everleny's views. I think that everyone who attended the meeting left with the feeling that we had observed a little bit of history being made.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Report from Cuba - Day 2

An image of Old Havana
Today we had a day filled with meetings with different members of the bar, the courts and the Cuban National Assembly of Peoples' Power.

We started off with a panel of constitutional law scholars and practitioners, discussing the Cuban Constitution. We learned that the Cuban Municipal, Provincial and National Assemblies are elected by popular election from neighborhood "electorates," which each nominate a candidate. There are no political parties involved in Cuban elections, although at the National level, approximately 2/3 of the members of the Cuban National Assembly of Peoples' Power are members of the Communist Party.
The Cuban Capitol Building
A church in Old Havana

We asked whether the Cuban Constitution provides for any individual rights. The discussion on that issue was among the more interesting discussions of the day, at least in my opinion. At first, one of the scholars told us that the Constitution establishes rights to association, of free expression, of freedom of religion, and equality. Then, another scholar said, of course, in view of the fact that Cuba has been "under attack" since 1951, it is necessary for the people to tolerate certain restrictions on those rights. To quote him, "Our system has to place controls on how to exert political rights. So long as there is that much hostility [toward Cuba from the United States] we cannot be as free as we would be otherwise. If you are under attack from your neighbor you cannot live a normal life." Indeed, the Cuban Constitution protects free speech, but only "free speech consistent with the objectives of the socialist society."

That session was followed by a session with three members of the National Assembly (the equivalent of our House of Representatives and Senate combined). The session was dominated by Dr. Jorge Lezcano Perez, who gave us a whopping dose of party line about the "power of the people" in Cuba. Among other things, Dr. Perez said that the supreme power in Cuba rests in the National Assembly, and the Cuban President has no significant powers.

Justice Anne Burke of the Illinois Supreme Court (second from left)
and Justice Joy Cunningham of the Illinois Appellate Court
visited with several Cuban judges.
In the afternoon, we had a wonderful discussion with several Cuban judges, led by Dr. Armando Torres, President of the Provincial Court for the Province known as City of Havana. Also joining that discussion was a prominent criminal lawyer, Jorge Bodes Torres, assistant to the Minister of Justice. We had a very free question and answer session, with questions ranging from criminal procedure to the caseload of the Cuban courts to how judges are selected to what rights Cuba protects in intellectual property. Of much interest to me, the judges told us that in a criminal case, by law a statement by the defendant is not sufficient evidence to support a conviction -- it must be corroborated by other evidence. We also learned that during interrogations, criminal suspects in Cuba have the right to remain silent, and once a decision is made whether to keep the suspect in custody, the right to a lawyer. We also learned that, while the prosecution must share its evidence with the defense pretrial in a criminal case, there is no right to pretrial discovery in civil cases.

Donating medicine at the Presbyterian church in Havana
Following our session in the afternoon, Tom Sullivan, Dan Cotter and I made a visit to the Presbyterian Church in Havana, where we delivered over-the-counter medicines that members of our group brought with us to donate to the church. The church was in a very poor-looking neighborhood, but the sanctuary was beautiful.

Tonight we visit a private enterprise restaurant in a home -- part of Raoul Castro's capitalist reforms. Hasta manana, CBA!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Report from Cuba - Day 1

The Old Spanish Fort
Yesterday, 32 members of the Chicago Bar Association arrived in Havana, Cuba. Our delegation includes CBA Offices Aurora Abella-Austriaco and Dan Cotter, Justice Anne Burke and Alderman Edward Burke, Appellate Court Justice Joy Cunningham, and several judges of the Circuit Court. We traveled here to meet with and learn from Cuban lawyers, law professors and judges about the Cuban legal system. The trip has already been eye opening.

Our first evening, we observed the Canon Ceremony at the old Spanish fort, which guarded Havana Harbor during Cuban colonial times. Today, we began our meetings with a panel discussion by the President of the Union of Cuban Jurists, Dr. Ramon de la Cruz Ochon, Dr. Delio Carreras Cuevas, a former Attorney General of Cuba who now practices as a criminal defense lawyer, and Dr. Mayda Goite Pierre, Professor of Law and Assistant Dean of the Law School of the University of Havana. We had a far-ranging discussion, which included the Cuban ethics code, the structure of the Cuban Courts and how lawyers in Cuba are compensated for providing services. (There is a set schedule of fees prescribed by the Ministry of Justice, and each firm charges the same amount for each type of service). 

At the Old Spanish Fort are from left, Dan Cotter,
Judge Clare McWilliams, Beth McMeen, me
and  Justice Anne Burke

Of particular interest to me, we discussed the state of the death penalty in Cuba. There are many similarities between Illinois and Cuba on that issue. While both jurisdictions have the death penalty, Cuba has had a moratorium on executions since 2003, like Illinois. There have been only a few death sentences imposed in Cuba since 2003. Recently, a published interview with former President Fidel Castro quoted Castro as saying, “I believe that the death penalty is not a solution.” This prompted Dr. Cuevas, who is opposed to the death penalty to say, “we count Fidel in our group.”

Guards at the Canon Ceremony
This afternoon, we met with Josefina Vidal, head of the North American Section of the Cuban Foreign Ministry. Senora Vidal, in my opinion, recited for us the “party line” on the U. S. foreign policy toward Cuba. While many in our group share her view that the U. S. should drop the travel ban and economic embargo, she clearly was sent to speak with us about the government’s position on all matters bearing upon the relationship between our two countries. Nonetheless, she was a dynamic speaker, and it was very interesting to hear the Cuban side of U.S./Cuban foreign policy.

We’ll keep reporting this week as internet connections allow. Hasta Manana from Cuba!

Justice Anne Burke
and  Dr. Delio Carreras Cuevas,
Profesor Emeritus, Universidad
de la Habana
The University of Havana Law School

Inside the Law School