Wilfredo Vallin, a Crusader of the Law
The lawyer Wilfredo Vallin Almeida, 62 years of age, is a man of laws. In every meaning of the word. He is a supporter of democracy and a State of Rights. He also thinks it possible that in a not so distant future, a legal framework will be established in Cuba where the legislation would be equal for everyone. Without exception.
Excesses and abuses by the government of the Castros to the detriment of the rights of the citizens is a reality in Cuba. The judicial ignorance of the population fosters this vulnerability. For that reason, in October 2008 a group of eight lawyers, headed by Wilfredo Vallin, decided to form the Cuban Law Association with the purpose of raising awareness of Cuba’s laws among citizens.
The Association works on the creation of education materials that would allow Cuban civil society to understand not only the laws that apply to them, but also the Constitution of the Republic and the fundamental rights contained within that document. It also offers legal advice to the public, completely free of charge. In Cuba, legal advice is the job of the State. However, that service is deficient and costly. Due to the limited role of jurists under national law, the role of lawyers is limited to simply indicating the processes or steps that should be taken in certain legal processes, whether they be civil, penal, or administrative.
The Association also is also charged with judicial education for the population, which has a high rate of illiteracy in legal matters. During the first half of 2008, the group took on the task of holding seminars accessible for people not well-versed in legal issues, also with the purpose of providing legal advice to those who need it. These courses teach elements of Constitutional Theory, Penal Rights, Penal Processes, International Rights and International Pacts of Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social, and Cultural rights, which are pacts that have all been signed by Cuba in February 2008.
The first of these seminars took place in the neighborhood of Los Pinos on the periphery of the City of Havana. Twenty-five people participated, mostly members of the 30th of November Party (an opposition group that considers itself a group of hard-liners). However, the last class was blocked by members of the Department of State Security.
This led to the writing of an open letter to the Minister of Justice, Maria Esther Reus, which was personally delivered to her department. In the letter, the arbitrariness was denounced, it was established that the courses would continue, and the authorities were even invited to participate, or even to monitor the events in a way that would be considered appropriate. They never responded.
The Cuban Law Association did not give up. They continued with the courses, which are received with great interest by the citizens. It was decided to reduce the participation per class to no more than 12 people. During the course organized by members of the Commission of Attention to Political Prisoners and their Families, a dissident group with a humanitarian goal, the story was repeated. Agents of State Security said the course could not continue.
With the Penal Code at hand, the lawyer Vallin demanded that the agents identify the articles on which they based their prohibitions, but they didn’t even touch the book and insisted on their position. When Vallin argued that they could not prohibit what the law did not prohibit and that they could commit abuse of authority with such an action, one of the agents moved close to Vallin and told him, “In this country there is a special situation, and when there is a special situation we are the Penal Code, the Law, and the Constitution.”
The incident led to a second letter to the Ministry of Justice, which also received no response. At the root of the events, Wilfredo Vallin was summoned for “a conversation” at a police station by officials of the Department of State Security. In Cuba, knowledge of the law is seen as a potential threat to the authorities.
During the police summons, the agents told Vallin that they were worried about the courses. The principal objection, they argued, was about the kinds of people who attended the courses. For the political police, civil society is divided into two kinds of people: the common ones, and those who seek support by participating in anti-governmental actions with the purpose of obtaining visas to travel to the United States. According to these agents, the courses offered by the Cuban Law Association offered those “visa-seekers with resources to fight or oppose national laws.”
“I cannot comprehend how teaching citizens to know and respect the laws is the same thing as teaching them to disrupt those same laws. It seems like senseless gibberish to me,” affirmed the lawyer Vallin.
The officials of State Security pointed out that they did not oppose the courses as long as they did not include “those kinds of people” because “at any given moment they could use their judicial knowledge as a form of entrenchment against the revolution.”
With regards to the International Covenant on Human Rights, signed by Cuba but still pending a ratification by the State Council, the members of the secret police who summoned Vallin affirmed that “the process had begun and would be completed at any given moment,” without any sort of specification as to when.
In reality there are two Covenants: the International Civil and Political Rights Covenant, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, adopted by the UN’s General Assembly on the December 16, 1966 and put into force on March 23, 1976. Normally, both are mentioned as either International Covenants on Human Rights, or as the New York Covenant.
After a decade of ignoring them, the Cuban government announced that they would sign these covenants in 2007. They were subscribed by the (then) Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque on February 28, 2008. The essence of the situation is that the signing States are obliged to modify their internal laws to incorporate the norms stated in these Covenants. On the island, however, very few think that the regime will actually ratify them and instead will continue to go off on a tangent, as they have been doing with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for 51 years.
After State Security gave such an ambiguous answer about the International Covenants on Human Rights, the lawyer Vallin sent another open letter for the National Coordinator of the Defense Committee of the Revolution (CDR) where he proposed the idea of continuing the seminars with lectures on the laws of the country at a basic level.
The Cuban Law Association published a bulletin, dedicated to explaining the constitutional precepts. A kind of “ABCs” for the supreme law of the country. For 2010, they are aiming to organize audiovisual resources that would allow citizens to defend themselves from the excess of power exercised by police and judicial authorities.
A peaceful dissident for more than 15 years, Vallin also offers the subject of Ethics and Rights in the Academy of Digital Journalism, created by the blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar. Self-taught, he has obtained both the titles of lawyer and economist through distance higher education.
If there is a man in Cuba who believes in laws and in the Constitution of the Republic, that man is Wilfredo Vallin Almeida. He is convinced that no person or institution can be above the Constitution. Not even those in government.
Translated by Raul G.