Under a repressive regime that outlaws independent lawyers, Laritza Diversent is blazing a trail for victims of Cuba's harsh judicial system.
HAVANA — The Arroyo Naranjo neighborhood, with its dusty streets and modest homes, is not part of Havana's tourist circuit. It's not exactly in the outskirts of the Cuban capital, but almost. And it doesn't have a creek (arroyo) or an orange tree (naranjo), the taxi driver, with his typical Havana sense of humor, points outs.
It is here, nevertheless, that Laritza Diversent, a 34-year-old lawyer, chose to work. She does so at her own risk, as lawyers are not included in a 2010 law listing the 178 occupations or activities Cubans are allowed to practice independently of the government. But Diversent isn't hiding anything. Her office, set up in her home, is in plain sight and known by everyone. There is even a sign. "Cubalex, center for legal information, opened in 2010," it reads.
"The right to an attorney is a fundamental human right," she says. "But I don't have the right to represent a defendant in a trial. Nor can I visit anyone in prison."
Diversent has a degree in law and has obtained all the required degrees to practice as a lawyer. Except in Cuba, all lawyers must work in "collective offices" controlled by the state. This leads to a flagrant conflict of interest, as the government prohibits lawyers from defending anyone accused by the authorities. "The accused are often forced to prove their innocence, reversing the burden of proof," she says.
In a country where the separation of powers doesn't exist and the executive branch controls the judiciary, the right to an attorney and the likelihood of a fair trial are severely compromised.
"The system is corrupt from the top to the bottom. People often pay bribes to reduce their sentences," says Diversent. "I chose to work in my own community to offer help and advice. People come to me asking me about problems with things like housing, emigration, domestic violence and divorce, but also for help with criminal cases."
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Laritza Diversent — Photo: Daniel Cima/Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos
At times Diversent's work resembles that of a social worker. But the job also involves counseling the accused or their family members on how to deal with crimes punishable with prison time. "Ignorance of laws and rights is widespread, both among the accused and the authorities," she says. "Without being able to attend trials, I can mainly help families in the appeals process."
Most of the 658 cases she has dealt with concern assault and robbery committed by Afro-Cubans, who make up the vast majority of Cuba's prison population. Diversent is Afro-Cuban herself.
With an estimated 60,000-70,000 people crammed into its 200 jails, Cuba has the world's second-highest incarceration rate after the United States, according to Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Between 2,000 and 4,000 of those prisoners were jailed for the peculiar crime of "social dangerousness," as defined by Article 73 of Cuba's penal code. The article allows the state to arrest anyone posing a "pre-criminal" danger to society by engaging in "anti-social" or "dangerous" behavior.
Laritza Diversent is not paid for her work. "It's technically illegal," she says. But Cubalex receives aid from some European NGOs. And at the Organization of American States (OAS) summit in Panama last April, the lawyer was one of only two Cuban civil society representatives — along with social democrat opposition politician Manuel Cuesta Morua — invited to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama before his historic meeting with Cuban leader Raul Castro.
Despite the international support she has received, Diversent is still worried for the future. "Civil society emerged in a context of repression," she says. "Dissidence arose in a regime-ruled country where there is no education on human rights, not even in law departments."