Meet A Rare (And Banned) Independent Lawyer In Cuba

Under a repressive regime that outlaws independent lawyers, Laritza Diversent is blazing a trail for victims of Cuba's harsh judicial system.

Palacio de Justicia in Mantazas, Cuba
Palacio de Justicia in Mantazas, Cuba
Paulo A. Paranagua

HAVANA â€" 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.”

Laritza Diversent â€" 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.”

Meeting Obama

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 â€" along with social democrat opposition politician Manuel Cuesta Morua â€" 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.”

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money but the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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