Cuban Bail

Just got back from a ten day trip to Havana,Cuba. Going in I wasn’t sure what to expect,  I sorta had a vision of a strict depressing atmosphere somewhat like Romania or another Communist bloc country. I knew the climate would be pleasant, I lived in Puerto Rico for many years, another Caribbean island with a Spanish speaking population. I have to say that my opinion of Cuba was completely changed by my visit there.

Yes, there’s poverty to a large extent, but the average citizen is not resigned, nor sad, but content with Cuban life. Nobody goes without food or shelter, one of the pluses of a Communist government. The shortage of goods is due to Cuba being an island, almost everything needs to be imported. That doesn’t affect other islands in the area as much as Cuba, the difference here is the fifty plus years of a blockade in place by the United States. One of the biggest surprises to me was the fact that Cubans are allowed bail.

Say you have a fender bender with another car. If you can work it out between yourselves, there’s no need for the police to be involved. The problem arises, much like anywhere else in the world, when one person either can’t or won’t pay for inflicted damages.

I noticed that motorcycle cops didn’t chase drivers and pull them over. What they did was call ahead to the next officer usually stationed within the next kilometer or so and relay the car’s information. The advanced cop would pull the car over and ticket or arrest the car based on the first officer’s details. Less risk of accidents due to high speed chases I guess.

Bail is allowed for felony cases. According to Cuban law, a crime is defined as something prohibited by law and is harmful or dangerous to society. If a violation doesn’t meet the criteria of “socially dangerous” it’s considered to be a non criminal citation( like a traffic ticket). Felonies are crimes with a possible sentence of more than a year. Felonies are crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, car theft, assault and battery, drug dealing arrests, arson, vehicular homicide or injury, and burglary. These types of crimes ( especially murder, rape, or robbery) are subject to pre-trial incarceration as well as suspects of multiple offenses, or those considered flight risks. Misdemeanors however,  are usually not required to post bail nor subject to pre-trial detention, except as mentioned above.

Bail is paid directly to the state. In other words, there is no equivalent to a bail bondsman as we think of one in the US. Bail is secured based on the relative severity of the crime,with the accused released to the security of an employer, a union  or other state recognized organization, or possibly o.r. ( own recognizance). Many criminal cases are resolved using a day fine system. Article 35 of the Criminal Code (1987)protects defendants from excessive fines. The fine is calculated using a day rate (from a minimum of 50 cents to a maximum of $20) with the court taking into consideration the time of arrest and detention, the defendant’s earning, costs of living and the defendant’s number of dependents. An installment plan is also a permitted option.

Cuban law mandates that an accused person can’t be kept in custody for longer than 24 hours without their case being turned over to an investigator. The investigator then has three days to turn the case over to a prosecutor. That prosecutor then has three more days to either release the accused or turn the case over to a court that will review it. The court is  then required to either approve release or order continued detention, again within three days. You can see that the days start adding up, making a strong case for posting bail.

Going to trial in Cuba is similar to the process in the United States, with a few important exceptions. First, while a defendant has the right to an attorney, private attorneys are not allowed. Cubans have the right to have Spanish-speaking legal counsel from a nationwide system of law collectives at state set fees.

Ironic, that Fidel Castro, a former attorney abolished private practice of law, instead encouraging youth to pursue careers in science, engineering, and medicine. The Revolution emphasized other academic skills to the detriment of law study at the University of Havana’s College of Law. From 1964-1965 there were no new enrollments, and in 1978-1979 there were no law students graduating.

Second, while a defendant is presumed innocent until,proven guilty, he or she has no right to a trial by jury. Usually the defendant is the first person called to testify, although they may refuse if they don’t want to. ( kinda like pleading the Fifth Amendment?)

Yes, the accused has the right to a fair trial, but instead of a jury of one’s peers, a trial is presided over by a panel of three to five judges. The same panel of judges that hears testimony and determines guilt or innocence also imposes sentences. Sentences encompass a range from execution( for extreme cases like murder, child murder, and or treason), jail time, correctional work farms, probation, or fines. There have been examples of sentences of 15 to 20 years for murder, or 2 to 5 years for crimes like sling in foreign currency or burglary. Sometimes a misdemeanor can be charged more than the the usual one year or less; a simple drug possession charge could conceivably receive a defendant up to two years. A taxi driver told me that “you kill your mother in law, you get 5 years. You kill a cow, you get 8 years.”  He meant it as a joke, but certain crimes, considered offenses against the state include slaughter and distribution of livestock (beef) outside the socialist system of distribution. You don’t see a lot of beef being consumed in Cuba. The government controls much of the dairy and beef production, some private farmers are allowed to raise beef, but by law, they can only sell beef from cows that have died or been killed accidentally. This of course leads to a black market for beef, so unless a restaurant is government owned, and thus allowed to sell beef, what they are selling is illegal, and therefore highly expensive.

Within the Cuban legal system there is no alternative to formal criminal proceedings in court. The decision of the judiciary panel is final, there is no chance for appeal.