Looking at Cuba’s legal history

With the death of Fidel Castro (1926-2016) an era of revolutionary turmoil ends and a period preluding to a transition seems to begin for Cuba. All over the world the events that made Castro a legendary figure, both idolized and hated, will be brought back into view by the media. In this post I would like to look succinctly at some elements of Cuba’s legal history. My overview is coloured by the sometimes random presence of digital collections, but nevertheless it seems useful to bring them together. As a matter of fact I did not search these collections only in the wake of today’s headlines. You can find my selection of relevant digital libraries for both North and South America on my web page with digital libraries which deal with or concern exclusively law and justice. Lately I discussed here Lara Putnam’s article about the dangers of relying too much on digital resources. I hoped to have steered away of some of the pitfalls she indicates, but there is here ample attention for digital resources.

Law and justice in Cuba

Header dLOC

When looking at Cuba it is perhaps most fitting to look at this island first of all from a Caribbean perspective. The Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) is a portal created by an international consortium of research libraries. One country gets special attention at dLOC, Haiti. The section for law at dLOC contains more legal materials about and from Cuba than for any other country, some 6,000 items. A search for Cuba as a subject in the DLOC yields nearly four thousand items. You can approach dLOC in three languages. dLOC contains for example the Diario de sesiones del Congreso de la Republica de Cuba from 1902 to 1957. Among the contributing institutions of the dLOC is another digital portal, Manioc, which focuses on former French colonies in the Caribbean. Luckily this portal has an interface in four languages. With only some thirty digitized historical printed books concerning Cuban law and history the harvest here might seem at first insignificant, but the significance is more to be aware of the melting pot of languages in the Caribbean, with not just Spanish, English or Dutch as European influences. A more general search for Cuba at Manioc brings you nearly 2,300 results. dLOC has a special section for nineteenth-century Cuban imprints. The Braga Brothers Collection at dLOC deals with the history of the Cuban sugar industry.

At dLOC the revolutionary period of Cuba comes in particular into view with the digital collection of Mexican and Cuban film posters. There is also a virtual exhibit of these posters.In opposition to them stands the collection of digitized Cuban exile newspapers produced in Florida. The film posters can be supplemented by the well-known Latin America Pamphlet Coillection of Harvard University. For pamphlets the Latin American Pamphlets Digital Collection of Harvard’s Widener Library is a starting point. The Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera of Princeton University contains some 900 items concerning Cuba.

logo-bdpiCuba figures, too, at the portal of the Biblioteca Digital del Patrimonio Iberoamericano. This portal is the fruit of cooperation between a number of Latin American national libraries, among them the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí at Havana. I mention the portal especially because it offers you access with a trilingual interface. The digital library of the Cuban national library can only be viewed in Spanish. At the portal you will find for Cuba mainly digitized literary works. You will find the database for the national bibliography useful. Let’s not forget to mention the Archivo Nacional de la República de Cuba and the Instituto de Historia de Cuba.

Header Civil Code (1800-1923) - FIU Law

A starting point for looking at Cuba’s legal history might be the digital collection Civil Codes (1800-1923) in the eCollections of Florida International University Law Library in Miami. You can find here the Cuban Código Civil of 1889 and a second edition from 1919. Interestingly this digital collection contains also nineteenth-century codes of civil law from Marocco, Spain, Portugal, Japan and the Netherlands, the last in a French translation [Code civil néerlandais, P.H. Haanebrink (trad.) (Brussels 1921)]. The FIU Law Library has also created a digital collection for Cuban law before 1961, and in the Mario Diaz Cruz Collection you will find materials collected by a prominent Cuban lawyer. Comparisons between the law in sixteen Caribbean countries are possible thanks to FIU’s digital collection Caribbean Law and Jurisprudence with acts, ordinances and case law reports. The Red des Archivos Diplomáticos Iberoamericanos has a section with the main juridical documents from Cuba between 1904 and 1934 and a link to the Cuban Guia de Tratados, alas as for now without any treaty.

Latin American perspectives

Yet another example of a digital collection which covers Latin America is the Spanish America Collection at the Internet Archive, created by the John Carter Brown University Library, Brown University, Providence, RI. This library has not just digitized some 3,700 works but also very sensibly divided them into smaller collections, among them one for Cuba. Just 35 books might look a meagre result, but among these books are for example Ignacio José Urrutia y Montoya, Teatro histórico, juridico, y politico-militar, de la Isla Fernandína de Cuba, principalmente de su capital La Havana (Havana 1789) and the treatise Instituciones de derecho real de Castilla y de Indias by José Maria Alvarez (2 vol., Habana 1834). The John Carter Brown Library provides also an important visual collection, the Archive of Early American Images. Among the general digital resources for the history of Latin America I would like to mention also the Early Americas Digital Archive, University of Maryland.

The largest quantity of digital collections concerning Cuban history and culture has been created by the Merrick Libraries, University of Miami. The Cuban Heritage Collection with over fiftysub collections covers many subjects. This set of collections is clearly also the core of the Cuban collections at dLOC. It is a matter of choice to look here at them from specific angles or to approach them from a Caribbean perspective at dLOC.

It is possible to pursue many avenues and to spend much time in finding more information. Just two weeks ago Mike Widener (Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale University) wrote about some recently acquired books about Cuban law. Speaking of blogs you might as well go straight for In Custodia Legis, the blog of the Law Library at the Library of Congress. You will find much of interest in the seventeen contributions touching Cuba. For Latin American constitutions you can choose at will from several portals dealing with constitutions all over the world. At my website I mention most of them, but you might want to have here the direct link to the main portal for Latin America, Constituciones Hispanoamericanas, part of the Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

Perhaps more closer to the actual situation at Cuba is the Presidio Modelo, a former prison built between 1926 and 1931 following the panopticon model advocated by Jeremy Bentham. The prison was in use until 1961 and is now a museum. You cannot help thinking that a panopticon model would have suited a particular kind of regime. Fidel Castro himself once was a prisoner here. Anyway, many people were forced to leave or choose to leave Cuba. Duke University has made a digital collection on Caribbean Sea Migration between 1956 and 1996 in which you can find apart from Cuba also Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At Habana Patrimonial, a portal to Cuban heritage, only the links to museums seems to be functioning.

Whatever the future might bring for the Cuban people, Cuba and Castro formed an inseparable unit. To the alliteration of these words many will add the name of Kennedy. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 is the subject of a virtual exhibition created by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. It is easy to focus on the clash between Cuba and the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, and therefore it seems just to remember here also at least briefly the story of the Amistad. Tulane University has created Slavery and the U.S. Supreme Court: The Amistad Case, a digital collection about the story of a ship with 53 Africans faced with the threat to become slaves. Their voyage to New York started on June 28, 1839 in Havana. Tulane University has also created a digital collection with some 1,800 early photographs of Latin America. For a much wider panorama of Latin American legal history you should not miss Global Perspectives on Legal History, the book series both in print and online in open access of the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History at Frankfurt am Main. This institute runs several projects on legal history and Latin America.

You might be tempted to think my tour of websites could go on forever! Those who visit my blog more often are used to see contributions with many web links. I provide them for your use, not to chase you away from my blog, but to bring you to resources which are sometimes difficult to find or easily overlooked. Please use these links, it is a pleasure to share them with you, and hopefully they help you to gain insights into Cuba’s (legal) history and culture.

A postscript

Of course more blogs bring posts and comments about Cuban history and Fidel Castro. Here a selection:

-Cindy Hermus, The Cuban Revolution and me, Age of Revolutions – July 4, 2016
-Michelle Chase, Reading List: Cuba, Age of Revolutions – July 7, 2016

One post is always too short to mention everything, but the presence of Cuban legal materials at LLMC Digital merits attention for those able to use them at subscribing institutions. A search at the World Legal Information Institute yields results from 1758 onwards with cases in English reports. The Latin American Interests Group of the FCIl-SIS, a branch of the American Association of Law Libraries, is working on a new online Guide to Legal Research on Cuba. Meanwhile the guide to current Cuban law with lots of links offered by the Law Library of Congress should satisfy many needs. At Globalex Yasmin Morais is responsible for the guide on contemporary Cuban law.

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