Anna Marie “Annie” Hernandez would have a very different life without the Cuban American Bar Association (CABA). Nearly a decade ago, she met her future husband at CABA’s annual elections. She also got to know several longtime leaders in Miami’s legal community who helped her advance in the association and later become a partner at Holland & Knight in Miami.
Now, Hernandez is giving back to the legal community, serving as 2016 president of the association as it navigates through the evolving relationship between the United States and Cuba.
“As time passes and there is more opening up of relations between our countries, there is a greater possibility that the legal system in Cuba will change in a positive way, but that is not yet happening,” said Hernandez. “A few weeks ago, we had lunch with a Cuban man who had been in prison for eight years, and told us that the younger generation is only exposed to the government’s viewpoint because the press and the radio are censored. We would like to see that change.”
CABA promoted a “Cuba Internet Freedom Conference” held on September 12, that focused on strategies helping more Cubans connect with the rest of the world through tablets, computers and greater access to online communications. “Right now, dissident groups listen to the radio, transcribe what they hear using typewriters and print pamphlets to tell their neighbors,” Hernandez said. “But the more they are able to connect online the more they can learn about what’s going on outside Cuba.”
As Cuba opens up to greater U.S. travel and investment, CABA also felt the time was right to hold a larger conference and give South Florida professionals an opportunity to learn more about current conditions on the island.
That two day-long “CABA on Cuba Conference,” held September 23 and 24 at Florida International University’s College of Law featured a high-powered roster of invited guests, including FIU Professor Dr. Michael Bustamante, Cuban dissident Antonio Rodiles, U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo and Orlando Gutierrez Boronat, national secretary of the Directorio Democratico Cuba. Participating attorneys included Aymee D. Valdivia, Holland & Knight’s Cuba Action Team; Peter Quinter, past chair, The Florida Bar’s International Law Section; Stephen Zack. former president, American Bar Association; Pedro Freyre, chair, Akerman’s International Practice; and Aliette Del Pozo Rodz, chair, Shutts & Bowen Cuba Task Force.
“We want to influence and be part of the change process in Cuba,” Hernandez said. “That includes looking at foreign investment, legal risks, property claims and the U.S. embargo, as well as what role, if any, the U.S. would play in a post-Castro Cuba.”
A Deep Personal Connection
Like many CABA members, Hernandez feels a deep personal connection to Cuba. Her parents, Raul Hernandez and Mari-Tere De Lara were both born in Cuba, but their families sent them to Miami as children in 1960 after Fidel Castro’s communist revolution. “I grew up in a household with Cuban grandparents,” Hernandez said. “My godfather was imprisoned in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs in 1962 and I have a great uncle who was arrested and held as a political prisoner for more than 20 years.”
Hernandez earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science at Florida International University, and her law degree at the University of Miami. “Shortly after being admitted to the Bar, I started attending CABA functions,” she said. “At the time, I was a medical malpractice defense attorney, and found myself litigating against CABA past presidents Manny Morales, Tom Gamba and Hector Lombana. As I got to know them, they, along with good friend and CABA past president Marlene Quintana, encouraged me to get more active in CABA, and I ran for the board in December 2005.”
Along the way, Hernandez changed her practice to real estate and commercial litigation and joined Holland & Knight, whose partners she knew from CABA. She also met attorney Carlos H. Gamez at a CABA function. He courted her for several years and they married in March. He is now assistant city attorney for the City of Miami. “At my investiture as president, I spoke on what CABA has meant to me,” she said. “I met my husband, became a step-mom and got my law firm position all through involvement with CABA.”
A Dynamic Organization
Hernandez is the 42nd president of CABA, a non-profit voluntary bar association founded in 1974 by lawyers of Cuban descent. Today, its members include judges, lawyers, and law students of all backgrounds interested in issues affecting the Cuban community, as well as broader legal and human rights issues impacting minority communities as a whole.
Through the years, CABA members have volunteered their time and made ongoing contributions to pro bono service project and law school scholarships.
The Cuban American Bar Association Pro Bono Project (CABA Pro Bono) was established in 1984 to assist indigent Spanish-speaking individuals. In 1992, CABA Pro Bono was nationally recognized as a “Point of Light” by President George H. W. Bush. CABA Pro Bono is funded in part through grants by the Florida Bar Foundation and proceeds raised at various events, including the annual “Art in the Tropics” event.
In addition, the Cuban American Bar Foundation (CABF) has endowed scholarships at six Florida law schools, and grants several “at-large” scholarships to eligible law students throughout the country.
Hernandez notes that in its first decades, CABA was the voice for other minority attorneys who didn’t have their own bar associations. “Now, there are associations for Venezuelan, Colombian, Haitian and Puerto Rican lawyers,” she said. “We all share ideas and input, and work together on some issues. It’s been great to see them develop roots in the South Florida community.”
Today, CABA has more than 1,000 active members, including several from outside South Florida. “Our leaders and membership have been getting younger and younger, and a majority of our board members are now women,” Hernandez said. “But there is still very much a Cuban-American identity in the younger generations.”
Long before the thawing of U.S-Cuba diplomatic relations began in December 2014, CABA has been a consistent advocate for human rights in Cuba. “The freedoms we take for granted, they simply don’t have,” Hernandez said. “Also, the practice of law is very different there, because an attorney’s first allegiance is to the state and the communist party – not the spirit of justice.”
Looking ahead, Hernandez is “cautiously optimistic” about developments in Cuba, but says the state is still in control of major commercial and business opportunities. “We believe that CABA will continue to play an important role in the dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba, as an advocate for human rights, dignity and freedom.”