Cuban American Bar Association
THE CUBAN AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION (CABA) IS AN ORGANIZATION THAT HAS SIGNIFICANT POLITICAL CLOUT. If a mayor in South Florida is up for reelection or a local judge is at risk of losing his seat on the bench, he is likely to look to CABA for support, whether he is Cuban American, African American or Anglo-Saxon.
What started as a handful of South Florida lawyers of Cuban descent supporting one another, as they faced professional discrimination, has developed into a powerful force sought after by judges, political figures, and highlevel executives in key industries. Thirty-six years after its inception, it is now the largest voluntary bar association in Florida with approximately 1,000 members. (In election years, membership swells to 1,800.)
Why All the Fuss?
CABA’s community involvement and political leanings make the organization stand out from other diversity associations. In addition to offering typical benefits like monthly newsletters and invitations to networking events, seminars, and educational opportunities, the organization helps bridge the gap between members and public figures through informal networking opportunities. One such example is its luncheon series that gives small groups of members intimate access to high-profile guests of honor, ranging from politicians to presidents of major banks.
Every August, CABA also holds a legislative luncheon where candidates running for elective office participate in a question-and-answer session. This year’s event was attended by every candidate running for Florida’s State House of Representatives and State Senate.
Manuel Garcia-Linares, managing shareholder of Richman Greer P.A. and president of CABA, explains that not only does the organization work hard to bring politicians and members together, but that an important goal of CABA is to inform the public about the qualifications of competing judicial candidates. “This year, a key goal is to educate the public on elections, both for the state legislature as well as judicial matters,” he explains. These efforts expand beyond its members to include public events like voter registration.
CABA is committed to ensuring that the bench is diverse, says Garcia-Linares, which necessitates that voters are informed about candidates’ stances on diversity. To supplement Q&A forums, it publishes an annual judicial poll in which members state their opinions on whether a particular judge takes diversity issues into account. “Judges are ranked on whether or not they treat minorities appropriately,” he explains, adding that CABA does not support voting for a judge simply because he or she is a minority, but whether he or she understands and respects diversity issues and perspectives.
“We need qualified judges,” Garcia-Linares adds, noting that this year every Hispanic and African American judge up for election in Broward County is being contested. “We are trying to prevent them from being voted off the bench,” he adds, noting that it is very difficult to get minorities appointed and/or reelected. Recently CABA teamed up with other minority bar associations to address the issue. “We joined them to create forums so general members of the public can listen to judges and see for themselves [who the candidates are and what they stand for].”
To further promote diversity in the judiciary and legislature, members of CABA have taken action like writing letters to the President of the United States or other government officials, and meeting with the governor of Florida about the urgent need to promote diversity. “Some individual members and [CABA] presidents have put their necks on the line and pushed for issues and legislation, as well as pushed to get certain judges elected and trying to oppose judges who were anti-minority,” Garcia-Linares says. Particularly powerful, he says, were efforts by two past presidents of CABA, Hector J. Lombana and Victor M. Diaz, Jr., who took strong positions against eliminating the election of judges in favor of appointment.
Taking a Stand
CABA doesn’t shy away from making its political agenda known. In fact, a major goal of the organization is to be involved with issues related to Cuba and human rights violations. If an issue comes up, CABA puts a committee together to see how they can act as a resource for the community. The organization takes a stand by putting out a position statement on public issues. It recently issued a statement to support the continued efforts of “dissidents, imprisoned political activists, Cuban exiles, the Cuban Catholic Church, and the international community to press the Cuban government to take concrete steps to demonstrate true respect and recognition of basic human rights.”
Another prong of its commitment to CABA’s community is pro bono work. It runs a clinic, called the CABA Pro Bono Project, Inc., that assists the poor and indigent community in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. In 1992, the project was nationally recognized as a Point of Light by President George H. W. Bush. Recently, CABA presented one of its past presidents with an award for taking on the greatest number of pro bono matters through the clinic. Also high on the organization’s priority list is its commitment to young lawyers. “We are always promoting and mentoring students,” Garcia-Linares says. The group also provides scholarships for law students at every law school in the state of Florida.
Respect and Influence
When it was founded 1974, one of CABA’s main issues was how judges were treating Cuban American lawyers. As its founding members tried to assimilate into a new country as professional lawyers, they were at times treated with disrespect. In court, judges made comments like “Come back when you can speak English properly.” They needed one another’s support as they struggled for respect. Now, it seems, not only do members of the organization have the support of one another, but the organization as a whole has the support—and respect—of the community at large.
Politicians welcome CABA’s luncheon invitations, key banks seek out sponsorship opportunities and several members are of non-Cuban descent. Though CABA itself as an entity does not endorse candidates running for elective office, candidates often contact Garcia-Linares or other members of the board and ask for personal endorsements.
“Lots of people want our support. Candidates want to meet with us. Now we are asked about issues,” Garcia- Linares says. “We are respected and we have been able to show that our members have political clout.” DB
Kara Mayer Robinson is a freelance writer based near New York City.
From the September/October 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®