Women rule the legal profession in Cuba

For nine wonderful days in June, I had the distinct privilege of traveling to Cuba with several other law students from Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Law and our acting associate dean at the time, now Interim Dean Cindy Galway Buys.  Being allowed to travel to a country I have only been able to dream about going to was certainly the trip of a lifetime.  Little did I know when I enrolled at SIU Law that the school boasts one of the most unique study abroad programs in the country.  This program is a three-credit class called “Legal Globalization: Cuba” that meets daily during the early-summer intersession and concludes with a nine-day educational tour of Cuba.  As if merely going to Cuba was not exciting enough, the trip was tailored to the interests and education of law students.  We had three lengthy sessions, each in a different region of Cuba, where we were invited to attend presentations on the Cuban legal system given by Cuban lawyers themselves.  While each of the presentations was truly an invaluable learning experience, the one presentation that my group found to be the most fascinating was the one we attended in Cienfuegos that covered the roles of notaries, lawyers, and particularly women in the Cuban legal system.

Cienfuegos is a beautiful bay city on Cuba’s south coast that happens to be known for its majestically historic, colonial-era buildings.  It is in central Cuba, a few hours driving time south from the Cuban capital of Havana.  Cienfuegos’s features include cobblestone streets along with a quintessential town square situated in the center of the city.  Amidst all these visual reminders of its rich history, daily life in Cuba is not much different than contemporary life in the US.  Cubans deal with many of the same legal problems that Americans and others around the world face daily.  What is uniquely Cuban is the way in which Cubans deal with and resolve their legal problems.   

Unlike the U.S., Cuba uses a combination of mainly Spanish and some influences of Roman law to a much lesser degree.  Cuban law is effectuated by judges and lawyers and unique to the Cuban judicial system is its use of “notarios.”  Don’t be misled by the term “notario” because it is a false cognate and wrong to assume that it means the same as notary or paralegal.  A U.S. notary has a completely different job than a Cuban notario does.  To become a notario, you must meet the following four criteria: must be a Cuban, must be a lawyer, must be appointed, and must pass the certification test with a score of eighty points or higher.  The city of Cienfuegos has eight municipalities and each one has between one to three notarios.  The main difference between attorneys and notatios is that attorneys represent one party and notarios work with both parties to ensure that they understand the transaction.  Notarios specifically deal with laws relating to natural persons and legal entities.  In particular, they work with documents and contracts, mainly certifying those documents.  Notarios work to fulfill the will of the parties involved and they serve as advisors, thoroughly explaining legal matters to those they assist.  Once an agreement is in place, the notarios and their staff will draft a document for the parties to sign that reflects what they have agreed to.  Notarios will go through the document with both parties, explaining each provision to ensure the parties know what they are agreeing to. The notario will then have the parties sign the document, the notario will place a seal on it, and will file it in court.  Notarios also have the unique job of securing the land by certificate and then filing it with the registration office.  Cubans recently gained the right to legally buy and sell real property outright and this creates a greater need for the drafting of legal contracts.  Due to the recent change in property ownership laws, notarios are in high demand in Cuba more now than ever.

One major difference between the legal systems in Cuba and the U.S. is who actually deals with and resolves the legal issues that arise.  In the U.S. where men have traditionally dominated the legal profession and the stereotypical lawyer is a mature man with grey hair, glasses, a suit and tie, carrying a briefcase, in Cuba the stereotypical lawyer is a woman with long hair, wearing a dress and heels, and carrying a purse.  Seventy-percent of all attorneys and judges in Cuba are women.  The overwhelming majority of notarios in Cuba are women.  For example, there is one male notario in the entire province where Cienfuegos is located.  The women lawyers we spoke to were quick to point out that the legal sector is not the only field of work in which woman dominate in Cuba.  The Cuban health care industry and educational fields are predominantly female.  Cubans believe that one reason for this is because women are more sensitive to the needs of others and better suited for work in the public sector.  Another reason for the overwhelming majority of women in public service is a result of the Cuban government’s emphasis on gender equality, which was an initiative of Fidel Castro and his regime. 

One of Fidel Castro’s social initiatives for the Cuban people was to balance out the gender inequalities that existed in Cuba at the time of the 1959 revolution.  Fidel and his political colleagues were outraged at the way in which women were being treated as sexual objects in Havana during the years of debauchery that occurred in the first half of the twentieth century.  He advocated that gender equality would be better not just for Cubans, but for society as a whole.  Fidel launched a campaign to promote social cohesion which would also allow him to further his socialist agenda.  In doing so, he fought against the mistreatment of women, promoted gender equality and an end to racism.  His plan worked and while Cubans are aware of their different skin tones and genders, they embrace each other as brothers and sisters and work together for a better life. 

Now after two generations of government-promoted gender equality, the number of women in the fields of engineering are nearing that of men.  Additionally, Cubans firmly believe that treating women equally and with respect is a moral and social obligation that will improve life for future generations.  Sexual violence and discrimination affect women but they also causes minors, such as children, to suffer greatly.  Young people often carry these resulting negative feelings throughout their life and often suppress these painful memories.  Typically, as they grow up, memories of violence and discrimination towards women manifest themselves in the form of bad behavior that these growing children typically display towards others.  This eventually leads to a breakdown of society.  To further build up a healthy and functional society, Cubans believe that treating women with kindness, respect and equality are paramount.  Women do the majority of child rearing.  When women are treated well, they are better mothers and better mothers raise happy and emotionally balanced children who will grow up to be good people, good parents and good citizens.  This cycle and the belief of paying it forward for the betterment of society is very important to Cubans and it shows in the way the women described their high level of satisfaction with their overall lives in Cuba.

Despite the history of tumultuous relations that exist between the United States and Cuba, we must remember that we are neighbors and we share the most fundamental element of being human.  When we can accept our differences and engage in a meaningful dialogue, the possibility to learn from each other exists.  This is when change for the better is possible.  Historically, American women in the legal profession have struggled with discrimination and equality because law is a male-dominated field.  This struggle does not need to continue and we can learn from our neighbor 90 miles to the south that life for women in the legal field can improve if everyone is committed to ending sexual discrimination.    


Elizabeth Reynolds is a second year law student at Southern Illinois School of Law.  She is the proud mother of two loving and supportive children, Frankie and Ceci.  She would like to thank Dean Cindy Buys for the making the SIU Law Cuba trip possible and for being the type of leader that so many of the women at the law school admire. 

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December 2018Volume 24Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)