The song has travelled the world, and is recognizable worldwide as a classic Cuban folk tune about a local girl.
Except that’s not what it was always about.
Although the song was first written by José Fernández Diaz around 1929, the modern lyrics can be traced back to a poem, Versos Sencillos, written by a Cuban nationalist named José Martí (1853-1895).
Martí, who studied law in Spain while in exile from Cuba, served as joint consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina in New York in 1881. He actively lobbied for Cuban independence from American ambitions to annex the island.
The political nature of the poem is frequently overlooked,
Y antes de morirme quiero
Echar mis versos del alma
[And before I die I want
To pour out my verses from my soul]
The deeper meanings beyond a forbidden love with a girl from Guanatanamo Bay were frequently invoked during the Spanish-American War (1898), the Cuban-American Treaty (1903), all the way up to the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), when the song entered the mainstream through the peace movement.
But Guantanamo Bay has a different legal meaning in today’s world, and one of not unimportant significance.
Both lawyers are representing child soldiers held at Guantanamo Bay; Frakt as a military lawyer for an illiterate Afghan teen named Mohammed Jawad, and Edney for the only known Canadian citizen at Guantanamo, Omar Khadr.
Frakt explained to me the legal blackhole that has been created by Guantanamo. Two-thirds will never be charged with any offences, and therefore cannot effectively challenge their detention in any way. For the remaining third, there are enormous discovery issues, and limitations that prevent counsel from providing effective representation.
In addition to a legal system that doesn’t resemble anything ever known to the common law, the lawyers have the difficulty of not having any precedent to draw from.
When Frakt related his client’s experiences he choked up with emotion. Despite not believing in suicide as a moral option, Jawad had considered it to escape the horrors of his situation.
Edney elaborated further on the type of conditions these individuals had to endure,
When being transported, they were not given any food for three days… They were given water only for a day and a half, just enough to sustain their bodies… the reason was so they did not use the toilet while in transit.
I suggest that if you were to treat any pet in this manner you would quickly be brought up on animal cruelty charges. And these people, these human beings, are being treated worse than animals.
In closing arguments earlier this year Frakt stated,
February 7, 2002. America lost a little of its greatness that day. We lost our position as the world’s leading defender of human rights, as the champion of justice and fairness and the rule of law. But it is a testament to the continuing greatness of this nation, that I, a lowly Air Force Reserve Major, can stand here before you today, with the world watching, without fear of retribution, retaliation or reprisal, and speak truth to power. I can call a spade a spade, and I can call torture, torture.
Edney was quite clear that Canada was complicit in this abuse, and did not allow Harper any reprieve for his inaction. He is currently bringing a suit against him for it (n.b., he does hold Liberals just as responsible).
Both indicated that this is the legal issue of our generation. Frakt suggested that just as Japanese internment was recognized retrospectively as a xenophobic overreaction, so will many of the measures currently undertaken be sorely regretted in hindsight.
And that’s why I’m going on for so long about this, because as legal professions it is something that should be on the forefront of our minds. The Canadian Bar Association has come out in support of this issue, but there is more that all of us can do.
So what are the reasons for inaction in Canada?
Few of us would willingly espouse the philosophy expressed by Martí’s closing lines,
Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar
[With the poor people of the earth
I want to share my fate]
As a law student I don’t have to concern myself as much with those considerations right now, and can get away with highly opinionated pieces. And a firm too afraid to take on this issue probably wouldn’t do a very good job advocating for any client in the face of adversity.
I take my inspiration from Rabbi Hillel, a lawyer and teacher of the 1st c. CE, and it’s something I feel that can motivate us all beyond any threats by the executive office of another country.
- If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
- And if I am for myself alone, what am I?
- And if not now, when?