By Judge David M. Gormley
Every year since the 1950s, Congress and the President have designated the first day of May as “Law Day,” and they have encouraged Americans on that day to think about our country’s legal heritage and our political freedoms.
I had the opportunity earlier this year to spend a week thinking about those issues when I visited Cuba for the first time. Certainly the chance to wear shorts and to eat most meals outdoors in January was appealing, and I was fascinated to observe the many old American cars on the streets of Havana and to see firsthand the interesting mix of Spanish, African, Chinese, and native-Cuban cultures in the country, but I also spent much time that week thinking about how fortunate we are to live in the United States.
The people I met in Cuba are not free to criticize their one-party Communist government. The government-run newspapers and TV stations tell the people that there is no crime and no illegal-drug activity in Cuba, and no anti-government statements appear in print or on the air there. And Cuban citizens are not free to assemble publicly to speak out against their government or its leaders. For many years under their Communist system, citizens were not allowed to hold more than one job, to own any property, or even to celebrate Christmas.
To my surprise, the Cubans whom I met during my trip were universally friendly toward Americans. I assumed that they would be hostile toward us after hearing anti-U.S. propaganda from the Castro regime for more than 50 years. They were not. Instead, the people I met still seem grateful that our country helped Cuba to end centuries of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba in the late-1800s fight that we call the Spanish-American War, and Cubans today seem eager to interact with Americans and to listen to our music, watch our movies and TV shows, and buy the kinds of products that are available in U.S. stores.
And though they could not say so to me, I suspect that many of the Cubans I met would like to experience the kind of political freedoms that we take for granted here. They know that many families fled Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Communists came to power in Cuba, and they know that their economy has limped along for decades while many of their friends and relatives have prospered in the United States.
Seeing Cuba and meeting ordinary people there made me reflect on how fortunate we are to live where we do, and the experience left me with a fresh appreciation for our freedom in this country to speak out against our politicians and our government without fearing that we will be tossed into prison for doing so. Our political and economic system is far from perfect, but our ability to travel where we want, to say or print what we want, and to pursue the kinds of careers that we want in an economy that rewards creativity and hard work is something that many people in the world will never have a chance to experience. I feel fortunate that I had the chance this year to be reminded in another country that our own country and its legacy of cultural tolerance, political openness, and economic opportunity is a special place that rightly remains the envy of much of the world.
David Gormley serves as a judge on the Delaware Municipal Court. He previously worked for the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Ohio Attorney General’s office, the Delaware County Prosecutor’s office, a large Chicago law firm, and a federal appellate judge in Michigan. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1990.