It Takes a Cuban

After a legendary career as president of the Miami ACLU, John de Leon is heading even further south

You are about to move to one of the most dangerous nations in Latin America. Why?

This is going to be a learning experience for me as well as an opportunity to contribute. Colombia is in the middle of a civil war. In most other conflicts that I know of, people or countries reach a point of exhaustion and bankruptcy. This conflict is being subsidized by narcos, and the money is not going to end. [Also], you have the inequities found in any society in terms of problems of poverty and social injustice. [Colombians] have to confront those issues while being in the middle of a civil war.

I happen to think Colombians are correct in making the decision to provide justice to people, not having people languish in jails that are [below] international standards, and instituting innovations like alternative dispute resolution, and providing people with [the means to sue] the government for violations of constitutional rights.

I think that anything that can be done institutionally to ... undermine the factions that are trying to [destabilize] democracy [is hopeful.]

If Colombia is able to somehow deal with the problems it is going through, I think it can serve as a model for what can happen in other countries in Latin America, given the same pressures.

In a way the ACLU has a similar role, doesn't it?

I think so. The ACLU is probably one of the most conservative organizations in this country. When you empower people who are powerless, it only leads to a greater feeling of the legitimacy of the system.

What do you think will be your legacy from your tenure at the ACLU?

I think there has been a monolithic view by too many about what it means to be Cuban or Cuban American. Even a lot of the people who are conservative on the Castro issue or the Cuba issue unfortunately have been wrongly painted as individuals who don't understand what it means to live free and support freedom. To the extent that I have helped others understand that Cubans care about these issues whatever their political views, I hope it's given a greater insight about what it means to be Cuban American.

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