Kentuckian awarded $27.5 million in lawsuit against Cuba

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 4, 2009 

MONTICELLO — A former southern Kentucky resident who says her son has been imprisoned and beaten for reporting on political dissent in Cuba has been awarded $27.5 million in her lawsuit against Cuba and its ruling Communist Party.

Olivia Saludes and her son, journalist Omar Rodriguez Saludes, filed the lawsuit in Miami against Fidel Castro; his brother Raúl, who is now president; Cuba; the Communist Party; and other government officials.

Olivia Saludes, 65, lived in Monticello and Albany for several years and once worked at a large chicken-processing plant in Clinton County, according to her brother, her attorney and phone records.

She now lives in Webster County in Western Kentucky, said her brother, Miguel Saludes Garcia.

Saludes said Thursday that she was pleased by the ruling because it will ensure "that the world knows" what has happened in Cuba.

Her attorney, Pedro J. Martinez-Fraga of Miami, said the ruling in the case sets an important precedent on collecting damages from Cuba and could help in efforts to free Omar Saludes Rodriguez.

"Cuba is in violation of human-rights law, international law," Martinez-Fraga said.

Martinez-Fraga said there is a perception that there's no way to collect damages involving nations with which the United States has little or no diplomatic relationship, but that's not true.

For instance, one way to collect is to take money from payments that entities in the United States owe to Cuba or to Cuban joint ventures, before the money leaves the states, Martinez-Fraga said.

He said Cuba also owns property in the United States that he could put a lien against. He said he's confident he'll get money for Saludes.

Olivia Saludes won the lawsuit by default after none of the defendants responded.

U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold ruled this week that Saludes should get $2.5 million in compensatory damages from Cuba and the Communist Party. Gold also awarded $25 million in punitive damages against the party — more than twice what Saludes had asked for.

"I have no doubt that the acts of the Cuban government are intended to oppress those in Cuba who seek to freely voice their opinions and ensure the suffering of their families, and that a punitive damage award of sufficient magnitude is needed to serve as a deterrent against similar acts in the future," Gold wrote.

The Associated Press reported that no one from a Cuban government office in Washington, D.C., responded to a request for comment on the ruling.

According to court documents, Omar Rodriguez Saludes was a journalist who had written articles about political prisoners and dissidents in Cuba.

Authorities arrested him in 2003, convicted him at a "sham" trial, and sentenced him to 27 years in prison, according to the lawsuit.

The International Press Institute said Saludes was arrested along with more than 20 other reporters in a government crackdown on political dissidents and independent journalists.

In prison, he has been beaten; given food containing dirt and worms and, in one case, a piece of meat with skin and hair still on it; put in solitary confinement; and deprived of medical care, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said his imprisonment has caused great emotional and financial hardship for his family. His daughter was 3 months old when he was arrested, and he has had little contact with her, the lawsuit said.

Olivia Saludes, who said she came to the United States in 2000 as a political refugee, said the Cuban government has denied her requests to visit her son.

She's had nightmares since her son was jailed, developed diabetes and other health problems that forced her to quit work, and she's had to live off money from her family, she said in a court document.

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