Defying Dictators

For the cause of human rights, Pedro Martinez-Fraga has sued Castro, Chávez, Pinochet and Aristide

Published in 2006 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By Kathie Klarreich on June 14, 2006


When Hurricane Wilma blew through South Florida in October 2005, damage was widespread. In office buildings overlooking Miami’s skyline, windows shattered like firecrackers, furniture collapsed like tinder and papers tumbled like raindrops. But 90-mile-an-hour winds weren’t about to slow down veteran lawyer Pedro J. Martinez-Fraga. Ever since he started practicing law in Miami in 1987, he has had to adjust to a variety of storms — political as well as environmental.

Martinez-Fraga makes little fuss about being displaced from his 17th-floor office after Wilma, though as an avid art collector, he bemoans not having his favorite pictures above his temporary desk: a painting of Napoleon and photos by the American photographer Edward S. Curtis of Geronimo, the fearless Apache warrior, and a young Navajo chief. These men serve as role models for Martinez-Fraga, whose personal mission statement is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

A self-described workaholic, Martinez-Fraga, a youthful-looking 45-year-old, admits that he makes no distinction between work and leisure — his waking hours are dedicated to enforcing and promoting universal human rights. A lover of Greek history and pure mathematics, he considers fighting for the disadvantaged not an academic question. His father, also a lawyer, spent 20 years in a Cuban jail as a political prisoner on charges of conspiring against the state. When he was just 5 years old Martinez-Fraga, along with his mother and two sisters, left Cuba for the United States; he didn’t meet his father until he was a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md.

“When my mom explained to me what a lawyer does, what my dad did, fighting for justice, that was extremely appealing,” Martinez-Fraga says, and from that very early age he knew he wanted to be a lawyer. But his first job, at 5, was shining shoes. It helped him later on, he says, because he learned how to defend himself. After he completed a job, some customers who then stepped into mud or out in the rain would return to him saying, “Hey, kid, you need to polish them again because you didn’t do a good job.” He would refuse to reshine their shoes unless they paid him again.

Martinez-Fraga graduated from Columbia Law School in 1987, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. He easily made the transition from being a full-time student to a full-time lawyer and has never looked back.

“Being available all the time is the only way I can be responsive to my clients’ needs,” Martinez-Fraga says. His list of clients, as well as credentials, is impressive. Fluent in Spanish, English and French, and able to read German and Greek, he was named the 2001 Lawyer of the Americas by the University of Miami Inter-American Law Review. As founder and chairman of Greenberg Traurig’s International Litigation and Arbitration Department practice, and co-chair of the firm’s National and International Practice Group in this field, Martinez-Fraga has represented people and businesses from Africa to Asia to the Caribbean. He is making the biggest splash, however, with his litigation against some of the most controversial leaders in Latin America, including Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez and Augusto Pinochet.

Martinez-Fraga is most proud of his case against the Cuban government involving Omar Rodríguez Saludes, a Cuban journalist dubbed by his colleagues as the country’s best street reporter. Saludes had been denounced by the Cuban government as being a counter-revolutionary and was barred from covering official events; he worked as an independent journalist until he was arrested — along with nearly 70 other dissidents — in a government crackdown in March 2003.

Saludes was tried and found guilty of conspiring to undermine the government of Fidel Castro. In April 2003, Martinez-Fraga filed a landmark suit on behalf of Saludes and his mother, arguing that Saludes had been unfairly incarcerated and denied due process. “It was the first time in the course of the 45-year Cuban dictatorship that anyone brought to trial a non-monetary case on behalf of a prisoner rotting in jail,” Martinez-Fraga says, his face tightening with emotion at the thought. Even without a judgment  Martinez-Fraga feels victorious because Saludes’ life was spared, he has already been transferred to a better prison facility, his visitation rights have increased and conditions for his family in Cuba have improved. “The case has already been won by providing a voice for the disenfranchised, for someone living in infrahuman conditions. My mission has been accomplished,” the lawyer says. “Just being in the fight helps saves lives.”

In contrast, Martinez-Fraga’s most frustrating case has been the one filed against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Martinez-Fraga, who also teaches international law at the University of Miami School of Law, filed a lawsuit against Chávez and 29 other defendants for an April 11, 2002, shooting in Caracas that resulted in the death of 19 protestors and the serious wounding of numerous others. The lawsuit charged, among other things, wrongful death, crimes against humanity, torture, assault and battery. The victims claimed that Chávez personally planned the attack on the demonstrators, who were seeking a referendum on his presidency.

Martinez-Fraga’s lawsuit was filed under an anti-piracy law that had lain dormant for nearly two centuries. But in 1980 the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law could be used by a foreign national in U.S. courts against another foreign national, even if the event being tried occurred outside the United States.

Martinez-Fraga says changes in the law pertaining to service of process and Venezuela’s disregard for international law caused him to leave the case. Short of a miracle or change in law, he does not expect to reopen it; nevertheless, he has no regrets because he believes it brought the case to the public eye and emphasized that no one is above the law.

Martinez-Fraga has had much better luck as the lead U.S. counsel for the Republic of Chile with respect to the prosecution of two cases against Augusto Pinochet, the former president and head of the Chilean Army. Martinez-Fraga has retrieved documents instrumental in Pinochet’s prosecution, which ultimately led to the discovery of millions of dollars in U.S. bank accounts — accounts Pinochet’s lawyers denied existed. Pinochet, 90, has been arrested and indicted and is now under house arrest. His lawyers claim he is too ill to go to trial.

“This kind of trial sends an important message,” Martinez-Fraga says. “At the end of the day, it’s about a person who abused power in the darkest form. The opposition doesn’t care if the party in power has right- or left-wing politics. I have gone after right-wing and left-wing leaders. Nothing is more important than saving lives or stopping torture. You have to show that criminal abuse of power will come back to haunt you. Accountability is what matters, whether you live in Miami, New York, Africa or the Caribbean. We live in a world without borders.”

In 2005 Martinez-Fraga married Miami lawyer Liza Riso in Seville, Spain, “because it’s the most romantic city on the face of the earth,” he says. He met Riso at a dinner party in 2002. “I used to think that the whole idea of ‘love at first sight’ was tacky, but it really does exist,” he says.

He has not, in his travels, ever met any of the presidential leaders he has prosecuted — deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pinochet, Castro or Chávez. “I would only care to meet them in the context of prosecution for their stark disregard for the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights attendant to all persons transnational,” he says.

He does, however, travel for adventure. While in Guatemala for a case, he took time to see the Mayan ruins and visit villages that have preserved ancient civilizations. His guide refused to take him into one such village because of alleged cannibalistic practices. Martinez-Fraga laughs, recalling the scene. “I thought long and hard about going on my own,” he says. “I like to get close to the fire. It’s how I practice law.

“There shouldn’t be a disconnect between the way you practice law and the way you live your life if you’re going to be genuine about both.”

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