International lawyer George J. Fowler III of Fowler Rodriguez speaks freely on Fidel Castro, maritime disasters and intestinal fortitude
Published in 2014 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
By Ross Pfund on December 26, 2013
Q: I understand that you were a refugee from Cuba to America when you were 9 years old.
A: On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro takes over the island and he starts killing people, and [my family fled to the U.S.] I spent the rest of my life building up this practice here and also spent a lot of time trying to bring him to justice.
I’ve tried to get indictments to him in many countries throughout the world, including Spain and the United States; tried to nab him a couple times. We almost got him but then he stopped flying around.
I work with various dissident movements, trying to support them, trying to empower them to get rid of the dictator. If you Google the Ladies in White, they’re the wives and mothers of [Cuba’s] political prisoners and they’re very brave.
I just published a book called My Cuba Libre: Bringing Fidel Castro to Justice. It’s on Amazon. The book is kind of a history of my family in Cuba. People say Fowler is not a Cuban name—it is. We were English people that came in a diplomatic position as consul of England to Cuba in the 1800s.
Q: You were one of Elián González’s lawyers.
A: My position was political—pro bono political. I’m the vice president and general counsel of the Cuban American National Foundation, which is the largest anti-Castro organization in the world.
I was a lawyer for Elián, trying to keep him in the country, battling Mr. Clinton and Janet Reno and the courts. I was on the news a lot: CNN, Burden of Proof, The Geraldo Rivera Show. My basic thrust was to educate the people of the United States on the fact that Fidel Castro is a criminal and he’s killed over 17,000 people and he’s tortured people. Even today this is going on.
Q: Was your desire to become a lawyer connected to your desire to help the people of Cuba?
A: I think so. My efforts against Castro by and large are [in the legal arena]. I went against The New York Times when they publicized false statements. I got a retraction from them on a statement they had made about the foundation.
Q: What does it take to be a successful international law attorney?
A: That’s my next book. I think you have to have a love of the world. I’m an American citizen, but I did kind of lose the home of my birth, which propelled me to go all over the world. You can’t be provincial and say, “Well, everything begins and ends in your hometown.”
You need the language skills. My first language was Spanish; I also speak French. With Spanish, English and French you can get around most of the world. I even had an office in Beijing because many years ago I had a Beijing law professor that became like an understudy to me.
Closely aligned to my international work is maritime law. I think that our firm is recognized as one of the top maritime firms in the world. We represent Carnival, which is about 50 percent of the cruise ships in the world. We represent Royal Caribbean—25 percent.
The firm has depth. We have a former submarine commander; we have many master mariners who are also lawyers. When there’s a disaster in the Western Hemisphere, we have a really good shot at being called. It’s very typical for there to be criminal prosecution in oil spills, so we’re engaged in defending against that.
Q: You’ve dealt with the governments of many different countries, such as Spain and Venezuela. What do you have to know when you’re going into a situation like that?
A: Understand that the legal system of the United States, while not perfect, is much less likely to be corrupt than [what] you see in Central and South America and Spain.
I just finished an 11-year-old criminal case in Spain, and its system didn’t apply the law properly. A few years back, I opened up the Tulane Latin American Law Institute to address corruption in Latin America in particular. I brought presidents, I brought countries, I brought lawyers, I brought businessmen to speak about their views on that. And my goal was and is to try to make sure these countries’ legal systems work not only on paper, but in reality; that they do provide, inform and adjudicate disputes in a fair and equitable manner.
Q: So it gives you a sense of perspective on the American legal system.
A: I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. The United States legal system is the best in the world, bar none. But it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. I’ve seen corruption here. [But] if I get to try a case in a federal court, I’ll have a [level] playing field.
Q: Some of the other cases you’ve worked on have been unique, involving mutiny, confiscated planes, sunken Spanish treasure …
A: Back in 1975, I was a young lawyer and wet behind my ears. That year I spent Christmas working on two cases. One was the mutiny that you mentioned. The Nyuta was an Israeli ship, and the crew had taken control and the ship owner hired us to help him. And so I ended up suing then-Attorney General Edward Levi. Ultimately, immigration took care of [the crew].
Simultaneously, I went to an investigation on a ship that sank [near New Orleans]. There were Greek officers and they were having this massive investigation. I went to the lower-ranking crew members—what they call the wipers—and I started talking to them because the lawyer’s agent had told me that he thought that ship had been sunk on purpose [to] cash in on the insurance. Because it sank in the deepest point and they got all the crew members out. I found that one of the officers actually was an expert in scuttling—intentional sinking—so I went to a London salvage, and I found his picture in five suspected scuttlings.
I was able to break the case because I spoke Spanish. I [asked a crewman to] give me a statement and he said he would. So I flew to Madrid and I got a statement from him, but he thought I was working for the ship owner and was going to kill him.
I was at the Ritz Hotel, and I said, “Come in with 20 of your friends to the lobby of the Ritz,” and he came. I said, “I won’t kill you.” I was against the Greek ship owner—I was for the Lloyd’s underwriters.
I would say that’s the kickoff of my career.
Q: Memorable Christmas for you. What do you know about your work now that you wish you knew when you started out?
A: I can tell you the three things that you need to be a good lawyer.
Number one, you have to work harder or be more diligent than your opposition. The second thing is intestinal fortitude, but in the vernacular; you have to have balls—whether you’re a woman or you’re a man, you’ve just got to have guts. Three, you’ve got to be daring and be willing to come up with theories the other guy didn’t think of. After all, you’re like a paid warrior. You really always have to be on the offense. So I say you fight with two swords, drop the shield, grab the other sword and you keep banging away. You’ll take some cuts, but if you’re always on the offense, the other side will always be on the defense.
Q: Tell me about your civil rights work.
A: I’ll tell you a story of a case against Jefferson Parish deputies for violations of civil rights when they beat up a Saints player, Brian Forde. The judge was Marty Feldman, one of the best judges we have in the country. I was cross-examining Sheriff Harry Lee and I said, “What you’re doing, stopping blacks on the streets [via racial profiling], is not constitutional.”
And he responded by saying, “Well, I don’t care. I’m going to keep on doing it.”
I won the case [and the judgment included] my attorney’s fees. I submitted my bill, and since I had a bunch of young lawyers that didn’t sleep for two nights, the hours were high—they had all worked hard—it was about $120,000. The sheriff’s lawyer said, “That’s an outrage. Lawyers that handle these cases don’t charge those kinds of rates.”
He went on and on about how wrong my request was. And the judge says, “Well, you’re absolutely right. This amount is wrong. It’s way too low. I’m going to increase it.” And he increased it.
Q: Be careful what you ask for.
A: Marty doesn’t fool around; he’s tough as nails. In the courtroom, the cops would threaten me. They were going, “How are you going to get to downtown to the airport, Mr. Fowler? We know you fly around a lot.”
I said, “I’ll drive right through.”
This interview has been condensed.
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