TAMPA — Adalberto Tosca had rendered aid to Fidel Castro's soldiers and was a close friend of a high-ranking general. That's why he was offered the role of presiding judge of the revolutionary tribunal that decided the fate of political prisoners, he said. All he had to do was carry out the sentence that would be decided — before trial — by then-defense minister and current President Raul Castro.
He declined, saying, "I am an attorney ... I need evidence.''
He suffered no consequences and worked as a lawyer for nine more years. But when authorities imprisoned his physician brother as a suspected CIA spy — "because he had married an American'' — Tosca felt they would soon come after him.
He asked for permission to leave the country and after months of waiting, it was granted. They made him leave all his assets, and Tosca figured he would also have leave behind his law career. He didn't have the means to go through law school in the United States, and because he had to work all week, he didn't have the time.
But his luck changed in 1973, when the Florida Supreme Court authorized a 21-month weekend training program at the University of Florida to acquaint Cuban lawyers with the U.S. system. Tosca was able to resume his career and continues his practice today, albeit on a limited basis.
On Tuesday, Tosca, 85, and retired Tampa lawyer Felipe Ramon Pacheco, 90, will be honored in a ceremony in federal court as part of the celebration of the 40th anniversary — last July, actually — of the start of the University of Florida Cuban-American lawyer program.
Between 1973 and 1976, about 200 Cuban lawyers went through the training program, designed to acquaint them with the English-based common law system used in the United States and how it applies to Florida law. The court authorized the program to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of Cuban immigrants arriving in Florida at the time. The court noted in its order that just 40 members of the Florida Bar were fluent in Spanish.
Pacheco said he doesn't quite see why he is being honored. "All I did was prepare myself to make a better living.''
Tosca has the answer: "We're the only two lawyers alive in Tampa'' who went through the program.
Tampa lawyer Luis Viera, vice president of the Tampa Hispanic Bar Association, which is organizing the event, offered more of a reason.
"These two men exemplify a generation of Cuban exiles who came here with nothing but the shirt on their backs and because of their own talent, spirit and initiative were able to live out the American dream.''
Plant City attorney Harley Herman, who wrote about Tosca, Pacheco and the Cuban-American lawyer program in Lawyer, the Hillsborough County Bar Association's magazine, said he first became interested when he was a law student at UF and saw notices posted for the Cuban lawyer classes.
Herman found it interesting that about 15 percent of the Cuban lawyers were women, about the same percentage of women enrolled in UF law school at the time — which to him indicated that women were practicing law in Cuba long before American women broke the barriers.
"They were more diverse than we were,'' he said.
Herman plans to be on hand Tuesday at noon for the ceremony and luncheon at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse. Also expected to attend are Ramon Abadin, president-elect designate of the Cuban American Bar Association, and retired state appellate Judge E.J. Salcines, who was influential in helping Tosca and others get started in the United States.
Pacheco, who left Cuba in 1964, practiced property, immigration and criminal law before retiring two years ago. He recalled the feeling of finally being able to open his own practice in the States.
"I was very satisfied,'' he said.
Before passing the Bar exam, he oversaw the law library and acted as a translator at Carlton Fields in Tampa. Before that, he served as assistant director of the law library at Cornell University in New York.
Tosca came to New York via Spain, after working the sugarcane and tobacco fields for seven months while he awaited permission to leave Cuba. Everyone who applied to leave had to work in the fields while they waited, he said. His brother, Carlos, who died six years ago, was eventually freed from prison and was allowed to leave Cuba after working off part of his sentence as a government doctor, Tosca said.
Tosca became a certified social worker and served as a translator and counselor in the psychiatric department of a New York hospital. He moved to Tampa in 1973 to take a similar job at St. Joseph's Hospital. His brother, who had become licensed as a doctor in this country, had a pediatric practice in Tampa. Tosca met Salcines through his brother, and the state attorney hired him, eventually putting him in charge of the office's criminal complaint intake division. Salcines also helped Tosca get into the Cuban lawyer program at UF and, after Tosca passed the Bar in 1975, hired him as an assistant state attorney.
"I was so relieved,'' he said. "I was so happy, you couldn't believe it.'
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.