HRW 2008 Cuba report
Events of 2007
Cuba remains the one country in Latin America that represses nearly
all forms of political dissent. There have been no significant policy
changes since Fidel Castro relinquished direct control of the
government to his brother Raul Castro in August 2006. The government
continues to enforce political conformity using criminal prosecutions,
long-term and short-term detentions, mob harassment, police warnings,
surveillance, house arrests, travel restrictions, and politically-
motivated dismissals from employment. The end result is that Cubans
are systematically denied basic rights to free expression,
association, assembly, privacy, movement, and due process of law.
Legal and Institutional Failings
Cuba's legal and institutional structures are at the root of rights
violations. Although in theory the different branches of government
have separate and defined areas of authority, in practice the
executive retains control over all levers of power. The courts, which
lack independence, undermine the right to fair trial by severely
restricting the right to a defense.
Cuba's Criminal Code provides the legal basis for repression of
dissent. Laws criminalizing enemy propaganda, the spreading of
"unauthorized news," and insult to patriotic symbols are used to
restrict freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state
security. The government also imprisons or orders the surveillance of
individuals who have committed no illegal act, relying upon provisions
that penalize "dangerousness" (estado peligroso) and allow for
"official warning" (advertencia oficial).
In July 2007 the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, a respected local human rights group, issued a list of
240 prisoners who it said were incarcerated for political reasons. The
list included the names of 12 peaceful dissidents who had been
arrested and detained in the first half of 2006, five of whom were
being held on charges of "dangerousness." Of 75 political dissidents,
independent journalists, and human rights advocates who were summarily
tried in April 2003, 59 remain imprisoned. Serving sentences that
average nearly 20 years, the incarcerated dissidents endure poor
conditions and punitive treatment in prison.
While the number of political prisoners has decreased in the last
year, this decrease cannot be attributed to leniency or policy change
on the part of the government. The political prisoners who were
released had already served out their full sentences. In September
2007, approximately 30 activists were arrested and held for 24 hours.
According to one of the released prisoners, Jorge Luis Garcia Perez–
who was released from prison in May 2007 after serving out a 17-year
sentence–the prisoners endured beatings, strip searches, and threats
of future arrest.
Travel Restrictions and Family Separations
The Cuban government forbids the country's citizens from leaving or
returning to Cuba without first obtaining official permission, which
is often denied. Unauthorized travel can result in criminal
prosecution. In May 2006 Oswaldo Payá, the well known Cuban human
rights advocate, was awarded an honorary doctor of laws by Columbia
University in New York City in recognition of his work. However, he
was denied an exit visa by the Cuban authorities and could not receive
the degree in person.
The government also frequently bars citizens engaged in authorized
travel from taking their children with them overseas, essentially
holding the children hostage to guarantee the parents' return. Given
the widespread fear of forced family separation, these travel
restrictions provide the Cuban government with a powerful tool for
punishing defectors and silencing critics.
Freedom of Expression and Assembly
The Cuban government maintains a media monopoly on the island,
ensuring that freedom of expression is virtually nonexistent. Although
a small number of independent journalists manage to write articles for
foreign websites or publish underground newsletters, the risks
associated with these activities are considerable. According to
Reporters Without Borders, 25 journalists were serving prison terms in
Cuba as of July 2007, most of them charged with threatening "the
national independence and economy of Cuba." This makes the country
second only to China for the number of journalists in prison.
Access to information via the internet is also highly restricted in
Cuba. In late August 2006 the dissident and independent journalist
Guillermo Fariñas ended a seven-month hunger strike in opposition to
the regime's internet policy. He began the strike after the Cuban
authorities shut down his email access, which he had been using to
send dispatches abroad describing attacks on dissidents and other
human rights abuses.
Freedom of assembly is severely restricted in Cuba and political
dissidents are generally prohibited from meeting in large groups. This
was evident in mid-September 2006 during the 14th summit of the Non-
Aligned Movement in Havana, when the Cuban government issued a ban on
all gatherings that might damage "the image" of the city.
Prisoners are generally kept in poor and abusive conditions, often in
overcrowded cells. They typically lose weight during incarceration,
and some receive inadequate medical care. Some also endure physical
and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates and with the acquiescence
Political prisoners who denounce poor conditions of imprisonment or
who otherwise fail to observe prison rules are frequently punished
with long periods in punitive isolation cells, restrictions on visits,
or denial of medical treatment. In October 2006, Juan Carlos Herrera
Acosta, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison following the
government's 2003 crackdown on dissidents, was beaten and placed in a
cell infested with rats and insects after demanding the right to
telephone his family. Some political prisoners have carried out long
hunger strikes to protest abusive conditions and mistreatment by
Under Cuban law the death penalty exists for a broad range of crimes.
It is difficult to ascertain the frequency with which this penalty is
employed because Cuba does not release information regarding its use.
However, as far as is known, no executions have been carried out since
Human Rights Defenders
Refusing to recognize human rights monitoring as a legitimate
activity, the government denies legal status to local human rights
groups. Individuals who belong to these groups face systematic
harassment, with the government impeding their efforts to document
human rights conditions. In addition, international human rights
groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are barred
from sending fact-finding missions to Cuba. Cuba remains one of the
few countries in the world to deny the International Committee of the
Red Cross access to its prisons.
Key International Actors
In June 2007, bowing to political pressure, the UN Human Rights
Council terminated the mandate of the UN expert charged with reporting
on human rights conditions in Cuba.
In December, the Cuban government announced its intention to ratify
the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The
ratification, if it occurs, would represent an important break from
Cuba's longstanding refusal to recognize these core human rights
The US economic embargo on Cuba, in effect for more than four decades,
continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and to
block travel to the island. An exception to the embargo that allows
food sales to Cuba on a cash-only basis, however, has led to
substantial trade between the two countries.
In an effort to deprive the Cuban government of funding, the United
States government enacted new restrictions on family-related travel to
Cuba in June 2004. Under these rules, individuals are allowed to visit
relatives in Cuba only once every three years, and only if the
relatives fit the US government's narrow definition of family–a
definition that excludes aunts, uncles, cousins, and other next-of-kin
who are often integral members of Cuban families. Justified as a means
of promoting freedom in Cuba, the new travel policies undermine the
freedom of movement of hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Cuban-
Americans, and inflict profound harm on Cuban families.
In January 2005 the European Union decided to temporarily suspend the
diplomatic sanctions that it had adopted in the wake of the Cuban
government's 2003 crackdown against dissidents. In June 2006, and
again in June 2007, the EU decided to renew the suspensions, but not
lift the sanctions outright. It offered to resume discussions with the
Castro government, stipulating that if it were to accept the
invitation, the Cuban government must be willing to discuss human
rights, political prisoners, and democracy. In response, the Cuban
foreign ministry indicated that Cuba would not participate in talks
unless the sanctions were fully dropped. Nevertheless, representatives
of the EU and Cuba held "informal, exploratory talks" at the United
Nations in September 2007 and agreed to meet again in early 2008.