Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution.
- A new constitution was approved in a February national referendum that included a historic number of abstentions and “no” votes. The charter maintained the one-party state and socialist management of the economy, but contained some modest changes, including the recognition of private property.
- Miguel Díaz-Canel, who had served as president of the Council of Ministers and head of Council of State since April 2018, took on the newly created post of president of the Republic in October. In December, he appointed Manuel Marrero as Cuba’s prime minister. Raúl Castro, who left the presidency in 2018 after two five-year terms, continues on as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) until 2021.
- New laws approved during the year legalized electronic surveillance and banned citizens from hosting web content on foreign servers, effectively placing all independent digital media outlets in greater legal jeopardy.
- Cubans took advantage of the availability of third-generation (3G) mobile data service to criticize government policies and confront ministers via social media, using popular hashtags linked to periodic public protests, including ones demanding lower internet prices and calls to abstain from voting or vote against the new constitution.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
Every five years, the National Assembly designates the members of the Council of State through a noncompetitive process. This body in turn appoints the Council of Ministers in consultation with its president, who until recently had served as both chief of state and head of government.
The new constitution approved by voters in February 2019 separated these roles, creating the post of president of the republic, to which Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected in a nearly unanimous National Assembly vote in October 2019. In December, he appointed long-serving tourism minister Manuel Marrero as Cuba’s first prime minister in 40 years; he will lead the Council of Ministers and oversee daily government affairs. In a surprise to many who had expected someone younger, 75-year-old National Assembly head Esteban Lazo took on the role of head of the Council of State. The new constitution sets a limit of two consecutive five-year terms for the presidency, as well as an age limit of 60 years for the start of a president’s first term.
Raúl Castro, having served as president since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, stepped down in April 2018. However, Castro continues to wield considerable power as first secretary of the PCC—a post he will hold at least until 2021.
A significant process of generational transition and partial decoupling of top party and government posts continued during 2019 with the final members of Cuba’s “historic” generation stepping down from the Council of State, including the powerful long-time hardline stalwarts Ramiro Valdés (87) and Guillermo García Frias (91). In the October reshuffling, the Council of State shrank to 21 members, from 31 previously, with 4 new people joining and 14 departing.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
In the 2018 National Assembly elections, held in March, voters were asked to either support or reject a single PCC-approved candidate for each of the unicameral body’s 605 seats. All candidates were elected. Subsequent elections in 2019 have been restricted to the members of the National Assembly and serve as virtually unanimous ratification exercises of single preselected candidates.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The only Cuban elections that offer a choice of more than one candidate per office are those for municipal assemblies, but no campaigning is allowed. This did not change under the new electoral laws that are slated to follow ratification of the new constitution, which was approved in a February national referendum that included a historic number of abstentions and “no” votes. On the occasion of constitutional referendum and again later during the October National Assembly vote ratifying Miguel Díaz-Canel as president of the republic, numerous dissident group headquarters were raided and independent journalists intimidated or placed under extrajudicial house arrest to prevent their interfering with or even witnessing the polls.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Political parties other than the PCC are illegal. Political dissent is a punishable offense, and dissidents are systematically harassed, detained, physically assaulted, and imprisoned for minor infractions. Supposedly spontaneous mob attacks, known as “acts of repudiation,” are often used to silence political dissidents.
The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH), a nongovernmental organization based in Madrid, reported 3,157 arbitrary arrests of peaceful opponents during 2019, a notable increase over the 2,525 in 2018. OCDH indicates that these detentions normally took place without legal oversight and were often “accompanied by home raids, fines, confiscation of belongings, beatings, and threats.” Such brief politically motivated detentions of political dissidents and independent journalists were a key repressive tactic under the government of Raúl Castro, and have continued in a similar fashion under Díaz-Canel.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
The PCC and the Castro brothers in particular have dominated government and politics in Cuba since 1959, allowing no transfer or rotation of power between rival groups. While the unprecedented attempt by dissident groups to field independent candidates in the 2017 municipal elections was aimed at challenging the PCC’s monopoly, the authorities’ successful campaign to block opposition candidacies ensured that no independent candidates made it on the ballot.
Similarly, both the February 2019 constitutional referendum and the October National Assembly election of the president saw a substantial mobilization of Cuba’s repressive apparatus to block oppositional organizing.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
The authoritarian one-party system in Cuba largely excludes the public from any genuine and autonomous political participation. The military and intelligence agencies play an important role in suppressing dissent and wield deep influence over virtually every aspect of the state. Several members of the extended Castro family hold important government positions, though none (apart from PCC first secretary Raúl Castro) were granted seats on the PCC’s Central Committee during the Seventh Party Congress in 2016, and none currently serve on either the Council of Ministers or the Council of State.
State employees who express political dissent or disagreement with the authorities often face harassment or dismissal. Professionals dismissed from their jobs in the state sector have difficulty continuing their careers, as licenses for professions are not available in the private sector.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
The PCC leadership has exhibited greater gender and racial diversity in recent years. However, since political rights are denied to all Cuban citizens, women and members of minority groups are unable to choose their representatives or organize independently to assert their political interests.
At the 2016 party congress, the proportion of women on the PCC Central Committee rose to 44.4 percent, from 41.7 percent in 2011. Afro-Cubans accounted for 35.9 percent, up from 31.3 percent in 2011. Women also now hold more than half of the 605 National Assembly seats and make up almost half of the 31-member Council of State; Cubans of African and mixed-race descent make up about half of each body. Half of Cuba’s six vice presidents are black, and three are women. Additionally, the Afro-Cuban Communist party stalwart Esteban Lazo simultaneously holds the powerful positions of National Assembly president (since April 2018) and head of the Council of State (since October 2019).
The political interests of LGBT+ people are not well represented. Some public advocacy is permitted, but only with the permission of the PCC.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
None of Cuba’s nominally elected officials are chosen through free and fair contests, and major policy decisions are reserved for the PCC leadership in practice. The National Assembly, which the constitution describes as the “supreme organ of state power,” has little independent influence and meets for brief sessions only twice a year.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption remains a serious problem in Cuba, with widespread illegality permeating everyday life. The state enjoys a monopoly on most large business transactions, and there are no independent mechanisms to hold officials accountable for wrongdoing.
During his 10 years as president, Raúl Castro prioritized the fight against corruption; a new comptroller general was installed, and long prison sentences were imposed on high-level Cuban officials and foreign businessmen found guilty of corruption-related charges. However, the government has not enacted internal reforms that would make the system more transparent and less prone to abuse, nor does it allow civil society groups, journalists, or courts to serve as external checks on its authority.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Cuba lacks effective laws that provide for freedom of information and access to official records. Major state events frequently take place behind closed doors.
In October 2019, a group of nearly 20 independent island-based digital media outlets published an open letter to the government demanding greater access to information so they could respond effectively to “the right of Cuban citizens to information of public interest.” They also demanded that the “government put at the disposition of the citizenry and journalists all the information generated by its diverse branches of power, including data that is open, free, complete, timely, permanent, and primary in order to facilitate citizen oversight.” These demands were ignored by the government.
|Are there free and independent media?
The formal media sector is owned and controlled by the state, and freedom of expression is not constitutionally guaranteed. The independent press is illegal, its publications are considered “enemy propaganda,” and its journalists are frequently harassed, detained, and prohibited from traveling abroad. Government agents routinely accuse them of being mercenaries, and many face charges of “usurpation of legal capacity,” or “diffusion of false news.”
Despite these obstacles, independent digital media outlets have continued to emerge in recent years, and to exhibit greater boldness, unity, and professionalization. However, there have also been stepped-up state efforts to repress, legally undermine, and discredit them. Both the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Press Association issued detailed 2019 reports criticizing the government for its crackdown on the island’s emergent independent press, and for the new constitution’s failure to guarantee freedom of the press or expression. Additionally, Decree Law 370, enacted in 2019, bans Cuban citizens from having information hosted on foreign servers, in effect further restricting the independent digital press. In partial response to these measures, a group of independent journalists issued an unprecedented declaration demanding legalization and the repeal of abusive media laws. The declaration also enumerated the common aggressions they are subject to including arbitrary detentions, interrogations, intimidation, home raids, prohibition of foreign travel, sexual assault, cyberattacks, defamation, and the confiscation of equipment. Leading independent journalists targeted with house arrest or foreign travel bans during 2019 include Luz Escobar, Yoani Sánchez, and Reinaldo Escobar of 14ymedio; Abraham Jiménez Enoa of El Estornudo; Maykel González Vivero of Tremenda Nota; Elaine Díaz of Periodismo de Barrio; and José Jasán Nieves Cárdenas of El Toque.
A small but growing percentage of the population has access to the internet, thanks to expanded government access via a network of pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi hotspots and 3G mobile access, launched in December 2018. Nearly 100,000 Cubans also now have paid home-based access. In 2019, Cubans took advantage of the availability of 3G service to criticize government policies and confront its ministers via social media, using popular hashtags linked to periodic public protests including a demand for lower internet prices and calls to abstain from voting or vote against the new constitution.
Still, shoddy service has made using these online services frustrating, and high prices place them out of reach for most. In response, multiple innovative workarounds have appeared, such as el paquete, an affordable compendium of digital data that circulates on the entire island.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom has improved over the past decade, but official obstacles still make it difficult for churches to operate without interference. Given its positive role in US-Cuban diplomatic talks, the Roman Catholic Church has enjoyed an expansion of its pastoral rights, including periodic access to state media and public spaces and the ability to build new churches and distribute its own publications. Protestant and evangelical groups tend to face greater restrictions, though they too have experienced improved conditions in recent years.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is restricted in Cuba, and private schools and universities have been banned since the early 1960s. Teaching materials often contain ideological content, and educators commonly require PCC affiliation for career advancement. University students have been expelled for dissident behavior. Despite the elimination of exit visas in 2013, university faculty must still obtain permission to travel to academic conferences abroad, and officials often prevent dissident intellectuals from attending such events. Officials also deny entry to prominent intellectuals who have been critical of the regime. One notable case was the November 2019 banning of academic Ted Henken from a University of Havana conference, at which he had been accepted to present his work about a Cuban art and community outreach project. Additionally, there were numerous cases in 2018 and 2019 of academics being expelled from their jobs for their political opinions or activities, including Omara Ruiz Urquiola, José Raúl Gallego, and René Fidel González García. In mid-2019 of Cuba’s vice minister of higher education, Martha del Carmen Mesa Valenciano, declared that “whoever doesn’t feel they are an activist of our party’s revolutionary policy, an advocate of our ideology, our morale, our political convictions, must renounce their position as a university professor.”
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Cubans often engage in robust private discussions regarding everyday issues like the economy, food prices, foreign travel, and difficulties gaining internet access, but they tend to avoid discussing more sensitive political issues such as human rights and civil liberties. Neighborhood-level “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” assist security agencies by monitoring, reporting, and suppressing dissent.
In 2019, government monitoring of social media was reflected in efforts to restrict debate on the new constitution through authorities’ active manipulation of online Twitter discussions using bots, false accounts, trolls, and even the takeover of some dissident accounts.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Restrictions on freedom of assembly remain a key form of political control. Security forces and government-backed assailants routinely break up peaceful gatherings or protests by political dissidents and civic activists.
The new constitution limits the rights of assembly and association to prevent their exercise “against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State.” While some of the harsher language banning independent or opposition gatherings was eliminated, the new charter still qualifies the right to assembly by requiring that it be exercised “with respect to public order and in compliance with the precepts established by the law.”
An independent LGBT+ march in May 2019 was banned, and participants were arrested when it went forward anyway.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
Based on the 1985 Law on Associations, the government refuses to register any new organization that is not state supervised. Nearly all politically motivated short-term detentions in recent years have targeted members of independent associations, think tanks, human rights groups, political parties, or trade unions.
A number of independent civil society organizations suffered repression during 2019, with some activists detained on arbitrary charges, prevented from traveling abroad, or forced into exile. The dissident groups most commonly persecuted by the government include the Ladies in White, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), the United Anti-Totalitarian Forum (FAU), and the Cuban Association of Electoral Observers (ACOE). Particularly noteworthy in 2019 was the suspension of activities of the independent think tank Cuba Posible following an intensive intimidation campaign against its leaders, and threats against prominent LGBT+ and environmental activist Isbel Díaz Torres, who has been forced into exile.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Cuban workers do not have the right to strike or bargain collectively, and independent labor unions are illegal.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
The Council of State has full control over the courts, whose rulings typically conform to the interests of the PCC. Judges are tasked with enforcing laws on vaguely defined offenses such as “public disorder,” “contempt,” “disrespect for authority,” “pre-criminal dangerousness,” and “aggression,” which are used to prosecute the regime’s political opponents. In May 2019, Cuban Supreme Court president Rubén Remigio threatened to apply Law 88 (known to critics as the “muzzle law”) to anyone who “collaborates with foreign media” against the Revolution.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Multiple legal cases against dissidents illustrated the systematic violation of due process. These included the systematic persecution of activist and UNPACU leader José Daniel Ferrer, who was arrested multiple times during 2019 and held incommunicado for over a month in October and November, in violation of habeas corpus. Eduardo Cardet, a Christian Liberation Movement leader who had been imprisoned for over two-and-a-half years on political charges following the death of Fidel Castro, was released in May but remains on probation, which permits authorities to return him to prison arbitrarily. Because his freedom is conditional, Amnesty International (AI) continues to list him as a prisoner of conscience. Additionally, AI named five new prisoners of conscience in August 2019, most of whom have been imprisoned under laws used to silence dissent, such as those banning “resistance,” “public disorder,” “contempt,” and “dangerousness.”
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
Opposition activists, human rights defenders, and other perceived enemies of the regime are routinely subjected to public assaults as well as abuse in custody. For example, during the various raids on the homes of UNPACU dissidents during the years, police commonly used excessive force in entering homes and physically assaulted various activists while confiscating their belongings, without providing any legal documentation for the seizures.
The government has repeatedly refused to allow international monitoring of its prisons. Prison conditions are poor, featuring overcrowding, forced labor, inadequate sanitation and medical care, and physical abuse.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Women enjoy legal equality and are well represented in most professions, though their labor force participation rate stands at about 40 percent, suggesting persistent economic disparities and cultural double standards.
While racial discrimination has long been outlawed, Cubans of African descent have reported widespread discrimination and profiling by police. Many lack access to the dollar economy. A recent survey found that 78 percent of hard-currency remittances sent to the island from abroad go to white Cubans, leaving Afro-Cubans at an even greater disadvantage.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal in areas such as employment and housing, and Mariela Castro Espín, Raúl Castro’s daughter and the director of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), has advocated on behalf of LGBT+ people. However, the advocacy efforts of independent LGBT+ groups are either ignored or actively suppressed.
Article 42 of the new constitution extends protection from discrimination to a wider array of vulnerable groups, explicitly adding categories such as ethnic origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and disability to the existing safeguards regarding race, sex, national origin, and religion.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
Freedom of movement and the right to choose one’s residence and place of employment are restricted. Cubans who move to Havana without authorization are subject to removal. Some dissidents and journalists are barred from foreign travel, despite a 2013 migration law that rescinded Cuba’s exit visa requirement. Cubans still face extremely high passport fees, and Cuban doctors, diplomats, and athletes who “defect” are barred from visiting for eight years.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Private employment opportunities remain restricted, though the new constitution recognized private property. While the number of Cubans licensed as “self-employed” reached an unprecedented 617,974 by November 2019, in July of the previous year the government issued a 129-page compendium of new regulations designed to rein in the nonstate sector, curbing “illegalities” and preventing the private concentration of wealth and property. In August 2019, the government issued Decree-Law 366, which is designed to halt the growth of nonagricultural cooperatives—indicating that an experiment that began 5 years earlier had run its course. In October 2019, the government authorized the importation of goods from abroad to a handful of businesses on the island. However, it is as yet unclear whether the measure will facilitate business for the island’s small private sector, or is more intended to undercut the lucrative dealings of Cuban “mules,” who travel abroad frequently in order to return and resell scarce merchandise.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Individuals enjoy broad freedom in their interpersonal, romantic, and sexual relationships. While divorce is common, men and women enjoy equal rights to marital goods and child custody. The new constitution does not contain language that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman (as in the past), raising the possibility that same-sex marriage could be legalized in the future. A proposed change that would have more explicitly supported legalization was ultimately rejected. Abortion is legal in Cuba.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Average official salaries remain extremely low. The national currency is very weak, encouraging an exodus of trained personnel into the private and tourism sectors, where the convertible peso—pegged to the US dollar—is used. Cubans employed by foreign firms are often much better remunerated than their fellow citizens, even though most are contracted through a state employment agency that siphons off the bulk of their wages and uses political criteria in screening applicants.
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Global Freedom Score12 100 not free
Internet Freedom Score20 100 not free