Cuba

Not Free
13
100
PR Political Rights 1 40
CL Civil Liberties 12 60
Last Year's Score & Status
14 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

Cuba’s one-party communist state 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.

header2 Key Developments in 2020

  • The government achieved some success in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, reporting just 145 deaths to the World Health Organization by year’s end, but the global crisis took a heavy toll on the economy. In July, partly in response, the government announced that it would liberalize rules regulating the tiny private sector, including by allowing private businesses to trade more freely and obtain legal status as enterprises, eliminating the restrictive list of permitted occupations for self-employment, and expanding experiments with nonagricultural cooperatives.
  • The government at times cited the pandemic to justify crackdowns on dissident gatherings. In November, when members of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI)—a collective of dissident artists—gathered and went on hunger strike to protest the arrest of rapper Denis Solís, police violently detained them on the pretext of controlling the spread of the coronavirus. This led to a sit-in by numerous artists and intellectuals at the Ministry of Culture. While the government initially agreed to negotiate with the group, protest participants later reported police harassment, intimidation, and charges of violating health restrictions.
  • During the year, the government continued to expand its list of so-called regulados, the more than 200 Cuban citizens who are not allowed to travel abroad due to their dissident political activities, human rights advocacy, or practice of independent journalism. The government also stepped up interrogations, threats, detentions, raids, and exorbitant fines targeting independent journalists and activists who publishing critical stories on foreign websites or social media.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

Under the 2019 constitution, the president and vice president of the republic are chosen to serve up to two five-year terms by the National Assembly, and the prime minister and other members of the Council of Ministers are designated by the National Assembly upon the proposal of the president. In practice, these processes ratify candidates who have been preselected by the ruling Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).

Miguel Díaz-Canel was elected as president of the republic under the new constitutional system in a nearly unanimous National Assembly vote in October 2019. In December of that year, he named Manuel Marrero as prime minister. Díaz-Canel had been the president of the Council of State, Cuba’s top executive office under the old constitution, since 2018, when he succeeded Raúl Castro in a tightly controlled transfer of power. However, Castro, who had succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, continued to wield considerable power as first secretary of the PCC as of 2020.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

The unicameral National Assembly is directly elected to serve five-year terms, but a PCC-controlled commission designates all candidates, presenting voters with a single candidate for each seat. Those who receive more than 50 percent of the valid votes cast are deemed elected. The National Assembly in turn selects the 21 members of the Council of State, a body that exercises legislative power between the assembly’s two brief annual sessions.

In the 2018 National Assembly elections, all 605 of the approved candidates were deemed elected.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0.000 4.004

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 law unanimously approved in 2019 following ratification of the new constitution, which retained the system of PCC-controlled electoral and candidacy commissions. However, the new law eliminated provincial assemblies, calling instead for municipal assemblies to approve provincial governors proposed by the president, and cut the number of National Assembly delegates to 474 as of the 2023 elections.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 0.000 4.004

The constitution identifies the PCC as the “superior driving force of the society and the state.” All other political parties 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 about 1,800 arbitrary detentions of peaceful dissidents during 2020. As has been typical in recent years, these detentions normally took place without legal oversight and were combined with 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 they have continued in a similar fashion under Díaz-Canel.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

The PCC has monopolized government and politics in Cuba since the mid-1960s, allowing no electoral competition and preventing any alternative force from succeeding it through a democratic transfer of power. Dissident groups mounted an unprecedented attempt to field independent candidates in the 2017 municipal elections, but the authorities successfully blocked their candidacies, ensuring that none of them appeared on the ballot. Similarly, security forces mobilized to suppress any opposition activity during both the February 2019 constitutional referendum and the October 2019 election of the president by the National Assembly.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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? 0.000 4.004

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. Members of dissident groups and even independent actors in the arts, journalism, and other fields are systematically surveilled and periodically interrogated in order to intimidate them or turn them into informants.

State employees who express political dissent or disagreement with the authorities often face harassment or summary 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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

The PCC leadership has exhibited greater gender and racial diversity in recent years. However, since political rights are denied to all Cuban citizens, women, Afro-Cubans, and members of other demographic 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; Cubans of African and mixed-race descent make up about half of the assembly. The Afro-Cuban PCC stalwart Esteban Lazo simultaneously holds the powerful positions of National Assembly president and head of the Council of State.

The political interests of LGBT+ people are not well represented. Some public advocacy is permitted, but only with the permission of the PCC. The only openly gay member of the National Assembly, Luis Ángel Adán Roble, stepped down in November 2019 after a rift with the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), an institution headed by the daughter of Fidel Castro that seeks to control and direct LGBT+ advocacy.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

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, meets for brief sessions twice a year, and votes unanimously on nearly all matters before it.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1.001 4.004

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.

The government has at times pursued anticorruption campaigns, and long prison sentences have been imposed on high-level Cuban officials and foreign businessmen found guilty of corruption-related charges. However, internal reforms that would make the system more transparent and less prone to abuse have been rejected, and the authorities do not tolerate civil society groups, independent journalists, or independent courts that might serve as external checks on government malfeasance.

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated economic hardship, state media publicized an official crackdown on illegal commercial activity that featured a distinct lack of due process.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

Cuba lacks effective laws that provide for freedom of information and access to official records. Major state events frequently take place behind closed doors, and the government withholds many types of statistics from the public. Most decisions surrounding the government’s response to the pandemic in 2020 were made and implemented without transparency or consultation.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

Cuba has one of the most restrictive media environments in the world. The formal media sector is owned and controlled by the state, and the constitution prohibits privately owned media. The country’s independent press operates outside the law, its publications are considered “enemy propaganda,” and its journalists are routinely harassed, detained, interrogated, threatened, defamed in the official press, and prohibited from traveling abroad. Government agents regularly accuse them of being mercenaries and even terrorists, and many face charges of “usurpation of legal capacity,” “diffusion of false news,” or other vaguely defined offenses. For example, in September 2020, journalist Roberto Quiñones completed a one-year prison sentence after refusing to pay a fine for “resistance” and “disobedience” in custody; he had initially been arrested and beaten while covering a trial for the news website CubaNet.

Decree Law 370, enacted in 2019, bans Cuban citizens from hosting their writings on foreign servers—including social media platforms like Facebook—and prohibits the circulation of “information contrary to the social interest, morals, good customs, and integrity of people.” Authorities increased their use of the law against independent journalists during 2020, subjecting dozens of individuals to arbitrary arrests, fines, or confiscation of their devices. The crackdown frequently included threats against the journalists’ families as well as pressure to delete and discontinue their critical coverage of the government.

In addition to independent journalism, the government closely monitors and persecutes perceived dissidents within the artistic community, and has increasingly turned its attention to more mainstream artists and media figures who air independent or critical views. Members of the artists’ collective MSI—formed in response to Decree Law 349 of 2018, which requires Ministry of Culture approval for public and private cultural activities and bans artistic content based on ill-defined criteria such as harm to “ethical and cultural values”—were repeatedly harassed and intimidated during 2020. After rapper Denis Solís was arrested, tried, and sentenced to eight months in jail for “contempt of authority” in November, fellow MSI members organized protests and a hunger strike. The movement’s headquarters, at the Havana home of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, was besieged by the authorities, who ultimately raided the house and detained 14 people, citing violations of pandemic-related health restrictions. The next day, on November 27, a larger group of artists, writers, and supporters held a sit-in protest at the Culture Ministry, prompting the government to offer negotiations. Officials soon reneged on their promises, however, and in December the regime carried out a wave of extralegal house arrests, arbitrary detentions, and mob violence against leading independent journalists and artists associated with the movement. Some also had their phone and internet service cut off, and state media conducted smear campaigns against key journalists and outlets.

The intensified repression during 2020 was driven in part by the expansion of mobile internet service in recent years, as many Cubans have used their access to share independent news and information, criticize government performance, and post popular hashtags associated with protests and dissidents. Solís was notably detained after posting a video on social media in which he confronted a police officer who had entered his home.

Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to an increase in the government’s use of detentions, house arrest, fines, harassment, and other reprisals to suppress independent journalism and expressions of dissent among artists and writers.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3.003 4.004

Religious freedom has improved over the past decade, but official obstacles still make it difficult for churches to operate without interference. Certain church groups have struggled to obtain registration, and association with an unregistered group is a criminal offense. 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.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0.000 4.004

Academic freedom is restricted in Cuba. 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. Recent years have featured numerous cases of academics being dismissed from positions in reprisal for their political opinions or activities.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1.001 4.004

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.

The authorities also monitor expressions of dissent on social media and through surveillance of electronic communications, punishing users with criminal charges or other forms of reprisal. Decree Law 389, approved in 2019, authorizes investigators to engage in electronic surveillance without prior judicial approval and use the resulting information as evidence in criminal cases. Anonymity and encryption technologies are legally prohibited, but many Cubans with mobile internet access use encrypted services such as WhatsApp and Telegram to communicate privately among trusted friends.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0.000 4.004

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.

During 2020, the government took advantage of the pandemic to expand its control over public assembly, exercising emergency powers without legal restraint and in some cases using the threat of contagion to justify raids on protests and dissident gatherings, as with the raid on MSI hunger strikers in late November. Although the action provoked an unprecedented day-long solidarity sit-in by more than 150 mainstream artists and intellectuals in front of the Ministry of Culture, many of the leading participants—and independent journalists who covered the movement—were later subjected to various forms of harassment and intimidation by the authorities.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

Citing 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 2020, with some activists detained on arbitrary charges, imprisoned, prevented from traveling abroad, or forced into exile. In addition to the MSI, 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).

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0.000 4.004

Cuban workers do not have the right to strike or bargain collectively, and independent labor unions are illegal.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

According to the constitution, the National Assembly controls judicial appointments and suspensions, and the Council of State exercises these powers when the assembly is not in session. The Council of State is also empowered to issue “instructions of a general character” to the courts, whose rulings typically conform to the interests of the PCC in practice. Judges are tasked with enforcing laws on vaguely defined offenses such as “public disorder,” “contempt,” “disrespect for authority,” “precriminal dangerousness,” and “aggression,” which are used to prosecute the regime’s political opponents.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

The regime’s systematic violation of due process is regularly illustrated by trumped-up criminal cases against dissidents and independent journalists, many of which were reported during or continued into 2020. They included cases against UNPACU leader José Daniel Ferrer, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, rapper Denis Solís, journalist Roberto Quiñones, and Silverio Portal, an activist who completed a four-year prison sentence for “contempt” and “public disorder” in December. While many political detainees are held for short periods or eventually released from prison, they remain subject to new charges and extralegal confinement or harassment by the authorities.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1.001 4.004

Although violent crime rates are believed to be relatively low, physical security for the population is undermined by government-backed violence. Opposition activists, human rights defenders, and other perceived enemies of the regime are routinely subjected to public assaults, excessive use of force by police during raids and arrests, and abuse in custody.

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.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1.001 4.004

Article 42 of the 2019 constitution extended 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. PCC control of the government and justice system limits their ability to enforce such guarantees impartially or effectively, and independent calls for equal treatment can draw state reprisals.

Women enjoy legal equality and are well represented in most professions, though their labor force participation rate lags well behind that of men, 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 2017–18 survey found that more than three-quarters of those receiving crucial remittances from abroad were White, 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 CENESEX, has advocated on behalf of LGBT+ people. However, the advocacy efforts of independent LGBT+ groups and activists are either ignored or suppressed.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1.001 4.004

Freedom of movement and the right to change one’s residence and place of employment are restricted. Cubans who move to Havana without authorization are subject to removal. Cubans still face extremely high passport fees, and Cuban doctors, diplomats, and athletes who “defect” abroad are prohibited from visiting for eight years. Some dissidents and journalists are barred from foreign travel, despite a 2013 migration law that rescinded the exit-visa requirement. The number of these individuals, known as regulados, rose sharply during 2020, with estimates exceeding 200 by late in the year.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1.001 4.004

The 2019 constitution recognized private property as one form of ownership, though opportunities to obtain property and operate private enterprises remain restricted. In 2020, the government’s largely successful measures to contain COVID-19, combined with the pandemic’s impact on the global economy, had a severe effect on the country’s fragile private sector. As of May, nearly 40 percent of the more than 600,000 licensed self-employed workers had temporarily closed their businesses due to public health–related constraints.

Partly in response to the crisis, the government in July announced plans for a series of economic reforms, including the legalization of small and medium-sized enterprises, the elimination of the restrictive list of permitted self-employment occupations, the opening of wholesale markets to self-employed workers, and a move to allow private businesses to import materials and export their products through state companies. In addition, the government said it would enable the growth of cooperatives outside the agricultural sector.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3.003 4.004

Individuals enjoy broad freedom in their interpersonal, romantic, and sexual relationships. While divorce is common, men and women have equal rights to marital goods and child custody. The 2019 constitution does not contain language that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, raising the possibility that same-sex marriage could be legalized in the future. A proposed constitutional change that would have more explicitly supported legalization was ultimately rejected. Abortion is legal in Cuba.

The country lacks specific legislation to address gender-based or domestic forms of violence, and police are reportedly unresponsive to complaints of such abuse.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1.001 4.004

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.

On Cuba

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  • Global Freedom Score

    13 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    21 100 not free