Cuba | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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The collapse of 74-year-old Cuban leader Fidel Castro at a long outdoor rally near Havana on June 23 centered attention in 2001 on the future of the island once the world's longest-ruling dictator passes from the scene. Increasing contact with the free-market world appeared to give a boost to Cuba's long-stagnant economy, at least until the September 11, 2001, terrorist bombings in the United States put a damper on international tourism generally, including travel by Europeans to Cuba's tourist destinations. Lower prices for sugar and nickel, two of the island's most important exports, added to economic planners' concerns. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon afforded Castro a rare opportunity to voice "solidarity" with the "people" of the United States and to condemn terrorism, while complaining about past attacks directed against Cuban civilian targets by Miami-based Cuban exiles. The Castro regime received an unexpected boost in October when U.S. coalition partner Great Britain voiced disagreement with Washington's continuing inclusion of the island on its list of terrorist states. In November, Hurricane Michelle, the most powerful tropical storm to hit Cuba in a half-century, left a low death toll but a trail of physical destruction, devastating Cuban crops. In the wake of the storm, the first direct food trade was permitted between Cuba and the United States since the latter imposed an embargo on the Communist-run island in 1962. On a positive note, at the end of 2001 Castro was reported to have urged Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group to reach a peace agreement with that country's government.

Cuba achieved independence from Spain in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. The Republic of Cuba was established in 1902, but was under U.S. tutelage under the Platt Amendment until 1934. In 1959, Castro's July 26th Movement--named after an earlier, failed insurrection--overthrew the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled for 18 of the previous 25 years.

Since then, Fidel Castro has dominated the Cuban political system, transforming it into a one-party state, with the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) controlling all governmental entities from the national to the local level. Communist structures were institutionalized by the 1976 constitution installed at the first congress of the PCC. The constitution provides for a national assembly, which designates a Council of State. It is that body which in turn appoints a Council of Ministers in consultation with its president, who serves as head of state and chief of government. However, Castro is responsible for every appointment and controls every lever of power in Cuba in his various roles as president of the Council of Ministers, chairman of the Council of State, commander in chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), and first secretary of the PCC.

Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of some $5 billion in annual Soviet subsidies, Castro has sought Western foreign investment. Most investment has come from Europe and Latin America. The legalization of the U.S. dollar since 1993 has heightened social tensions, as the minority with access to dollars from abroad or through the tourist industry has emerged as a new moneyed class and the desperation of the majority without has increased. State salaries have shrunk to $4 or less a month.

Under Castro the cycles of repression have ebbed and flowed depending on the regime's need to keep at bay the social forces set into motion by his severe post-Cold War economic reforms. For example, stepped-up actions against peaceful dissidents preceded the Fifth Congress of the PCC held in October 1997, as well as elections the same month to the National Assembly of Popular Power. Two small bomb explosions at hotels in Havana on July 13, 1997, also provided a pretext for action against peaceful opposition groups, which Cuban authorities tried to link to terrorist activities.

Neither the Fifth Congress, where one-party rule was reaffirmed, nor the one-party national elections provided any surprises. Castro proudly pointed to a reported 95 percent turnout at the polls; critics noted that nonparticipation could be construed by authorities as dissent and many people were afraid of the consequences of being so identified.

In the aftermath of the visit of Pope John Paul II, January 21--25, 1998, the number of dissidents confirmed to be imprisoned dropped nearly 400 percent, to 381 in mid-June 1998. Part of the decline was due to the release of 140 of 300 prisoners held for political activities or common crimes whose freedom was sought by the pontiff.

In February 1999, the government introduced tough legislation against sedition, with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. It included penalties for unauthorized contacts with the United States and the import or supply of "subversive" materials,including texts on democracy, by news agencies and journalists. A month later, a court used the new law in sentencing four well-known dissidents to prison terms of up to five years. Castro used the occasion of the Ibero-American summit, which was boycotted by several Latin American leaders, to lash out at Cuba's small band of vocal dissidents and members of the independent press.

U.S.-Cuban relations took some unexpected turns in 2000, against a backdrop of unprecedented media coverage of the story of the child shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez, who was ordered to be returned to his father after a lengthy legal battle involving emigre relatives in Florida. In response to pressure from U.S. farmers and businessmen who pushed for a relaxation of economic sanctions against Fidel Castro's island dictatorship, in October the United States eased the 38-year-old embargo on food and medicine to Cuba. However, the aging caudillo's grip on the island was anything but relaxed. Repression of the independent media and other civil society dissidents continued unabated, and Cuba's tightening of emigration policy increased the likelihood of high-risk escapes by boat from the island. In 2001, Cuba remains the western hemisphere's per capita leader in the practice of capital punishment.

Following Castro's fainting spell in June 2001, both the septuagenarian leader and other senior government officials dismissed rumors that he was in bad health and claimed neither chaos nor an end to the Communist regime would occur when he died. In July, residents of Havana were the subjects of a first-ever public opinion survey sponsored by the regime to determine grassroots satisfaction with the quality of government services provided. Declining educational opportunity, dissatisfaction with public health services and criticism of the national police were among the most frequent complaints. Cuba's tourism industry, which grew by 500 percent in the last decade and accounts for more than half the island's foreign exchange earnings, was hard hit in the global tourism free fall that was an outgrowth of the September 11 attacks. In October, the trial began for three Guatemalans jailed since 1998 on charges of allegedly participating in a Central American terror network that organized a series of bomb attacks on tourist locations in 1997 and 1998. The three confessed to the charges and face sentences ranging from 20 to 30 years. In November, relations between Havana and Washington appeared to thaw slightly, as Continental Airlines celebrated its first charter flight to the Cuban capital. The renewal of food sales in the wake of Michelle sparked further debate among farmers and others in the United States who want the embargo lifted, and Cuban exile groups and some democracy activists who demand even tougher sanctions. In early December, Cuban state security agents detained dozens of activists around the country who were attempting to hold meetings to protest Castro's continued rule and Cuba's one-party system.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cubans cannot change their government through democratic means. On January 11, 1998, members of the national assembly were elected in a process in which a reported 98.35 percent of 7.8 million registered voters turned out. There were only 601 candidates for an equal number of seats; opposition or dissident groups were forbidden to present their own candidates. Although the national assembly is vested with the right of legislative power, when it is not in session, this faculty is delegated to the 31-member Council of State elected by the assembly and chaired by Castro.

All political and civic organizations outside the PCC is illegal. Political dissent, spoken or written, is a punishable offense, and those so punished frequently receive years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions. There has been a slight relaxation of strictures on cultural life; nevertheless, the educational system, the judicial system, labor unions, professional organizations, and all media remain state-controlled. A small group of human rights activists and dissident journalists, together with a still-shackled Roman Catholic Church, provide the only glimmer of an independent civil society.

In Cuba the executive branch controls the judiciary. The 1976 constitution is remarkable for its concentration of power in the hands of one individual--Castro, president of the Council of State. In practice, the council serves as a de facto judiciary and controls both the courts and the judicial process as a whole. In 1999, the Cuban government showed some willingness to enhance antinarcotics cooperation between the island republic and the United States. In 1999, Cuba executed at least 21 prisoners by firing squad, and in 2000 held another 24 on death row, awaiting a final decision on their execution sentence by the Council of State. Two of those on death row are Salvadoran nationals who were convicted of terrorism after confessing to a 1997 bombing campaign against hotels in Cuba that killed an Italian citizen.

Cuba under Castro has one of the highest per capita rates of imprisonment for political offenses of any country in the world. There are several hundred political prisoners, most held in cells with common criminals and many convicted on vague charges such as "disseminating enemy propaganda" or "dangerousness." There are credible reports of torture of dissidents in prison and in psychiatric institutions, where a number of those arrested in recent years are held. Since 1991, the United Nations has voted annually to assign a special investigator on human rights to Cuba, but the Cuban government has refused to cooperate. In 1993 vandalism was decreed to be a form of sabotage, publishable by eight years in prison. Individuals belonging to groups that exist apart from the state are labeled "counterrevolutionary criminals" and are subject to systematic repression, including arrests, beatings while in custody, confiscations, and intimidation by uniformed or plainclothes state security.

The press in Cuba is the object of a targeted campaign of intimidation by the government. Independent journalists, particularly those associated with five small news agencies they established outside state control, have been subjected to continued repression, including jail terms at hard labor and assaults while in prison by state security agents. At a time when their potential audiences are increasing, as a result of the Internet, about 100 independent journalists have been branded "counterrevolutionaries" by the authorities. Foreign news agencies must hire local reporters only through government offices, which limits employment opportunities for independent journalists. In 1999, in the run-up to the November summit of Ibero-American leaders, Castro singled out 17 independent journalists by name and said they were "counterrevolutionary" conspirators paid by the United States. On a positive note, in January 2001, independent journalist Jesus Joel Diaz Fernandez, the winner of the 1999 International Press Freedom Award, was released after two years in jail. However, during the rest of 2001 reporters suffered from the levels of repression reminiscent of earlier years.

Freedom of movement and the right to choose one's residence, education, or job are severely restricted. Attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense. In August 2000, the U.S. State Department charged that Cuba was not abiding by a 1994 agreement seeking to establish ground rules for the orderly migration of 20,000 Cubans plus their family members to the United States. Noting that more than 100 Cubans to whom the United States had granted visas were denied exit permits by the Cuban government in a 75-day period, the State Department said that the island's policy was encouraging Cubans "denied the means to migrate in a safe, orderly and legal fashion to risk their lives in desperate sea voyages."

Cuban authorities have failed to carry out an adequate investigation into the July 1994 sinking of a tugboat carrying at least 66 people, of whom only 31 survived, as it sought to flee Cuba. Several survivors alleged that the craft sank as it was being pursued and assaulted by three other Cuban vessels acting under official orders, and that the fleeing boat was not allowed to surrender. The government denied any responsibility, claiming the tragedy was an accident caused by irresponsible actions by those on board. Citing what it calls compelling evidence, including eyewitness testimony, in 1999 Amnesty International concluded that the force employed by the Cuban government was "disproportionate" to the nature of the crime. It noted that "if events occurred in the way described by several of the survivors, those who died as a result of the incident were victims of extrajudicial execution." Those in Cuba commemorating the dead, or who have peacefully protested the sinking, have faced harassment and intimidation.

In 1991 Roman Catholics and other believers were granted permission to join the Communist Party, and the constitutional reference to official atheism was dropped the following year. Religious freedom has made small gains. Afro-Cuban religious groups are now carefully courted by Cuban officials. In preparation for the papal visit in 1998, Catholic pastoral work and religious education activities were allowed to take place at previously unheard-of levels, and Christmas was celebrated for the first time in 28 years. On another positive note, in June 2001 the archbishop of Havana consecrated the first parish church built on the island in more than 40 years, the latest in a series of small concessions wrested by the papal representative from the regime.

In the post-Soviet era, the rights of Cubans to own private property and to participate in joint ventures with foreigners have been recognized. Non-Cuban businesses have also been allowed. In practice, there are few rights for those who do not belong to the PCC. Party membership is still required for good jobs, serviceable housing, and real access to social services, including medical care and educational opportunities. In a move that was widely criticized in Cuba's large exile community, in 2001 World Bank President James Wolfensohn congratulated Cuba for its social programs, singling out "a great job on education and health." However, critics pointed out that the statistics cited by the World Bank--that suggest that Cuba ranks with many developed countries on measures such as literacy and infant mortality--were based on official Cuban government reports unlikely to be reliable.

Many blacks have benefited from access to basic education and medical care since the Castro revolution, and much of the police force and army enlisted personnel is black. However, credible reports say the forced evictions of squatters and residents who lack official permission to reside in Havana are primarily targeted against individuals and families from the eastern provinces, which are traditionally areas of black or mixed-race populations.

About 40 percent of all women work, and they are well represented in the professions. However, violence against women is a problem, as is child prostitution.