Cuba | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Not Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Cuba received an upward trend arrow due to the emergence of significant peaceful protest activity by civil society against the Castro dictatorship.


Despite its almost total lack of access to the media, Cuba's beleaguered dissident movement received several important boosts both internally and abroad. The Varela Project, a referendum initiative seeking broad changes in the four-decades-old socialist system, achieved significant support domestically while its leader, Oswaldo Paya, was showered with international recognition. A June visit by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter also added status and visibility to the protest movement. In October, more than 300 dissident organizations joined together as the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in preparation for a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. Meanwhile the world's longest-lived dictator faced serious popular discontent, particularly because of the failing sugar industry. A former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations who defected in July said that intractable economic problems in his country might produce a "social explosion" against the regime.

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 political system, transforming the country 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 the national assembly, which designates the Council of State. It is that body which in turn appoints the 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. However, a EU study published in 2002 showed that direct foreign investment during the past five years peaked at $488 million in 2000 before falling to $38.9 million in 2001, while the country's foreign debt has risen to $11 billion. 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.

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. By mid-June 1998, in the aftermath of the visit of Pope John Paul II five months earlier, the number of dissidents confirmed to be imprisoned dropped nearly 400 percent. In February 1999, the government introduced tough legislation against sedition, with a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. It stipulated 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.

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 in Cuba after a seven-month 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 the island, in October the United States eased the 38-year-old embargo on food and medicine to Cuba.

In June 2001, Castro, who was then 74, collapsed at a long outdoor rally near Havana. The incident centered attention on what might happen once the world's longest-ruling dictator passes from the scene. In November 2001, 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 the embargo in 1962. The renewal of food sales in the wake of Michelle sparked further debate between 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 May 2002, organizers of the Varela Project submitted more than 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly demanding a referendum be held in which Cubans could vote for fundamental reforms, such as freedom of expression, the right to own private businesses, and electoral reform. After Jimmy Carter mentioned the project on Cuban television the same month, the regime held its own "referendum" in which 8.2 million people supposedly declared the socialist system to be "untouchable."

In October, the EU--long loath to criticize Castro--awarded Paya its prestigious Sakharov human rights prize. While the regime ignored the Varela Project petition, in violation of its own constitution, the new civil society movement was launched. Composed of 321 dissident organizations ranging from human rights groups and independent libraries to labor unions and the independent press, the civil society assembly said it would prepare for a post-Castro transition rather than seek reforms from the regime.

In a move emblematic of the country's worsening economic crisis, in June 2002, the government closed 71 of Cuba's 156 sugar mills, a blow to thousands who were left without work and to a nation whose popular motto used to be: "Without sugar there is no country."

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Cubans cannot change their government through democratic means. In October 2002, some eight million Cubans voted in tightly controlled municipal elections. Half of those chosen for municipal seats will later be candidates for the one-party National Assembly, with parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2003.

All political and civic organizating 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.

In Cuba the executive branch controls the judiciary. The 1976 constitution concentrates 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 with the United States.

There are some 320 prisoners of conscience in Cuba, most held in cells with common criminals and many convicted on vague charges such as "disseminating enemy propaganda" or "dangerousness." Members of groups that exist apart from the state are labeled "counterrevolutionary criminals" and are subject to systematic repression, including arrest, beating while in custody, confiscation, and intimidation by uniformed or plainclothes state security agents. 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. Cuba also does not allow the International Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations access to its prisons. There are 88 U.S. fugitives from justice in Cuba, including alleged airplane hijackers and murderers of police officers.

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 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. Foreign news agencies must hire local reporters only through government offices, which limits employment opportunities for independent journalists.

Freedom of movement and the right to choose one's residence, education, and job are severely restricted. Attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense.

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. However, in October 2002, the U.S. State Department issued a report saying that Cuba was one of six countries that engaged in widespread repression of religion. The report said that security agents frequently spy on worshippers; the government continues to block construction of new churches; the number of new foreign priests is limited; and most new denominations are refused recognition. In a positive development, the regime now tolerates the Baha'i faith.

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.

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.