Freedom in the World
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In 2006, President Fidel Castro passed power, on a provisional basis, to his brother, Raul, who is head of the armed forces. This decision was made when serious internal bleeding forced the Cuban leader to undergo emergency surgery, which was followed by a slow convalescence. The transfer of authority, which occurred shortly before Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday on August 13, marked the first time that the elder Castro has relinquished control since the 1959 Cuban revolution. The 75-year old Raul Castro initially kept a low profile, but gradually began to assume a more prominent role. Although most Cubans were initially stunned by the news, routine life continued without disruption. Levels of government repression remained constant throughout this transition period. Tensions between Cuba and the United States remained high, while Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez met frequently with the ailing Castro and vowed his support for the Cuban Revolution.
Cuba achieved independence from Spain in 1898 as a result of the Spanish-American War. The Republic of Cuba was established in 1902, but remained under U.S. tutelage as a result of the Platt Amendment until 1934. In 1959, the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, who had ruled Cuba for 18 of the previous 25 years, was ousted by Fidel Castro's July 26th Movement. Castro declared his affiliation with communism shortly thereafter, and the island has been a one-party state ever since.
Following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of some $5 billion in annual Soviet subsidies, Castro opened some sectors of the island’s economy to direct foreign investment. The legalization of the U.S. dollar in Cuba in 1993 created a new source of inequality, as access to dollars from remittances or through the tourist industry engendered a new moneyed class, while the majority continued to live on peso wages averaging less than $10 a month.
The Castro government remains highly repressive of political dissent. Although Cuba’s cycle of repression has ebbed and flowed over the past decade, the desire to neutralize organized political dissent remains a regime priority. 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 and documents from news agencies and journalists. The Cuban government has recently undertaken a series of campaigns to undermine the reputations of leading opposition figures by portraying them as agents of the United States.
In 2002, the Varela Project, a referendum initiative seeking broad changes in the four-decades-old socialist system, won significant international recognition. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter praised the project on Cuban television during his visit to the island, and its leader, Oswaldo Paya of the Christian Liberation Movement, later received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In May, project organizers submitted more than 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly demanding that 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. However, the proposal was rejected by the constitutional committee of the National Assembly, and the Cuban government instead held a counterreferendum in which 8.2 million people supposedly declared the socialist system to be “untouchable.”
In March 2003, the government initiated a crackdown against the prodemocracy opposition. Seventy-five people, including 27 independent journalists, 14 independent librarians, and more than 40 signature collectors for the Varela Project, were sentenced to an average of 20 years in prison following one-day trials held in April. (At the end of 2004, 61 of the activists who were arrested remained in prison; 14 won conditional release for health-related reasons, and two subsequently left Cuba.) In 2005, Cuba’s “Ladies in White,” a group of wives who hold weekly public demonstrations for the release of their husbands imprisoned in 2003, won the Sakharov Prize, following in the footsteps of Paya.
In May 2004, U.S. president George W. Bush announced that the United States would intensify pressure on the Cuban regime by increasing broadcasts designed to break through the island’s information blockade, by aiding dissidents, and by limiting the amount of money Cuban Americans could take with them on family visits or send through remittances. In 2005, the U.S. State Department appointed a “transition coordinator” to oversee efforts to destabilize the Castro government and usher in democratic change. In February 2006, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba set up a billboard to broadcast messages to the Cuban people, but the Cuban government responded by erecting 138 black flags in front of the building that commemorated “victims of imperialism.” In July, the U.S. government released an updated version of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. The commission set aside $80 million for the Cuba Fund for a Democratic Future to fund assistance to opposition groups within Cuba, but many dissidents complained that the program was counterproductive.
On July 31, Fidel Castro, president since 1959, passed power to his younger brother, Raul, the head of the armed forces, on a provisional basis. Serious internal bleeding, which forced Fidel to undergo emergency surgery, prompted the decision, and his surgery was followed by a slow convalescence. The transfer of authority, which occurred shortly before Fidel’s 80th birthday on August 13, marked the first time that the elder Castro had relinquished control since the 1959 Cuban revolution. In addition to Raul Castro, six Cuban ministers were named to manage the responsibilities for health, education, energy, and finance. The 75-year old Raul subsequently kept a low profile, while other top officials, including Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, and National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon took on more prominent roles. Cuban authorities declared the state of Fidel’s health to be a state secret, but later released several videotapes of him meeting with foreign dignitaries while dressed in pajamas in his hospital bed. Although most Cubans were initially stunned by the news, routine life continued without disruption. Increased security measures were evident in the streets of Havana and other major cities in the days following the announcement of the transfer of power, including the deployment of military personnel to prevent possible public disruptions.
Castro’s illness sparked spontaneous celebrations in Miami, Florida, where the Cuban exile community in the United States believed that Castro’s long-awaited demise was close at hand. The U.S. government took a cautious approach and reaffirmed that the long-standing U.S. embargo would remain in place until Cuba undertook free and fair elections. U.S.-Cuban relations remained tense and were characterized by periodic skirmishes. In September, the United States called for Cuba to hold a referendum to allow the Cuban people to vote on Raul’s ascension, but the island’s government rejected this proposal.
Cuba continued to strengthen its alliance with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez during the year. Trade between the two countries neared $3 billion, with Venezuela exporting nearly 100,000 barrels of oil per day on preferential financing terms. Cuba and Venezuela continued to deepen several joint programs, including Operation Miracle, which provided eye surgeries for poor Latin Americans; the state-sponsored news channel Telesur; and a regional oil pact known as PetroCaribe. The December 2005 election of President Evo Morales in Bolivia had allowed Cuba to expand its international partnerships, including the economic and social pact known as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). Both Venezuela and Bolivia pledged to help defend Cuba against potential U.S. intervention.
In September, Cuba hosted the 14th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a 118-member group of developing countries. Fifty-six heads of state attended, including the leaders of Pakistan, India, Iran, and Malaysia. However, the presidents of several major Latin American countries—including Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru—chose not to attend. Cuba continued to diversify its international partnerships. China emerged as Cuba’s second largest trading partner with nearly $1 billion in trade in 2005. Major Chinese investments were made in the island’s nickel industry, as well as in tourism, transportation, and telecommunications. The Cuban government defended Iran’s right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. European countries like the Czech Republic criticized Cuba for suppression of civil liberties, but European investment in Cuba remained strong.
Although the Cuban economy remained troubled, it appeared to be rebounding from the severe economic crisis of the 1990s. Fidel Castro claimed a growth rate of 12.5 percent in 2006, while outside analysts estimated a more modest 5 percent increase. During the year, foreign companies continued exploring Cuba’s offshore energy reserves, which the U.S. Geological Survey estimated could hold 4.6 billion barrels of oil and 9.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Cuba parceled its offshore territory into 59 exploration blocks, 16 of which were claimed by companies from Canada, Spain, Norway, India, and China. The Cuban government also expressed interest in revitalizing its sugar industry, which underwent a major downsizing in 2002 and yielded a record-low harvest of 1.3 million tons in 2006. Fidel Castro announced an “energy revolution” in January to end the problem of blackouts, and later raised the monthly minimum wage to 225 pesos (about $10) a month.
Cuba is not an electoral democracy. President Fidel Castro and, more recently, his brother Raul Castro dominate the political system. The country is 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. That body 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. The most recent PCC congress took place in 1997, and no date has been set for the next meeting.
In October 2002, some 8 million Cubans voted in tightly controlled municipal elections. On January 19, 2003, an election was held for the Cuban National Assembly, with just 609 candidates—all supported by the regime—vying for 609 seats.
All political organizing 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. Continuing a trend from 2003, in 2006 the Cuban government harassed dissidents, including using arbitrary sweeps and temporary detentions of suspected dissidents. The regime also called on its neighbor-watch groups, known as “Committees in Defense of the Revolution,” to strengthen vigilance against “anti-social behavior,” a government euphemism for opposition activity. Several dissident leaders claimed to suffer “acts of repudiation” by state-sponsored groups that attempt to intimidate and harass government opponents.
Official corruption remains a serious problem, with a “culture of illegality” shrouding the mixture of private and state-controlled economic activities allowed on the island. In late 2003, Juan Jose Vega, the president of Cubanacan, a state-run enterprise controlling more than $600 million in foreign investment in Cuba’s tourism industry, was dismissed on charges of corruption. In 2006, a leading government official, Juan Carlos Robinson, was dismissed from the Politburo and sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption charges. Cuba was ranked 66 out of 163 countries surveyed in the Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of the press remains tightly curtailed, and the media in Cuba remain controlled by the state and the Communist Party. The independent press is considered illegal by the state and is the object of a targeted campaign of intimidation by the government, which uses Ministry of Interior agents to infiltrate and report on the independent media. Independent journalists, particularly those associated with a dozen small news agencies established outside state control, have been subjected to continued repression, including jail terms of hard labor and assaults by state security agents. Foreign news agencies may only hire local reporters through government offices, limiting employment opportunities for independent journalists.
In 2004, 22 independent journalists arrested in March 2003 remained imprisoned in degrading conditions, which included physical and psychological abuse; acts of harassment and intimidation were also directed against their families. In April, two journalists held without trial since March 2002 were finally tried by a court in Ciego de Avila on charges of insulting Castro and the police and creating public disorder; one received a three-year prison sentence and the other a sentence of three and a half years.
Access to the internet remained tightly controlled. It is illegal for Cubans to connect to the internet in their homes. State-owned internet cafes exist in major cities, but web sites are closely monitored, and access costs are inaccessible for most Cubans. Only select state employees are permitted access to e-mail at their workplaces as well as to an intranet system that limits access to websites that the government deems inappropriate.
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. In 1998, Pope John Paul II visited Cuba and called for greater religious freedom; his visit was followed by a temporary lessening of restrictions on religious worship. However, according to the Cuban Conference on Catholic Bishops, official obstacles to religious freedom remain as restrictive as before the Pope’s visit. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report, Cuba remains one of four countries that continues to employ authoritarian actions to control religious belief and expression. 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. Churches are not allowed to conduct educational initiatives, and church-based publications are subject to the control and censorship of the governmental Office of Religious Affairs. An estimated 70 percent of all Cubans on the island practice some form of Afro-Cuban religion.
The government restricts academic freedom. Teaching materials for courses such as mathematics or literature must contain ideological content. Affiliation with official Communist Party structures is generally needed to gain access to educational institutions, and students’ report cards carry information regarding their parents’ involvement with the Communist Party. In 2003, state security forces raided 22 independent libraries and sent 14 librarians to jail with terms of up to 26 years. Many of the targeted individuals were charged with working with the United States to subvert the Cuban government, thereby committing national security violations and aiding a foreign power. Several political prisoners have subsequently been released for health reasons, but they are subject to re-arrest at any time.
Limited rights of assembly and association are permitted under the constitution; however, as is the case with all other constitutional rights, these are subject to the stipulation that they may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State.” The unauthorized assembly of more than three persons, including those for private religious services in private homes, is punishable by law with up to three months in prison and a fine. This prohibition is selectively enforced and is often used as a legal pretext to imprison human rights advocates.
Workers do not have the right to bargain collectively or to strike. Members of independent labor unions, which the government considers illegal, are often harassed or dismissed from their jobs and subsequently barred from future employment. The government has also been reducing opportunities for private economic activity; a trend toward revoking self-employment licenses continued, and privately run farmers’ markets also came under increased scrutiny, a further intensification of the movement toward increased state control of the economy.
The executive branch controls the judiciary. In practice, the Council of State, of which Castro is chairman, serves as a de facto judiciary and controls both the courts and the judicial process as a whole.
According to a domestic monitoring group, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there are more than 300 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; beatings while in custody; loss of work, educational opportunities, and health care; and intimidation by uniformed or plainclothes state security agents. Dissidents reported being subject to even tighter surveillance following Fidel Castro’s illness, as the government mobilized to thwart any potential public disruptions.
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 or other humanitarian organizations access to its prisons. Cuba’s prison population is disproportionately black.
Many Afro-Cubans have only limited access to the dollar-earning sectors of the economy, such as tourism and employment by joint ventures.
Freedom of movement and the right to choose one’s residence and place of employment are severely restricted. Attempting to leave the island without permission is a punishable offense. Intercity migration or relocation is also restricted and requires permission from the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and other local authorities. In the post-Soviet era, only state enterprises can enter into economic agreements with foreigners as minority partners; regular citizens cannot participate. However, PCC membership is still required to obtain good jobs, serviceable housing, and real access to social services, including medical care and educational opportunities. In 2004, a Ministry of Labor decree halted the issuance of all new licenses for 40 categories of self-employment that were legalized in 1993. Roughly 150,000 Cubans are self-employed, representing approximately 2 percent of the workforce. The government systematically violates international salary standards, terms of contract, and other labor codes for workers employed on the island by foreign-owned firms.
About 40 percent of all women work, and they are well represented in most professions. However, violence against women is a problem, as is child prostitution.