Freedom in the World
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Acting president Raul Castro managed Cuba’s day-to-day affairs in 2007 as his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, remained largely in the background, although he did write regular essays on international affairs and occasionally appeared in prerecorded television interviews. Raul Castro opened up limited debate on economic reform but implemented few policy changes. Also during the year, the number of political prisoners in Cuba dropped below 250, marking a 20 percent decline from the previous year.
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 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’s government 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 1993 created a new source of inequality, as access to dollars from remittances or through the tourist industry enriched some, 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 the degree of repression has ebbed and flowed over the past decade, the neutralization of 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 government has 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 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. However, the referendum proposal was rejected by the constitutional committee of the National Assembly, and the government instead held a counterreferendum in which 8.2 million people supposedly declared the socialist system to be “untouchable.”
The government initiated a crackdown on the prodemocracy opposition in March 2003. 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. Cuba’s “Ladies in White,” a group of wives of those imprisoned in 2003 who hold weekly public demonstrations for the release of their husbands, won the Sakharov Prize in 2005, following in the footsteps of Paya.
On July 31, 2006, Fidel Castro passed power on a provisional basis to his younger brother, military chief Raul Castro, after serious internal bleeding forced him to undergo emergency surgery and begin a slow convalescence. The transfer of authority, which occurred shortly before Fidel’s 80th birthday on August 13, marked the first time he had relinquished control since the 1959 revolution. In addition to Raul Castro, six ministers were named to manage the portfolios 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. The authorities declared the state of Fidel’s health to be a state secret, but later released several video recordings of him meeting with foreign dignitaries in his hospital room. Although most Cubans were initially stunned by news of the president’s illness, routine life continued without disruption. Increased security measures were evident in major cities in the days following the transfer of power, including the deployment of military personnel to prevent possible public demonstrations.
In February 2007, five dissidents held without trial since July 2005 were sentenced to two years in prison. The well-known Catholic magazine Vitral, which was often critical of the government, was closed in April when a conservative new bishop was appointed to the Pinar del Río diocese. In June, the leading domestic human rights group reported that Raul Castro’s government had not improved the plight of dissidents, but it acknowledged that the number of political prisoners had declined to 246, a drop of more than 20 percent from the previous year (12 more were released during the course of the year). By the end of 2007, 59 of the activists arrested in 2003 remained in prison, 16 won conditional release for health-related reasons, and 2 subsequently left the country.
The United States continued to put pressure on the Cuban regime in 2007. The U.S. Congress in September appropriated $46 million to support democracy groups in Cuba, although many dissidents complained that such money never reaches the island. U.S. president George W. Bush had long sought to destabilize the Castro government, announcing plans in 2004 to increase broadcasts to Cuba, aid dissidents, and limit the amount of money Cuban Americans could pass to the country on visits or through remittances. In 2005, the U.S. State Department had appointed a “transition coordinator” to oversee efforts to usher in democratic change.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s relations with Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez continued to deepen. Chavez met with Fidel Castro several times in 2007, and Vice President Lage traveled to Venezuela to discuss a regional trade pact and joint ventures in telecommunications. In February, the two countries signed agreements on projects worth $1.5 billion, including the development of 11 ethanol plants. The Venezuelan state oil company announced in August that it was partnering with Cuban enterprises to explore for oil off the island’s shores. Cuba also enjoyed warmer ties with a range of other countries. Honduras named its first full ambassador to Cuba in 45 years. In April, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos became the most senior Spanish official to visit Cuba in more than a decade. He met with Raul Castro and carried a letter to Fidel Castro from King Juan Carlos. Top Chinese officials met with Raul Castro to pledge continuing political and economic cooperation. Also during the year, Russia announced that it was considering restructuring Cuba’s $166 million in debt.
The Cuban government forecast an economic growth rate of 10 percent for 2007, slightly lower than the 12.5 percent growth reported in 2006. Outside analysts put Cuba’s growth figures at closer to 7 percent for the year. Several top officials hinted that the government was considering economic changes, but only minor adjustments were implemented, such as the liberalization of milk prices and a temporary moratorium on fines for illegal taxicabs.
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 government entities from the national to the local level. The 1976 constitution provides for a 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 chief of state and head of government. However, Fidel Castro controls every lever of power through 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 eight million Cubans voted in tightly controlled municipal elections. An election was held for the National Assembly in 2003, with just 609 candidates—all supported by the regime—vying for 609 seats. Members of the body serve five-year terms. In 2007, officials began preparations for the January 2008 National Assembly elections and vowed that Fidel Castro would again be on the ballot.
All political organizing outside the PCC is illegal. Political dissent, spoken or written, is a punishable offense, and dissidents frequently receive years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions. The government has continued to harass dissidents, often using arbitrary sweeps and temporary detentions of suspects. The regime has also called on its neighbor-watch groups, known as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, to strengthen vigilance against “antisocial behavior,” a euphemism for opposition activity. Several dissident leaders have reported “acts of repudiation” by state-sponsored groups that attempt to intimidate and harass government opponents. However, the absolute number of political prisoners in Cuba declined by about one-fifth in 2007.
Official corruption remains a serious problem, with a culture of illegality shrouding the mixture of private and state-controlled economic activities that are allowed on the island. Cuba was ranked 61 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of the press is tightly curtailed, and the media are controlled by the state and the Communist Party. The government considers the independent press to be illegal and uses Ministry of Interior agents to infiltrate and report on the media outlets in question. Independent journalists, particularly those associated with a dozen small news agencies established outside state control, have been subjected to continued repression, including 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. More than 20 independent journalists arrested in March 2003 remain imprisoned in degrading conditions, including physical and psychological abuse; acts of harassment and intimidation have also been directed against their families.
Access to the internet remains tightly controlled. It is illegal for Cubans to connect to the internet in their homes. State-owned internet cafes exist in major cities, but websites are closely monitored, and costs put access beyond the reach of most Cubans. Only select state employees are permitted workplace access to e-mail and to an intranet system that blocks websites deemed 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 easing 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. Cuba continues to employ authoritarian measures to control religious belief and expression. Churches are not allowed to conduct educational activities, and church-based publications are subject to control and censorship by the Office of Religious Affairs. An estimated 70 percent of the population practices some form of Afro-Cuban religion.
The government restricts academic freedom. Teaching materials for subjects including mathematics and 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 detainees were charged with working with the United States to subvert the Cuban government. 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 with all other constitutional rights, they may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State.” The unauthorized assembly of more than three people, even for 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 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, dismissed from their jobs, and barred from future employment. The government has also been reducing opportunities for private economic activity; a trend toward revoking self-employment licenses continues, and privately run farmers’ markets have also come under increased scrutiny.
The executive branch controls the judiciary. 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 were 234 prisoners of conscience in Cuba at the end of 2007, 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 Committee of the 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 with foreign companies.
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. Inter-city 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. PCC membership is still required to obtain good jobs, serviceable housing, and real access to social services, including medical care and educational opportunities. 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, Cuba’s dire economic situation ensures that prostitution remains commonplace.