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In July 2015, Cuba and the United States reopened embassies in one another’s capitals, officially reestablishing diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of cut ties. By January 2015, the government had freed all of the 53 political prisoners whose release the United States had requested in prior negotiations. Two dissidents were allowed to run as candidates in April elections to Cuba’s municipal councils, though neither was successful. Unfortunately, the warming of relations did not lead to a comparable change in the Cuban government’s respect for civil liberties and fundamental political rights.
The first-ever public Wi-Fi hotspots were opened across the island in June and July, increasing internet access for those who could afford the $2 usage fee. Religious freedoms also expanded around the time of Pope Francis’s historic visit to the island in September. However, during the year the regime also continued its systematic use of short-term “preventive” detentions—along with harassment, beatings, and “acts of repudiation”—to intimidate the political opposition, isolate dissidents from the rest of the population, and maintain political control of all public spaces. While the total number of political prisoners fell sharply in 2015, the number of political arrests remained roughly the same as in 2014, surging to historic heights in the last three months of the year.
Economic reforms continued in 2015 but at a slower annual pace than any year since 2011.
Political Rights: 1 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 0 / 12
The Castro brothers have long dominated Cuba’s one-party political system, in which the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) controls all government offices and most civil institutions. Every five years Cubans go to the polls to elect delegates to the island’s National Assembly, which then designates the members of the Council of State. This body in turn appoints the Council of Ministers in consultation with its president, who serves as chief of state and head of government.
Raúl Castro replaced his brother Fidel as president in 2008. In 2013 National Assembly elections, voters were asked to either support or reject a single PCC-approved candidate for each of the 612 seats. All candidates were elected. The new National Assembly reelected Raúl Castro for a second five-year term. A 2012 law imposed a limit of two five-year terms on all senior officials, making this Castro’s last in office.
In the municipal council elections held in April 2015, for the first time two dissidents—Hildebrando Chaviano, a former government attorney who became an independent journalist, and Yuniel López, an opposition activist without a job—appeared on the ballot, running with 27,000 candidates seeking to fill 12,589 local offices. Though the two were designated as “counterrevolutionaries” in the official biographies posted in local polling stations and were ultimately defeated, they had been nominated by ordinary citizens in what was widely viewed as an extremely rare display of public defiance against the one-party system. The 2015 elections were also noteworthy for voter turnout of around 88 percent, representing a nearly six-point drop from the 2012 municipal vote. Some observers viewed lower turnout as an indication of voter dissatisfaction with the PCC.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 0 / 16
All political organizing outside the PCC is illegal, and independent campaigning is not permitted. Political dissent, whether spoken or written, is a punishable offense, and dissidents are systematically harassed, detained, physically assaulted, and frequently sentenced to years of imprisonment for seemingly minor infractions. The regime has called on its neighborhood-watch groups, known as Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, to strengthen vigilance against “antisocial behavior,” a euphemism for opposition activity. This has led to the use of “acts of repudiation,” or supposedly spontaneous mob attacks, to intimidate and silence political dissidents. In recent years, dissident leaders have reported an increase in intimidation and harassment by state-sponsored groups as well as short-term detentions by state security forces. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) documented 8,616 politically motivated short-term detentions in 2015, down from a record high of 8,899 in 2014.
The Cuban government relies heavily on the military as well as on members of the Castro family for control of both business and politics. President Castro’s son, Alejandro—a former member of the army—plays a key role in the administration, serving as both chief of intelligence and as a liaison with China. The president’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, is chief executive of Gaesa, the sector of the military that controls all business operations. Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro Espín has served as de facto first lady since her mother’s death in 2007.
The 2013 National Assembly elections were notable for the large number of women, young people, and Cubans of African descent elected to office. For example, Afro-Cuban Esteban Lazo Hernández replaced long-time national politician Ricardo Alarcón as president of Cuba’s National Assembly, and Ana María Marí Machado and Miriam Brito Saroca were elected vice president and secretary, respectively.
C. Functioning of Government: 1 / 12
Though the 1976 constitution provides for the election of a National Assembly, which is vested with legal power to rule the country, in practice the assembly has little legislative power, meeting only twice a year for less than a week each time. Day-to-day executive power is wielded by Cuba’s Council of State along with the Council of Ministers. The head of the Council of State acts as president and prime minister.
Corruption remains a serious problem in Cuba, with widespread illegality permeating everyday life. The state holds a monopoly on most business transactions and cannot be challenged or held accountable for wrongdoing. However, Raúl Castro’s regime has made the fight against corruption a central priority, imposing long sentences on both high-placed Cuban officials and foreign business figures. For example, after three years in police custody under charges of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion, the 74-year-old Canadian transportation executive Cy Tokmakjian was released and allowed to return to Canada in February 2015. In March, senior representatives of the state-run egg distribution company in Havana were sentenced to between 5 and 15 years in prison for conspiring to divert more than 8 million eggs to the black market. The steady pace of new cases of high-level corruption indicates that the problem is chronic. Cuba was ranked 56 out of 175 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Civil Liberties: 14 / 60 (+1)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 5 / 16 (+1)
The Cuban news media are owned and controlled by the state. The independent press is considered illegal and its publications are classified as “enemy propaganda.” Government agents routinely infiltrate the ranks of independent journalists, often accusing them of being mercenaries. Independent journalists, particularly those associated with the island’s dozen small independent news agencies or human rights groups, are subject to harassment.
Some state media have begun to cover previously taboo topics, such as corruption in the health and education sectors. A number of publications, especially those associated with the Catholic Church, have engaged in debates over the country’s future. Additionally, in recent years Cuba has witnessed the growth of citizen journalism, an increase in the number of independent bloggers, and the appearance of a small number of independent, island-based news outlets—including the sites Havana Times, Periodismo de Barrio, On Cuba, and 14ymedio. Low-circulation academic journals are similarly able to adopt a relative level of openness.
Hundreds of internet cafés have opened between 2013 and 2015, and nearly 60 public-access Wi-Fi hotspots were established in mid-2015. E-mail has been accessible via mobile phone since 2014. An estimated 150,000 Cubans now have daily access to the internet, up from just 75,000 in 2014. Still, the island is among the least connected nations in the Western Hemisphere.
While it remains illegal to print or distribute independent media, both journalists and Cuba’s new media start-ups have used innovative methods to share information online via e-mail subscription services or weekly PDF news digests. A sophisticated data packet distribution system uses flash drives to circulate a weekly menu of digital information, and Cuba’s new private mobile phone repair shops often double as independent media and phone app distribution points.
Official obstacles hamper religious freedom in Cuba. Churches may not conduct ordinary educational activities, and many church-based publications are plagued by state as well as self-censorship. However, the Roman Catholic Church has played an important role in civil society, enabling discussion of topics of public concern. Partly as a result of Pope Francis’s positive role in U.S.-Cuba diplomatic negotiations, Cuba’s Catholic Church enjoyed an unprecedented expansion in its pastoral rights in 2015, including periodic access to state media and public spaces, as well as the ability to build new churches and print and distribute its own publications. During Francis’s visit to Cuba in September 2015, the public had broad access to papal events. On the other hand, the church has systematically refused to side with dissidents and has been accused of being too close to the state.
Academic freedom is restricted in Cuba. Teaching materials commonly contain ideological content, and affiliation with PCC structures is generally needed to gain access and advancement in educational institutions. On numerous occasions, university students have been expelled for dissident behavior, a harsh punishment that effectively prevents them from pursuing higher education. Despite the elimination of exit permits in 2013, university faculty, especially those in the social sciences, must still obtain permission from their superiors to travel to academic conferences abroad. It is also common for Cuba to periodically prevent dissident intellectuals from traveling abroad and to deny academic visas to prominent exiles who have been critical of the regime.
While Cubans do often engage in robust private discussions regarding everyday issues such as the economic reform process, food prices, foreign travel, and increasingly the lack of open internet access, they tend to self-censor when referring to more political issues such as human rights, fundamental freedoms, and civil liberties.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 0 / 12
Restrictions on freedom of association remain the key political form of governmental control in Cuba. According to the constitution, citizens’ limited rights of assembly and association may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State.” In addition, based on the 1985 Law on Associations no. 54, the government will not register any new association or organization that is not supervised by the state. Nearly all politically motivated short-term detentions in recent years have targeted members of independent associations, human rights groups, political parties, or trade unions. For example, systematic repression has continued against the peaceful public activities of civil and human rights groups such as the Ladies in White and the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU). In 2015, the government prevented peaceful Sunday marches led by the Ladies in White, turning the planned demonstrations into a spectacle of harassment and arbitrary detention each week.
Following the arrest of a group of artists and activists led by Tania Bruguera in December 2014 after they attempted to hold a performance in the Plaza of the Revolution to air their grievances, Bruguera was detained several more times and her passport was confiscated for the first half of 2015. In August, she was able to return to her part-time residence in New York City. Graffiti artist Danilo “El Sexto,” who was imprisoned in December 2014 over accusations of “disrespecting the leaders of the Revolution” for spray painting the words Fidel and Raúl on a pair of pigs, was released in October 2015 after going on a hunger strike.
Independent racial advocacy or civil rights organizations are illegal, and no autonomous women’s or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) organizations are recognized by the state. Human rights activists and independent journalists and lawyers with the organization CubaLex (the Center for Legal Information, a public interest legal consultancy) have been subject to harassment. In March 2015, CubaLex released a statement claiming that its work was in danger because of stepped up campaigns to defame and harass its members. It cited a break-in at the group’s office, in which computer equipment and data were stolen after CubaLex presented its report about Cuban prisons to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States.
Cuban workers do not have the right to strike or bargain collectively, and independent labor unions are illegal.
F. Rule of Law: 3 / 16
The Council of State has total control over the courts and the judiciary. Laws on “public disorder,” “contempt,” disrespect for authority,” “pre-criminal dangerousness,” and “aggression” are frequently used to prosecute political opponents. Cuba does not typically grant international humanitarian organizations access to its prisons. However, for the first time since 2004, the government allowed a group of foreign correspondents access to some prisons in 2013, a few weeks before the UN Human Rights Council’s regular comprehensive review of practices on the island.
The CCDHRN estimated in 2014 that Cuba had more than 100 political prisoners. In December of that year, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross was released along with former Cuban intelligence agent Rolando Sarraff Trujillo as part of the deal with the U.S. government. By January 2015, Cuba had released 53 additional political prisoners about whom the United States had expressed concern. However, human rights groups on the island have indicated that many of those released have limited freedom of movement and are at risk of rearrest. Indeed, at least six of the 53 political prisoners released have since been jailed on new charges; a majority have applied for refugee status to move permanently to the United States. The Cuban government claims it holds no prisoners of conscience, but various rights groups assert that there remained between 27 and 70 political prisoners at the end of 2015. As a humanitarian gesture leading up to the papal visit in September, the Cuban government issued pardons to more than 3,500 prisoners, but excluded those serving time for what the government characterizes as crimes against “national security”—a designation often used to charge political prisoners.
While racial discrimination has long been outlawed as state policy, Cubans of African descent have reported widespread discrimination and profiling by law enforcement officials (many of them of African descent themselves). Many of these Cubans have only limited access to the dollar-earning sectors of the economy.
Cuba has made important strides in redressing discrimination against the LGBT community, thanks in part to the advocacy work of Mariela Castro Espín, President Castro’s daughter and director of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX). However, a bill proposing the legalization of same-sex marriage has been stalled in the National Assembly since 2008, even with the support of Castro Espín. The efforts of grassroots LGBT groups are largely ignored by the authorities, though they have, at times, been attacked by CENESEX.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 6 / 16
Freedom of movement and the right to choose one’s residence and place of employment are restricted. The “Internal Migratory Regulations for the City of Havana and its Contraventions” stipulates that Cubans who move to Havana without state authorization risk losing housing and are subject to deportation back to their provincial cities. Separately, some political prisoners released on conditional freedom have complained that they are at times prevented from traveling outside of their home provinces, with occasional round-ups followed by deportations back to their homes when they are found attending dissident meetings elsewhere on the island. In addition, some political dissidents continue to be denied the right to travel abroad, including former political prisoners released under conditional freedom. In violation of International Labour Organization statutes, Cubans working abroad, in the export processing zone at the Port of Mariel, or for foreign companies on the island are not paid directly, but rather through the Cuban state in Cuban, or nonconvertible, pesos.
However, a 2013 migration law rescinded the exit visa and letter of invitation that were previously required to travel abroad. Since then, the law has generally been respected, with record numbers of Cubans either traveling abroad temporarily or emigrating permanently. Driven in part by fears that the United States’ Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans who reach U.S. territory to remain and gain legal residency, would be repealed as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw, the number of Cubans seeking entry to the United States spiked in late 2015. Thousands of Cuban migrants flew to Ecuador, the starting point for a land route to the United States. Many were left stranded at the Costa Rica–Nicaragua border when the latter closed the crossing after a smuggling ring was disbanded. Another U.S. program that urges Cuban doctors serving in other nations to defect to the United States contributed further to the exodus, and the Cuban government responded in December by reinstating limits on the foreign travel of medical professionals.
The number of self-employment licenses rapidly expanded from 157,000 in October 2010 to more than 504,600 by May 2015, though the figure reportedly dropped in the second half of the year to 496,400. The number of legal occupations for self-employment grew from 178 to 201 between 2010 and 2015. In addition, 498 new nonagricultural cooperatives were approved during 2013 and 2014, 347 of which were actively doing business as of May 2015. However, the extent of private employment opportunities remains limited, with almost no professional jobs included in the expanded list of legal self-employment occupations. In addition, many workers in Cuba’s new agricultural cooperatives were forced into their positions as the only alternative to being laid off. Opening a cooperative even in today’s more permissive environment is an arduous, multiyear bureaucratic task requiring municipal and ministerial approvals, with the final green light reserved for the Council of Ministers itself.
Private credit and wholesale access to merchandise for the nonstate sector remain largely nonexistent, which also limits the expansion of private activity. Only state enterprises can enter into economic agreements with foreigners as minority partners; ordinary citizens cannot participate. While new U.S. regulations that went into effect in 2015 now allow U.S. companies to sell inputs to and buy products directly from Cuban entrepreneurs, the Cuban government has yet to permit such activity from its side.
The Cuban constitution establishes full equality for women, and women hold nearly 49 percent of National Assembly seats. However, they make up only 7 percent of the PCC’s politburo, 14 percent of the party secretariat, and 22 percent of the Council of Ministers. Only one woman has achieved the rank of vice president. Additionally, women make up only 38 percent of Cuba’s work force, even as they are well represented in most professions and have equal access to higher education. Cuban women average less than half of what men earn, mostly because men have access to higher-paying jobs; the gender gap is exacerbated by uneven opportunities opened up by recent market-oriented reforms.
The U.S. State Department claims that the government of Cuba does not fully comply with minimum standards for the elimination of sex trafficking and does not recognize forced labor as a problem in the country. However, Cuba has recently made significant efforts to address trafficking, including the prosecution and conviction of 13 sex traffickers in 2013 and the provision of services to victims in those cases.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year