Freedom in the World
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Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, represses dissent, and severely restricts freedoms of the press, assembly, speech, and association. The government of Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as president in 2008, monopolizes the bulk of economic activity within centralized and inefficient state enterprises. Increased engagement with the United States under the administration of President Barack Obama did not result in the lifting of restrictions.
- President Barack Obama made the first state visit to Cuba by a sitting U.S. president in more than 80 years in March. A month later, Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) leaders, at the Seventh Party Congress, portrayed the United States as an enemy that sought to dismantle the country’s communist system through its engagement efforts.
- Arbitrary detentions reached more than 9,000 during the first 10 months of 2016, the highest level in seven years. Government repression of the island’s increasingly dynamic independent digital press also increased.
- Long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro died in November, eight years after ceding power to his younger brother Raúl.
- Though still among the least connected countries in the world, Cuba saw greater internet access via an expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots, a deal with Google, and a limited pilot project to allow home-based internet access in Havana.
After more than a year of progress toward the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, in March 2016 U.S. president Obama made an historic state visit to Cuba during which he met with President Raúl Castro, and separately with a cross-section of independent civil society activists. Obama also delivered a speech carried live on national television in which he sought to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” and condemned the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Obama advocated for greater access to the internet for Cuban citizens, called for authorities to permit free speech and assembly, rejected “arbitrary detentions of people who exercise those rights,” and called for democratic elections in Cuba.
In April, the (PCC) held its Seventh Party Congress. Dashing hopes that the gathering would be used to usher in a generational transition within the party leadership or liberalize the country’s nascent private sector, officials instead pushed back forcefully against Obama’s message, and reminded Cubans that U.S. policies continued to threaten Cuban socialism.
In 2016, arbitrary detentions reached a seven-year high, with the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) reporting 9,125 such detentions in the first 10 months of the year. Authorities also cracked down on the island’s emergent and increasingly diverse independent digital media, and attempted to rein in the burgeoning private sector by temporarily halting the issuance of business licenses for new private restaurants in Havana. In a positive development, the 65 public Wi-Fi hotspots first set up in the second half of 2015 grew to a total of 200, and the price of access in many cases was reduced. Google signed an agreement with state telecom monopoly Etecsa in December to set up company servers on the island to enable faster access to its content and services for Cuban internet users. Separately, a pilot program allowing home-based internet access in 2,000 homes in downtown Havana was launched.
In a historic move in October, the United States decided to abstain from a UN vote condemning its embargo against Cuba. Also that month, the Obama administration issued its sixth and final set of regulatory reforms aimed at softening the embargo and enabling greater people-to-people and economic engagement, attempting to make such changes permanent by issuing them under a rare presidential directive. However, the election of Republican candidate Donald Trump as U.S. president in November threatened to undo these changes, given that he had publicly pledged to “cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal” unless concessions in the areas of human rights and religious freedom were made. Ironically, Fidel Castro’s death on November 25 was followed days later by the beginning of the first direct commercial flights from the United States to Havana in more than 50 years, signaling the potential opening his absence may provide for deeper commercial ties between Cuba and the United States.
The Castro brothers have long dominated Cuba’s one-party political system, in which the 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. Neither that nor Fidel Castro’s death in November 2016 prompted significant changes to Cuba’s electoral system.
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 to a second five-year term. A 2012 law imposed a limit of two five-year terms on all senior officials, making Castro’s current term his last. However, at the PCC’s Seventh Congress in April 2016, he was reelected to a new five-year term as party leader, a more powerful position than that of president. Dimming hopes of a generational transition to a younger group of leaders, the Congress also ratified the leadership positions of two historic hardliners, José Ramón Machado Ventura and Ramiro Valdés, both of whom are in their 80s.
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 in short-term detentions by state security forces. In 2016, the CCDHRN reported 9,125 arbitrary arrests of “peaceful opponents” in the first 10 months of the year, the highest level in seven years.
The Cuban government relies heavily on the military as well as on members of the Castro family for control of both business and politics. However, as President Castro has gradually consolidated power since his appointment as interim president in 2006, the portion of PCC leadership represented by the military has shrunk. Meanwhile, 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 top negotiator in the secret talks with the United States that yielded mutual prisoner releases and the reopening of diplomatic relations 2015. The president’s son-in-law, Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas, is chief executive of Gaesa, the sector of the military that controls Cuban business operations. Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro Espín has served as de facto first lady since her mother’s death in 2007, and also serves in the legislature. Thus far, Raúl Castro has not made any public nod toward a potential Castro family political dynasty, and both Alejandro and Mariela Castro were left off the selections to the Central Committee during the Seventh Party Congress in April 2016. Also at the Seventh Party Congress, President Castro proposed that a maximum age limit be set for entry to the Central Committee and for the assumption of a leadership position, saying limits should be 60 and 70, respectively.
While only 2 of the 14 members of the previous PCC Political Bureau were removed by the Central Committee at the Seventh Party Congress, 5 younger members were added. Three were from the health, biotechnology, and information technology sectors, respectively; the remaining two were the leaders of the country’s trade union federation, and the women’s federation. The Central Committee saw significant changes; while a quarter of its members were released, total membership increased from 116 to 142, and included 55 new members younger than 60. The proportion of women also rose from 41.7 percent in 2011, to 44.4 percent. Afro-Cubans comprised 35.9 percent of the committee, compared to 31.3 percent in 2011.
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. Raúl Castro’s regime has made the fight against corruption a central priority, and long sentences have been imposed in corruption cases involving both high-placed Cuban officials and foreign business figures. However, it is not clear whether the government has enacted any internal reforms to make corruption less frequent or easier to identify. Cuba lacks a freedom of information law.
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 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 about 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. These include the “webzines” Vistar, which focuses on music and culture; Garbos, concentrating on fashion; and Play-Off, which covers sports. There are also a variety of new digital projects, some of which cover politics without necessarily being voices of dissent; these include El Estornudo, Cachivache, El Toque, the Havana Times, Periodismo de Barrio, and 14ymedio. In October 2016, government agents arrested a group of independent journalists working for Periodismo de Barrio that had traveled to the city of Baracoa to report on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, and sent them to the city of Guantanamo, where they were released. Separately, a journalist with the state-run Radio Holguín was fired after publishing on his personal blog a speech on the economic crisis in Cuba given by an official with the state newspaper Granma. In July, a group of journalists circulated a protest letter after the official Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC) directed members to stop contributing to the independent digital outlet OnCuba, which the UPEC characterized as counterrevolutionary.
While political censorship, high costs, slow speeds, and limited access continue to characterize the internet in Cuba, the past five years have seen increases in web access via state channels like cybercafés and Wi-Fi hotspots, as well as through inventive workarounds that Cubans have designed to produce and distribute digital content. The most recent official Cuban statistics indicate that 34.8 percent of the island’s population had access to the internet in 2015, up from 15.9 percent in 2010. In December 2016, the hourly connection rate dropped from $2 to $1.50, and as of September 2016, the island counted some 200 Wi-Fi hotspots. Together with about 200 state-run cybercafés and more than 600 public internet access points in places such as hotels and airports, Cuba is now home to over 1,000 access points. E-mail has been accessible via mobile phone since 2014. Still, the island is among the least connected nations in the Western Hemisphere. Indeed, even with the surge in public Wi-Fi hotspots, the vast majority of Cubans only have intermittent internet access.
In December 2016, Etecsa, the state telecommunications company, launched a pilot program providing 2,000 residents of Old Havana with home internet access. However, critical blogs and websites are often blocked. Activists have reported that the state mobile provider has blocked the delivery of SMS messages containing terms like “democracy,” “human rights,” and “hunger strike.”
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 news digests. A sophisticated data packet distribution system uses flash drives to circulate digital information, and Cuba’s new private mobile phone repair shops often double as independent media and phone app distribution points. Various apps like Feedly and Pocket allow Cubans to maximize their limited time online by quickly downloading articles to read later, offline. Another app called Psiphon creates a virtual private network (VPN) that lets users access blocked sites anonymously.
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 diplomatic negotiations between Cuba and the United States, Cuba’s Catholic Church has enjoyed a recent expansion in its pastoral rights, 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. 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 visas 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 Cuban officials 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 and civil liberties.
Restrictions on freedom of association remain a 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, think tanks, human rights groups, political parties, or trade unions. Systematic repression has continued against the peaceful public activities of civil and human rights groups such as the Ladies in White, Estado de Sats, and the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU).
Two other groups specifically targeted for harassment and repression during 2016 are the Center for Legal Information, a pro-bono, public-interest legal consultancy also known as CubaLex; and the newly inaugurated, independent think tank Centro de Estudios Convivencia, or Center for Coexistence Studies. In September, CubaLex’s office was raided by government authorities, and property—including laptops, mobile phones, and documents—was seized. Officials threatened to charge the organization’s leaders with conducting “illicit economic activity.” Its director has been interrogated at the airport ahead of international flights, and suspects that the organization is under constant surveillance. Separately, in September 2016, nine members of Centro de Estudios Convivencia were interrogated by the police. The same month, a workshop organized by the center was shut down by state security officials, as was a meeting in November.
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. In February 2016, Proyecto Arcoiris, or Rainbow Project—a group blog defending sexual diversity that is hosted on the government-sponsored blogging platform Reflejos—was censored for a paragraph that “slandered the Revolution.”
Cuban workers do not have the right to strike or bargain collectively, and independent labor unions are illegal.
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. From December 2014 to October 2015, graffiti artist Danilo “El Sexto” Maldonado was imprisoned, though never formally charged, for “disrespecting the leaders of the Revolution” by painting the words “Fidel” and “Raúl” on a pair of pigs. In November 2016, following Fidel Castro’s death, Maldonado was arrested for spray-painting “se fue” (he’s gone) on the wall of a hotel in Havana. The following month, he was transferred to the maximum-security prison Combinado del Este; his family has said they believe he was charged with damaging state property. He is considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and is represented by the U.S. lawyer Kimberly Motley, who was herself detained, interrogated, and deported from Cuba while trying to visit Maldonado in December.
The Cuban government claims it holds no political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, but various rights groups claimed there were dozens in 2016. At an impromptu and unprecedented joint press conference with Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama during the latter’s state visit to Cuba in March 2016, an American journalist asked Castro why Cuba held political prisoners. Castro angrily denied holding any such prisoners and demanded a list of them saying, “If there are political prisoners, they’ll be free before nightfall.” The CCDHRN subsequently produced a list of 93 prisoners but no releases were made.
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. The government has paid for gender reassignment surgery since 2008.
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 Labor Organization (ILO) 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.
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 and continued to rise throughout 2016. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported that fiscal year 2016 saw a historic exodus of 50,082 Cubans into the U.S., a 17.2 percent increase over fiscal year 2015.
The number of self-employment licenses rapidly expanded from 157,000 in October 2010 to more than 522,000 by November 2016. 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 nonagricultural 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. Separately, in November 2016, Havana authorities said they would suspend the issuing of new restaurant licenses, and warned restaurant owners against violating regulations; with a recent influx of foreign tourists, analysts have suggested that authorities are seeking to curb the earnings of successful restaurants in order to prevent significant wealth disparities in the capital.
Private credit and wholesale access to merchandise for the nonstate sector remains 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 24 percent of the PCC’s politburo, 17 percent of the party secretariat, and 24 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 18 sex traffickers in 2014 and the provision of services to victims in those cases.