Cuba is a one-party communist state that outlaws political pluralism, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite new leadership in 2018 and a process of diplomatic “normalization” with Washington, which has stalled in recent years.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Systematic repression of independent activists, journalists, and civil society groups continued during the year.
- A new National Assembly was chosen through noncompetitive elections in March, and in April it met to install Miguel Díaz-Canel as president of the Council of State. Raúl Castro left the presidency after two five-year terms, but he remained first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
- Strict new regulations were announced for the private sector in July, but after sustained criticism, some elements were revised before they took effect in December.
- Also in December, third-generation (3G) mobile data service became available to Cubans for the first time, and the National Assembly unanimously approved a new constitution that was set for ratification in a national referendum in early 2019. Despite some changes, the constitution would largely preserve the country’s one-party system.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 1 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 0 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
Every five years, the National Assembly designates the members of the Council of State through a noncompetitive process. This body in turn appoints the Council of Ministers in consultation with its president, who serves as both chief of state and head of government. The draft constitution approved by lawmakers in December 2018 would separate those roles, creating the post of prime minister to serve as head of government and stipulating that members of the Council of Ministers could not also be members of the Council of State.
Raúl Castro, having served as president since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008, stepped down in April 2018, and the National Assembly named Díaz-Canel to replace him. The draft constitution set a limit of two consecutive five-year terms for the presidency, as well as an age limit of 60 years for the start of a president’s first term. Raúl Castro, who turned 87 in June 2018, remained first secretary of the PCC. Díaz-Canel, who turned 59 in April, pledged that Castro would continue to “lead the most important decisions for the present and the future of the nation.” A similar process of generational transition and partial decoupling of top party and government posts was unfolding across the executive. Only 9 members of the PCC’s Political Bureau also sat on the Council of State chosen in April; following the 2013 elections, the overlap had been 13.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
In the 2018 National Assembly elections, held in March, voters were asked to either support or reject a single PCC-approved candidate for each of the unicameral body’s 605 seats. All candidates were elected.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4
The only Cuban elections that offer a choice of more than one candidate per office are those for municipal assemblies, but no campaigning is allowed. This is not expected to change under the new electoral law that will follow ratification of the new constitution in 2019.
Ahead of the municipal voting held in late 2017, the government worked to intimidate voters, manipulate nomination meetings, detain or jail opposition figures, and otherwise thwart the candidacies of a group of 175 opposition activists associated with the Otro18 coalition, none of whom were ultimately able to secure a place on the ballot. Activists also faced detentions and intimidation while attempting to monitor polling places and vote counting.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 0 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4
Political parties other than the PCC are illegal. Political dissent is a punishable offense, and dissidents are systematically harassed, detained, physically assaulted, and frequently imprisoned for minor infractions. Supposedly spontaneous mob attacks, known as “acts of repudiation,” are often used to silence political dissidents. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), a nongovernmental organization, reported 2,873 arbitrary arrests of peaceful opponents during 2018, a significant decrease from the 5,155 detained in 2017 and the 9,940 held in 2016. Such brief politically motivated detentions were a key repressive tactic under the government of Raúl Castro, but the 2018 total was the lowest in eight years.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
The PCC and the Castro brothers in particular have dominated government and politics in Cuba since 1959, allowing no transfer or rotation of power between rival groups. While the unprecedented attempt by dissident groups to field independent candidates in the 2017 municipal elections was aimed at challenging the PCC’s monopoly, the authorities’ successful campaign to block opposition candidacies ensured that those elections and the subsequent provincial and national elections in 2018 would again feature no independent candidates.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 0 / 4
The authoritarian one-party system in Cuba largely excludes the public from any genuine and autonomous political participation. The military and intelligence agencies play an important role in suppressing dissent. Several members of the extended Castro family hold important government positions, though none (apart from PCC first secretary Raúl Castro) were granted seats on the PCC’s Central Committee during the Seventh Party Congress in 2016, and none currently serve on either the Council of Ministers or the Council of State.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4
Since political rights are denied to all Cuban citizens, women and members of minority groups are unable to choose their representatives or organize independently to assert their interests in the political sphere. The PCC leadership does exhibit a growing gender and racial diversity. At the 2016 party congress, the proportion of women on the PCC Central Committee rose to 44.4 percent, from 41.7 percent in 2011. Afro-Cubans accounted for 35.9 percent, up from 31.3 percent in 2011. Women also now hold more than half of the 605 National Assembly seats and make up almost half of the 31-member Council of State; Cubans of African and mixed-race descent make up about half of each body. Half of Cuba’s six vice presidents are black, including First Vice President Salvador Valdés Mesa, and three are women.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 1 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
None of Cuba’s nominally elected officials are chosen through free and fair contests, and major policy decisions are reserved for the PCC leadership in practice. The National Assembly, which the constitution describes as the “supreme organ of state power,” has little independent influence and meets for brief sessions only twice a year.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption remains a serious problem in Cuba, with widespread illegality permeating everyday life. The state enjoys a monopoly on most large business transactions, and there are no independent mechanisms to hold officials accountable for wrongdoing. During his 10 years as president, Raúl Castro prioritized the fight against corruption; a new comptroller general was installed, and long prison sentences were imposed on high-level Cuban officials and foreign businessmen found guilty of corruption-related charges. However, the government has not enacted internal reforms that would make the system more transparent and less prone to abuse, nor does it allow civil society groups, journalists, or courts to serve as external checks on its authority.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4
Cuba lacks effective laws that provide for freedom of information and access to official records. Recent demands by journalists for a new media law that would grant citizens the right to information and offer legal protection for the emerging nonstate media sector have made little headway with the government.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 13 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 5 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4
The news media are owned and controlled by the state. The tiny independent press corps is illegal, its publications are considered “enemy propaganda,” and its journalists are frequently harassed, detained, and prohibited from traveling abroad. Government agents routinely accuse independent journalists of being mercenaries, and many face charges of “usurpation of legal capacity” or other trumped-up offenses. Despite these obstacles, independent digital media outlets have continued to emerge in recent years.
President Díaz-Canel has publicly rejected the need for any fundamental change in the state-run media model. In April 2018, he signed into law Decree 349, which aimed to extend state control over the thriving independent artistic community by requiring prior Ministry of Culture approval for both public and private cultural activities. It also banned audiovisual material with ill-defined unpatriotic symbols, pornography, violence, or “sexist, vulgar, or obscene language,” as well as books with content that is harmful to “ethical and cultural values.”
Only a small percentage of the population has access to the global internet, as opposed to a government-controlled national intranet. Critical blogs and websites are often blocked. Under a program that began in 2015, the state telecommunications monopoly Etecsa continued to deploy Wi-Fi hotspots in public spaces such as parks, with the number reaching 800 by the end of 2018. It also extended its rollout of home-based internet access, which reached 67,000 homes by December. The first-ever 3G mobile internet access for Cuban citizens was launched that month, but high prices put the service out of reach for most, and the connections were reported to be slow and riddled with technical problems.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Religious freedom has gradually improved over the past decade, but official obstacles still make it difficult for churches to operate without interference and conduct ordinary educational activities. Given its positive role in US-Cuban diplomatic talks, the Roman Catholic Church has enjoyed an expansion of its pastoral rights, including periodic access to state media and public spaces and the ability to build new churches and distribute its own publications. Protestant and evangelical groups tend to face greater restrictions, though they too have experienced improved conditions in recent years. In 2018, the government allowed various churches to mount a public campaign against a proposed constitutional reform that would have supported the legalization of same-sex marriage.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4
Academic freedom is restricted in Cuba, and private schools and universities have been banned since the early 1960s. New self-employment regulations issued in July 2018 explicitly outlawed using freelancer licenses to set up private schools or academies, and while private day-care centers can continue operating, they must do so under strict regulatory oversight. Teaching materials often contain ideological content, and educators commonly require PCC affiliation to advance in their careers. University students have been expelled for dissident behavior. Despite the elimination of exit visas in 2013, university faculty must still obtain permission from their superiors to travel to academic conferences abroad. Cuban officials often prevent dissident intellectuals from traveling abroad and deny entry to prominent exiled intellectuals who have been critical of the regime.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4
Neighborhood-level “Committees for the Defense of the Revolution” assist security agencies by monitoring, reporting, and suppressing dissent. Cubans often engage in robust private discussions regarding everyday issues like the economy, food prices, foreign travel, and difficulties gaining internet access, but they tend to avoid discussing more sensitive political issues such as human rights and civil liberties. The second half of 2018 featured public and online debate over the draft constitution, though the changes made for the final draft did not always reflect public concerns.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 0 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4
Restrictions on freedom of assembly remain a key form of political control. Security forces and government-backed thugs routinely break up peaceful gatherings or protests by political dissidents and civic activists. The existing constitution limits the rights of assembly and association to prevent their exercise “against the existence and objectives of the Socialist State.” While some of the harsher language banning independent or opposition gatherings was eliminated in the draft of the new constitution, it still qualifies the right to assembly by requiring that it be exercised “with respect to public order and in compliance with the precepts established by the law.”
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4
Based on the 1985 Law on Associations, the government refuses to register any new organization that is not state supervised. 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.
A number of independent civil society organizations suffered repression during 2018, with some activists detained on arbitrary charges, prevented from traveling abroad, or forced into exile. The dissident groups most commonly persecuted by the government include the Ladies in White, the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), Cuba Decide, the Christian Liberation Movement (MCL), Somos Más, and the independent think tank Convivencia Cuba Studies Center.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4
Cuban workers do not have the right to strike or bargain collectively, and independent labor unions are illegal.
F. RULE OF LAW: 2 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
The Council of State has full control over the courts, whose rulings typically conform to the interests of the PCC. Judges are tasked with enforcing laws on vaguely defined offenses such as “public disorder,” “contempt,” “disrespect for authority,” “pre-criminal dangerousness,” and “aggression,” which are used to prosecute the regime’s political opponents.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4
Multiple legal cases against dissidents during 2018 illustrated the systematic violation of due process. These included the prosecution of scientist and environmental activist Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, who was arrested in May and quickly sentenced to a year in jail for the crime of desacato (disrespect) after his farm was raided by state forest rangers. Thought to be a pretext to end his independent environmental activism and seize his farm, the charges were criticized by Amnesty International, which declared Urquiola a prisoner of conscience in June, and by Bishop Jorge Serpa of Pinar del Río, who that month called on the government to review the case. As a result of such pressure and Urquiola’s own hunger strike, he was granted a conditional release for health reasons in July, though the verdict and sentence remained in effect. The CCDHRN reported that as of the end of May there were 120 cases of political prisoners, down from 140 a year earlier.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4
Opposition activists, human rights defenders, and other perceived enemies of the regime are routinely subjected to public assaults as well as abuse in custody. For example, during the month of October 2018, the CCDHRN documented 6 cases of physical aggression and 14 acts of harassment against dissidents that were organized or encouraged by state security forces.
The government has refused to allow international monitoring of its prisons. Prison conditions are poor, featuring overcrowding, forced labor, inadequate sanitation and medical care, and physical abuse. In one high-profile case, MCL activist Eduardo Cardet, who was sentenced to three years in prison in 2017, has been physically attacked in custody and denied medical attention and family visits.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Women enjoy legal equality and are well represented in most professions, though their labor force participation rate stands at about 40 percent, suggesting persistent economic disparities and cultural double standards.
While racial discrimination has long been outlawed, Cubans of African descent have reported widespread discrimination and profiling by police. Many lack access to the dollar economy. A recent survey found that 78 percent of hard currency remittances sent to the island from abroad go to white Cubans, leaving Afro-Cubans at an even greater disadvantage.
Discrimination based on sexual orientation is illegal in areas such as employment and housing, and Mariela Castro Espín, Raúl Castro’s daughter and the director of the National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX), has advocated on behalf of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community. However, the advocacy efforts of independent LGBT groups are either ignored or actively suppressed.
Article 42 of the draft constitution extends protection from discrimination to a wider array of vulnerable groups, explicitly adding categories such as ethnic origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and disability to the existing safeguards regarding race, sex, national origin, and religion.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 6 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4
Freedom of movement and the right to choose one’s residence and place of employment are restricted. Cubans who move to Havana without authorization are subject to removal. Some dissidents are barred from foreign travel, despite a 2013 migration law that rescinded Cuba’s exit visa requirement. Cubans still face extremely high passport fees relative to their very low incomes, and Cuban doctors, diplomats, and athletes who “defect” are barred from visiting for eight years. Former political prisoners are often encouraged to go into exile or forced to live with severely restricted freedoms, including limits on foreign travel.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4
While the number of Cubans licensed as “self-employed” reached 591,456 by the end of May 2018, in July the government issued a 129-page compendium of new regulations designed to rein in the nonstate sector, curbing “illegalities” and preventing the private concentration of wealth and property. The regulations, which took effect in December, aimed to limit entrepreneurs to a single license, ban doing business with foreign entities, and prohibit the use of stand-ins as business owners and the operation of private schools, academies, and real-estate agencies. Following a broad-based pushback from private operators, the government announced changes to some of the most consistently criticized regulations before they came into force. For example, entrepreneurs would still be able to hold more than one license under certain conditions, and the size of Cuba’s popular private paladar restaurants would only be limited by the size of the dining area, not by an arbitrary “50-chair” rule.
Nevertheless, private employment opportunities remain restricted, with most professions excluded. The new regulations failed to provide Cuba’s true small- and medium-sized enterprises with legal recognition, stunting their growth and placing them in legal jeopardy. While the draft constitution recognizes the existence of private property and the market, it also emphasizes that state-owned enterprises and the central planning system will remain dominant.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Individuals enjoy broad freedom in their interpersonal, romantic, and sexual relationships. While divorce is common, men and women enjoy equal rights to marital goods and child custody. The draft constitution does not contain language in the existing charter that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, raising the possibility that same-sex marriage could be legalized in the future, though a change that would have more explicitly supported legalization was ultimately rejected.
Violent crime, including rape and domestic abuse, is believed to be relatively uncommon, though official statistics on crime are rarely published, and domestic violence is not treated as a separate legal category.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Average official salaries remain extremely low at about $30 per month, and the national currency is very weak, encouraging an exodus of trained personnel into the private and tourism sectors, where the convertible peso—pegged to the US dollar—is used. Cubans employed by foreign firms are often much better remunerated than their fellow citizens, even though most are contracted through a state employment agency that siphons off the bulk of their wages and uses political criteria in screening applicants.
State employees who express political dissent or disagreement with the authorities often face harassment or dismissal. Professionals dismissed from their jobs in the state sector have difficulty continuing their careers, as licenses for professions are not available in the private sector.