New York: Human
Rights Watch (Full Report), 2003
With the visit of former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Cuba in May, Cubans
were exposed to unprecedented public discussion of democracy and human rights.
But as no legal or institutional reforms were made, the country's lack of
democracy and intolerance of domestic dissent remained unique in the region.
HUMAN RIGHTS DEVELOPMENTS
The highlight of former President Carter's five-day visit to Cuba was his
address on May 14 at the University of Havana, which was broadcast live on Cuban
television. Speaking in Spanish, Carter urged the Cuban authorities to allow
democratic changes and to grant basic political freedoms. He specifically
criticized the Cuban government's ban on opposition movements and made direct
reference to the Varela Project, a petition drive organized by Cuban dissidents
to call for a national referendum on civil and political reform. At the close of
his speech, he engaged in a spirited question-and-answer session with members of
the audience--an audience that included Cuban President Fidel Castro.
Carter drew attention to some of the country's most serious human rights
problems. A one-party state, Cuba restricted nearly all avenues of political
dissent. Although the criminal prosecution of opposition figures was becoming
increasingly rare, prison remained a plausible threat to Cubans considering
nonviolent political dissent. The government also frequently silenced its
critics by using short-term detentions, house arrests, travel restrictions,
threats, surveillance, politically-motivated dismissals from employment, and
other forms of harassment.
Cuba's legal and institutional structures were at the root of rights
violations. The rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly,
movement, and the press were strictly limited under Cuban law. By criminalizing
enemy propaganda, the spreading of "unauthorized news," and insult to
patriotic symbols, the government curbed freedom of speech under the guise of
protecting state security. The government also imprisoned or ordered the
surveillance of individuals who had committed no illegal act, relying upon laws
penalizing "dangerousness" (estado peligroso) and allowing for
"official warning" (advertencia oficial). The
government-controlled courts undermined the right to fair trial by restricting
the right to a defense, and frequently failed to observe the few due process
rights available to defendants under domestic law.
The organizers of the Varela Project, led by prominent dissident Oswaldo Payá,
presented an important symbolic challenge to the government's intransigence in
the area of political rights. On May 10, the organizers delivered a petition to
the National Assembly--Cuba's unicameral legislature--containing more than
eleven thousand signatures. Relying on constitutional protections for the right
to petition, the Varela Project asked the government to hold a referendum on a
broad array of civil and political rights, including competitive elections,
freedom of the press, and an amnesty for political prisoners.
The Cuban government responded to the reform effort with a signature drive
of its own. In June, in what seemed like a distorted caricature of the earlier
campaign, the authorities organized a mass signature collection effort in
support of Cuba's socialist system. Holding marches all across the country, and
employing many thousands of signature collectors, the government claimed to have
gathered more than eight million signatures in two days. With this purported
mandate, the National Assembly then proceeded to approve an official proposal
enshrining the socialist system in Cuba's constitution as "irrevocable."
A number of political dissidents were detained over the course of the year,
with some facing criminal prosecution. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and
National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y
Reconciliación Nacional, CCDHRN), a respected Havana-based
nongovernmental group, released a partial list of political prisoners in July
that included 230 reliably documented cases. (It should be noted that not all of
the cases listed involved persons who were wrongly detained or prosecuted on the
basis of nonviolent political expression; it also listed people convicted of
crimes such as "piracy," if the crimes were politically motivated.)
The list showed a net increase of twenty cases over a similar list compiled in
January. The increase led the CCDHRN to suggest that a ten-year general trend
away from the use of political imprisonment was coming to an end.
The vast majority of the year's politically motivated detentions took place
during incidents in February and March. The first group of arrests occurred when
the government tried to block members of the opposition from commemorating the
anniversary of the 1996 shoot-down of two small planes by the Cuban air force.
Several dissidents were arrested in advance of the event, while others were
detained when they tried to reach a beach in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana
to throw flowers into the sea. While most of the detainees were quickly
released, a few remained in long-term detention.
Among those still detained as of early November were Leonardo Miguel Bruzón
Avila, president of the February 24 Human Rights Movement, Carlos Alberto Domínguez
González, an independent journalist, and Emilio Leyva Pérez and Lázaro
Miguel Rodríguez Capote, president and coordinator, respectively, of the
Cuban Pro Human Rights Party. None of the detainees had been officially charged
with a crime. To call attention to his indefinite detention without trial, Bruzón
Avila reportedly went on a hunger strike that began in late August and continued
into October, raising serious concerns for his health.
On February 27, in a dramatic incident, a group of twenty-one young male
Cubans, including three teenagers, crashed a stolen bus through the gates of the
Mexican embassy in Havana. The group apparently believed that Mexico was
granting refugee visas to Cubans, a rumor sparked by a U.S.-funded Radio Martí
broadcast in which the Mexican foreign minister was reported saying that the
embassy was open to all Cubans, including dissidents. Scores of other Cubans
were turned away after trying to enter the embassy on foot. At the embassy's
request, Cuban police entered the compound some thirty hours after the break-in
and detained the asylum seekers. More than one hundred others were also
Some thirty political dissidents who did not participate in the embassy
actions were also reportedly detained, having been arrested at some distance
from the embassy. As of early November, a group of prisoners that included
Iovany Aguilar Camejo, coordinator of the Fraternal Brothers for Dignity
Movement, and Carlos Oquendo Rodríguez and José Aguilar Hernández,
president and vice-president of the July 13 Movement, respectively, remained
The embassy incident ended in a swirl of recriminations and conspiracy
theories. The Cuban government accused the U.S. of maliciously instigating the
break-in, while some dissidents surmised that President Castro had engineered
the incident in order to embarrass Mexican President Vicente Fox, seen by the
authorities as overly sympathetic to the Cuban dissident community. The Cuban
authorities even aired a special television broadcast to discuss the incident.
In it, Castro emphasized that "no one who storms into an embassy will ever
leave [Cuba]," and attacked the asylum-seekers as "delinquents and
A group of ten dissidents, human rights advocates, and independent
journalists was arrested on March 4 at a provincial hospital in Ciego de Avila.
They had gone to the hospital to visit a reporter who had reportedly been
physically attacked by the police earlier in the day while he was traveling to a
meeting of the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights. Reacting with disproportional
severity to a minor disruption, state security police arrested the group after
its members shouted statements such as "Long live human rights." Among
those taken into custody was Juan Carlos González Leiva, a blind human
rights advocate who was said to have been assaulted by police when he was
arrested, requiring four stitches on his forehead. The other arrestees were
seven dissidents and human rights activists--Delio Laureano Requejo, Lázaro
Iglesias Estrada, Virgilio Mantilla Arango, Enrique García Morejón,
Antonio García Morejón, Odalmis Hernández Matos, and Ana
Peláez García--and two independent journalists--Léster Téllez
Castro and Carlos Brizuela Yera.
The authorities quickly released the two women who had been arrested,
placing them under house arrest. The remaining prisoners were kept in detention,
however, and remained there as of early November. In September, the Ciego de
Avila prosecutor's office notified the ten members of the group that they had
been formally charged with the crimes of contempt of authority (desacato),
public disorder, resistance, and disobedience. The threatened sentences varied,
with one defendant facing seven years of imprisonment. Of González Leiva,
the lead defendant, who faced a possible six-year sentence, the indictment noted
critically that "he was not integrated into mass organizations and was not
involved in any socially useful activities."
The year also saw the release of several well-known dissidents. In early
May, just prior to Carter's visit, Vladimiro Roca Antúnez was freed from
Ariza prison. He had spent over two years of his five-year sentence in solitary
confinement. Prosecuted together with three other well-known dissidents, who
were all released from prison in 2001, Roca was freed two months before the
expiration of his sentence. The son of the late Blas Roca, considered a hero of
the Cuban revolution, Roca was educated as an economist and had once flown
missions as a Cuban air force fighter pilot. Years later, with his three
co-defendants, Blas had embarked upon relatively high-profile dissident
activities, holding press conferences in 1997 and releasing an analytical paper
on the Cuban economy, human rights, and democracy. In the resulting criminal
prosecution, the government had cast him as the group's ringleader, giving him
the stiffest sentence of the four.
On October 31, Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet González was released
from prison, having served out a three-year criminal sentence. A physician and
prominent activist, Biscet was convicted in February 2000 of dishonoring
patriotic symbols, public disorder, and instigating delinquency, for protests
that included turning the Cuban flag upside-down and carrying anti-abortion
Other dissidents who continued serving out their prison sentences included
Francisco Chaviano González, incarcerated since 1994, Carlos Cabrera
Roca, incarcerated since 1996, Joaquín Barriga San Emeterio, incarcerated
since 2000, and co-defendants Néstor Rodríguez Lobaina and Eddy
Alfredo Mena González, both incarcerated since 2000.
The government continued to prosecute people for "illegal exit" if
they attempted to leave the island without first obtaining official permission
to do so. Such permission was sometimes denied arbitrarily, or made contingent
on the purchase of an expensive exit permit.
Prisoners were kept in abusive conditions, often in overcrowded cells. Many
prisoners lost weight during incarceration and received inadequate medical care.
Some endured physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the
acquiescence of guards. Prison authorities insisted that all detainees
participate in politically oriented "re-education" sessions or face
punishment. Political prisoners who denounced poor conditions of imprisonment
were frequently punished by long periods in punitive isolation cells, restricted
visits, or denial of medical treatment.
Cuba retained the death penalty for a large number of offences, but a de
facto moratorium on its use seemed to be in effect. Because the authorities did
not release public information on death sentences and executions, however, it
was difficult to ascertain the status of prisoners facing capital punishment.
The government maintained tight restrictions on the press, barring
independent news reports from being published within Cuba. Although local
independent journalists regularly sent their stories outside of Cuba for
publication, they had to work under extremely difficult conditions. They
frequently faced police questioning, short-term detention, surveillance,
confiscation of their notes and other materials, and travel restrictions aimed
at preventing them from covering certain events. In May, the Committee to
Protect Journalists, a U.S.-based press freedom group, named Cuba as one of the
"ten worst places to be a journalist." Besides Domínguez,
detained since February, and Téllez Castro and Brizuela Yera, detained
since March, the authorities kept independent journalist Bernardo Arévalo
Padrón behind bars. Incarcerated since 1997, Arévalo Padrón
was serving a six-year sentence for "insulting" President Castro.
Despite some limits on freedom of religion, religious institutions and their
leaders were granted a degree of autonomy not granted to other bodies. Several
religious-run groups distributed humanitarian aid and carried out social
programs. The authorities did, however, continue to slow the entry of foreign
priests and nuns, limit new church construction, and bar religious institutions
from running schools (although religious instruction was allowed). In contrast
to the first decades after the Cuban revolution, discrimination against overtly
religious persons was rare.
The government recognized only one labor union, the Worker's Central of Cuba
(Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC). Independent labor unions were denied
formal status and their members were harassed. Workers employed in businesses
backed by foreign investment remained under tight government control. Under
restrictive labor laws, the authorities had a prominent role in the selection,
payment, and dismissal of workers, effectively denying workers the right to
bargain directly with employers over benefits, promotions, and wages. Cuba also
continued to use prison labor for agricultural camps and ran clothing assembly
and other factories in its prisons. The authorities' insistence that political
prisoners work without pay in poor conditions violated international labor
DEFENDING HUMAN RIGHTS
Human rights monitoring was not recognized as a legitimate activity, but
rather stigmatized as a disloyal betrayal of Cuban sovereignty. No local human
rights groups enjoyed legal status. As a result, human rights defenders faced
systematic harassment, with the government placing heavy burdens on their
ability to monitor human rights conditions. Besides routine surveillance and
phone tapping, the authorities in some instances used arbitrary searches,
short-term arrests, evictions, travel restrictions, and politically motivated
dismissals from employment.
Human rights defenders were generally denied exit visas to travel abroad
unless a humanitarian reason (such as a sick overseas relative) could be
proffered. Oswaldo Payá, for example, was unable to travel to Washington,
D.C., in September to receive a democracy award from the National Democratic
International human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch were barred
from conducting fact-finding investigations on the island. Cuba was also one of
the few countries in the world, and the only one in the Western Hemisphere, to
deny the International Committee of the Red Cross access to its prisons.
THE ROLE OF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
At its fifty-eighth session in April, and for the tenth time in eleven
years, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on human rights
in Cuba. The language of the resolution, passed by a vote of twenty-three to
twenty-one, was weaker than any in the past. Rather than expressing concern
about violations, the resolution simply invited the Cuban government to make the
same progress with respect to civil and political rights that it had with regard
to economic and social rights. What was most notable about the resolution,
however, was that it had the broad support of Latin American countries, which
were increasingly willing to recognize Cuba's human rights problems.
Cuban representatives played a negative role at the commission by pressing
to weaken the commission's human rights monitoring mechanisms under the guise of
reviewing their functioning. In November, similarly, Cuba was one of only eight
countries to vote against the U.N. General Assembly's adoption of the Optional
Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, a new treaty aimed at eliminating
torture and improving prison conditions.
In November 2001 and November 2002, as in past years, the U.N. General
Assembly adopted by a resounding majority a resolution calling for an end to the
U.S. economic embargo on Cuba.
Ignoring strongly worded Cuban denunciations, eight Latin American
countries--an unprecedented number--voted in favor of the Cuba resolution at the
U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Only Venezuela voted against the resolution,
while Brazil and Ecuador abstained.
Although Mexican President Vicente Fox visited Cuba in February, a move
hailed by the Cubans as a sign of strengthening links, the two countries'
relations worsened quickly. Fox met with dissidents during his visit and, in
April, his government supported the U.N. resolution on Cuba. In late April, in
what was perceived as a retaliatory gesture, President Castro made public a
recording of a private telephone conversation he had had with Fox. The
recording, contrary to the Mexican authorities' portrayal of the incident,
showed that in March Fox had asked Castro to leave a development conference in
Mexico early so as to avoid contact with U.S. President George W. Bush.
European Union (E.U.) representatives formally resumed a political dialogue
with the Cuban government in December 2001 during a visit to Havana. As of early
November 2002, however, Cuba remained the only Latin American country without an
E.U. cooperation agreement. The E.U. "common position" on Cuba,
originally adopted in 1996 and reviewed every six months, made full economic
cooperation conditional on reforms toward greater democracy and human rights
In October, the European Parliament announced that it would be awarding
democracy activist Oswaldo Payá the prestigious Sakharov Prize for
Freedom of Thought.
Former president Carter may have made the most high-profile visit to Cuba,
but he was certainly not the only U.S. political figure to travel to the island
over the course of the year. Other visitors included Minnesota Governor Jesse
Ventura, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, and several members of Congress. With U.S.
business and agricultural interests applying their substantial influence toward
lifting the U.S. economic embargo, the pro-engagement lobby demonstrated
increasing political clout.
Carter himself called for an end to the embargo during his visit to the
island, arguing that it restricted the freedoms of U.S. citizens. In July, the
House of Representatives voted 262-167 to loosen both trade and travel
restrictions, and a similar bill was pending in the Senate. The main obstacle to
change remained the executive branch, which promised to veto any legislation
that weakened the embargo's provisions.
Bush administration officials tried to counter the pro-engagement effort by
making strong and continuing verbal attacks on Cuba. In May, just prior to
Carter's visit to the island, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control John R.
Bolton accused Cuba of developing a limited capacity for germ warfare research.
Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich reprised these claims in October,
although he did not put forward evidence to support them. and just after the
one-year anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, Reich's deputy
assistant secretary of state asserted that Cuban agents had intentionally
provided false leads regarding possible terrorist plots.
In August, former Cuban nurse Eriberto Mederos was convicted of illegally
obtaining U.S. citizenship by concealing his role in what prosecutors said was a
decade of electroshock torture in a psychiatric hospital near Havana. Less than
a month later, Mederos died of cancer, and his conviction was vacated because he
had not had a chance to appeal it.
© 2001Human Rights Watch