Watch. 2001 Report.
Despite a few positive developments over the course of the year, the Cuban
government's human rights practices were generally arbitrary and repressive.
Hundreds of peaceful opponents of the government remained behind bars, and many
more were subject to short-term detentions, house arrest, surveillance,
arbitrary searches, evictions, travel restrictions, politically-motivated
dismissals from employment, threats, and other forms of harassment.
Although Cuba's human rights conditions improved little in 2000, U.S. policy
toward Cuba did begin to change. The high-profile case of Elián González,
the six-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor who stayed seven months in the United
States against the wishes of his father, brought increased public attention to
the United States' policy of isolating Cuba. After the boy returned home in
June, congressional efforts to relax some aspects of the thirty-eight-year-old
U.S. economic embargo against Cuba gained momentum.
Cuba's repressive human rights practices were undergirded by the country's
legal and institutional structure. The rights to freedom of expression,
association, assembly, movement, and of the press remained restricted under
Cuban law. By criminalizing enemy propaganda, the spreading of "unauthorized
news," and the insulting of patriotic symbols, the government effectively
denied freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. The
authorities 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 a fair trial
by restricting the right to a defense, and frequently failed to observe the few
due process rights available to defendants under the law.
Even Cubans' right to leave their country was severely restricted, as the
government prosecuted persons 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.
Pro-democracy activists planned a series of protests to coincide with the
ninth annual Ibero-American Summit, held in Havana in November 1999. Yet, the
authorities cracked down hard on public dissent, arresting over 200 dissidents
in the weeks before and after the summit. Many of them were placed under house
arrest, while others were temporarily detained in police stations. This wave of
repression continued through February 2000. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights
and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y
Reconciliación Nacional), a respected Havana-based nongovernmental group,
announced in early March that 352 dissidents hadbeen arrested over the preceding
four months, while another 240 had their freedom of movement restricted,
normally by being ordered to remain at their homes.
While the vast majority of those arrested were eventually released without
any criminal charges being brought against them, a few were prosecuted. The most
serious case was that of thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet
González, who received a three-year prison sentence on February 25 for
protests that included turning the Cuban flag upside-down and carrying
anti-abortion placards. Biscet, the president of the Lawton Human Rights
Foundation, was convicted of dishonoring patriotic symbols, public disorder, and
instigating delinquency. It was reported in August that he had experienced
severe weight loss in prison, suffered from health problems, including an
untreated gum infection, and had been held in solitary confinement for months at
Also on February 25, immediately after Biscet's trial, Eduardo Díaz
Fleitas, vice-president of the Fifth of August Movement (Movimiento 5 de
Agosto), and Fermín Scull Zulueta, were convicted of public disorder by
the same court. Díaz Fleitas was sentenced to a year of incarceration,
while Scull Zulueta received a year of house arrest. Like Biscet, they were
anti-abortion protesters, and had carried signs at a November 10 demonstration.
The most encouraging development of the year came in May when three leaders
of the Internal Dissidents Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo de la Disidencia
Interna, GTDI) were freed prior to the expiration of their sentences. Economists
Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, engineering professor Félix Antonio Bonne
Carcasses, and attorney René Gómez Manzano were granted
provisional liberty within two weeks of each other, but Vladimiro Roca Antúnez,
the fourth leader of the group, remained incarcerated at this writing. The four
had been sentenced in March 1999 to several years of imprisonment for "acts
against the security of the state," after having spent nearly nineteen
months in pretrial detention. They were first detained in July 1997, a month
after the GTDI released "The Homeland Belongs to All" (La Patria es de
Todos), an analytical paper on the Cuban economy, human rights, and democracy.
Whether detained for political or common crimes, inmates were subjected to
abusive prison conditions. Prisoners frequently suffered malnourishment and
languished in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. Some
endured physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the
acquiescence of guards, or long periods in isolation cells. Prison authorities
insisted that all detainees participate in politically oriented "re-education"
sessions or face punishment. Political prisoners who denounced the poor
conditions of imprisonment were punished with solitary confinement, restricted
visits, or denial of medical treatment.
At least twenty-four prisoners faced the death penalty, according to a list
circulated in August by the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, which also provided the names of twenty-one others who had been
executed in 1999. Although the organization noted that all of the executions
involved defendants convicted of homicide, Cuban law permitted the use of the
death penalty for numerous other crimes, including international drug
trafficking and the corruption of minors. Cuba's secrecy regarding the
application of the death penalty-the government did not provide information on
execution-made it difficult to ascertain the actual number of death sentences
imposed and carried out. The Cuban legal system's serious procedural failings
and lack of judicial independence, which violated the rights of all criminal
defendants, were especially problematic with regard to capital offenses.
Miscarriages of justice were also unlikely to be remedied upon review by a
higher court, since Cuban law afforded convicts sentenced to death minimal
opportunities to appeal their sentences.
The Cuban government maintained a firm stance against independent
journalism, regularly detaining reporters and sometimes prosecuting them. On
November 10, 1999 Angel Pablo Polanco, the director of Noticuba, was arrested
and held for a week, allegedly to prevent him from reporting on protests
surrounding the Ibero-American Summit. On January 20, 2000 José Orlando
González Bridón, president of the Cuban Confederation of
Democratic Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Democráticos de
Cuba) and writer for the Cuba Free Press, was detained for several hours. Police
reportedly questioned him about his writings and threatened to prosecute him.
Other journalists detained and questioned for brief periods over the course of
the year included Ricardo González Alfonso, Jadir Hernández, Jesús
Hernández, and Luis Alberto Rivera Leiva. Others were harassed or
prevented from working by police.
Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, a long-time government opponent who wrote for
the Union of Independent Cuban Journalists and Writers (Unión de
Periodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes), was sentenced on January 25 to
six months of imprisonment for "hoarding" toys. Police had confiscated
toys that he had planned to give away to poor children in his area; they had
been paid for by Cuban exiles in Miami. Just after Arroyo's trial, the Cuban
authorities freed another independent journalist, Leonardo de Varona González,
who had served a sixteen-month sentence for "insulting" President
Fidel Castro. At least three other independent journalists remained
incarcerated: Bernardo Arévalo Padrón and Manuel Antonio González
Castellanos, serving sentences of six years and of two years and seven months,
respectively, for "insulting" Castro; and Jesús Joel Díaz
Hernández, serving four years for "dangerousness," who was
reportedly held in solitary confinement until early August.
On October 16, after his release from prison, Arroyo was reportedly beaten
and insulted by state security agents. He and another dissident were picked up
from a friend's house, driven to the police station in Güines, beaten en
route, and then driven dozens of miles away and released after being beaten
Foreign journalists too faced government harassment if they attempted to
work with or assist their Cuban colleagues. Italian freelance journalist Carmen
Butta was reportedly detained by police on June 18 after meeting with
independent journalists as part of her research for an article on the Cuban
independent press. In August, three Swedish journalists were arrested in Havana
by state security agents. They had traveled to Cuba on tourist visas but had
held a seminar on press freedom for independent journalists. The three were
deported after spending two days in detention. Earlier that same month, French
journalist Martine Jacot was detained and interrogated at the Havana airport by
six members of the Cuban security forces. She had spent a week in Cuba
interviewing independent journalists and family members of incarcerated
journalists. Jacot's equipment, including a video camera, was seized, as were
While the government permitted greater opportunities for religious
expression than in past years and allowed several religious-run humanitarian
groups to operate, it continued to maintain tight control over religious
institutions, affiliated groups, and individual believers.
The government recognized only one labor union, the Worker's Central of Cuba
(Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC), and restricted labor rights by banning
independent labor groups and harassing individuals attempting to form them. It
tightly controlled workers employed in businesses backed by foreign investment.
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 alsocontinued 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
© 2001Human Rights Watch