Cuba is an authoritarian state. The 2019 constitution codifies that Cuba remains a one-party system in which the Communist Party is the only legal political party. On April 19, President Miguel Diaz-Canel replaced former president Raul Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party, the highest political entity of the state by law. Elections were neither free nor fair nor competitive.
The Ministry of Interior controls police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police are the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses, and the number of political prisoners increased dramatically, with many held in pretrial detention under extremely harsh and degrading conditions.
On January 28, security forces violently arrested more than 20 artists and journalist peacefully protesting in front of the Ministry of Culture for the release of detained artists. On July 11, spontaneous peaceful protests broke out across the island. In the largest and most widespread demonstrations in decades, tens of thousands of citizens across the country poured into the streets to demand an end to repression as well as to criticize the government’s failure to meet their basic needs and its poor response to COVID-19. Social media posts helped spread news of the protests among citizens. Security forces responded with tear gas, beatings, and arrests. First Secretary of the Communist Party and President Miguel Diaz-Canel went on national television to call on “all revolutionaries and communists to confront these protests,” a reference to Article Four of the 2019 constitution, which gives citizens the right to “combat through any means, including armed combat” any who “intend to topple the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Many of those arrested reported cruel and degrading treatment in prison. In October authorities denied permission for a protest planned for November 15 and threatened organizers. The government conducted summary trials for some protesters; sought long prison sentences, some up to 30 years, in hundreds of cases; and held other protesters in extended pretrial detention. Some activists chose to go into exile, and the government forced others to do so.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; reprisals against family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media including violence or threats of violence against journalists, censorship, and criminal libel laws used against persons who criticized government leadership; serious restrictions on internet freedom; severe restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; a lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons, including forced labor; and outlawing of independent trade unions.
Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses. As a matter of policy, officials failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed these abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread, as was impunity for official corruption.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Although the 2019 constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not observe them, nor did the courts enforce them.
The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. A May 2020 resolution permits security forces to carry out active and systematic screening of the entire population, prioritizing suspected cases and populations at risk. Travel restrictions barring persons from leaving their homes except in cases of emergency made it harder for activists and political dissidents to communicate.
The law requires that police furnish suspects a signed “report of detention,” noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility and a registry of personal items seized during a police search. Authorities routinely ignored this requirement. Police routinely stopped and questioned citizens, requested identification, and carried out search-and-seizure operations directed at known activists. Police used legal provisions against public disorder, contempt, lack of respect, aggression, and failure to pay minimal or arbitrary fines as ways to detain, threaten, and arrest civil society activists. Police routinely conducted short-term detentions to interfere with individuals’ rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and at times assaulted detainees.
Police and security officials used short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days.
The law allows for “preventive detention” for up to four years of individuals not charged with an actual crime, based on a subjective determination of “precriminal dangerousness,” which is defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used such detentions to silence peaceful political opponents. Several of the more than 100 individuals considered to be political prisoners by domestic and international human rights organizations were imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Police have 24 hours after an arrest to present a criminal complaint to an investigative police official. Investigative police have 72 hours to investigate and prepare a report for the prosecutor, who in turn has 72 hours to recommend to the appropriate court whether to open a criminal investigation.
Within the initial 168-hour detention period, by law detainees must be informed of the basis for the arrest and criminal investigation and have access to legal representation. Those charged may be released on bail, placed in home detention, or held in continued investigative detention. Once the accused has an attorney, the defense has five days to respond to the prosecution’s charges, after which a court date usually is set. Prosecutors may demand summary trials “in extraordinary circumstances” and in cases involving crimes against state security. After the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in early 2020, the Ministry of Justice regularly invoked “extraordinary circumstances” to conduct summary trials.
Reports suggested bail was available, although bail was typically not granted to persons arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial may be counted toward time served if convicted.
Detainees may be interrogated at any time during detention and have no right to request the presence of counsel during interrogation. Detainees have the right to remain silent, but officials do not have a legal obligation to inform them of that right.
By law investigators must complete criminal investigations within 60 days. Prosecutors may grant investigators two 60-day extensions upon request, for a total of 180 days of investigative time. The supervising court may waive this deadline in “extraordinary circumstances” and upon special request by the prosecutor. In the case of the “extraordinary circumstances” waiver, no additional legal requirement exists to complete an investigation and file criminal charges, and therefore authorities may detain a person without charge indefinitely.
Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest. Following the July protests, they detained suspects longer than the legally mandated period without informing them of the nature of the arrest, without allowing them to contact family members, and without making legal counsel available to them. Family members of convicted protesters and protesters released pending trial or appeal reported that none of those released was provided with copies of the charges filed against them or of the evidence against them.
There were reports that defendants met with their attorneys for the first time only minutes before their trials and were not informed of the basis for their arrest within the required 168-hour period. In the case of summary trials for persons accused of “propagating an epidemic” for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, accused persons were tried and sentenced without representation from legal counsel or the opportunity to present any defense.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions increased and became a routine government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. The government frequently detained activists arbitrarily without informing them of any charges against them and often denied them the ability to communicate with their relatives. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. After being taken into custody, these suspects were typically fined and released. The record of the fines frequently lacked information about the law that was broken or the name of the official responsible for the fine, making the fines difficult to contest in court. At times fines formed the basis for preventing persons from leaving the country.
As a result of the July 11 protests, the number of arbitrary arrests rose steeply, with 5,000 to 8,000 arrests and detentions, according to estimates by the NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders. The NGO Justicia 11J estimated 710 remained in detention as of December. The regime used expansively a section of the penal code that allows the government to sentence persons to one to four years in prison for noncriminal acts that are considered antisocial.
Police arrested and imprisoned 18-year-old Marco Antonio Pintules Marrero during the July 11 protests in Holguin and did not allow his mother to see him for more than 46 days, even after he contracted COVID-19 and was transferred to a prison. His mother reported authorities beat him and coerced him into saying he had thrown stones at a Special Brigades car. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported police arrested and imprisoned Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo during the July 11 protests. Rosales Fajardo was held for more than one month in Versalles Prison before being transferred to Boniato Maximum Security Prison. Guards at Versalles beat him and urinated on him; the beating caused him to lose a tooth. Following five months in detention, he was scheduled to stand trial on December 21. He faced a possible sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.
Pretrial Detention: The government held some detainees for months or years in investigative detention, in both political and nonpolitical cases. In nonpolitical cases delays were often due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and a lack of checks on police. The percentage of prisoners and detainees in pretrial detention was unknown.
As of December, Luis Robles Elizastigui spent more than one year in pretrial detention, his trial postponed indefinitely. Police arrested him in December 2020, when he carried out a solitary, peaceful protest in Havana to request that the government release imprisoned rapper Denis Solis. The Prosecutor’s Office requested a sentence of six years for the alleged crimes of “disobedience” and “enemy propaganda.” On October 11, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions found that Robles’ detention resulted directly from his peaceful protest and called for his release. Solis, for whom Robles protested, was released from prison in July after serving his full sentence.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees cannot challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court. Summary trial procedures do not allow defendants to contest the facts of the case as presented by the state, only why they committed the alleged offense.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the protection of citizens’ privacy rights in their homes and correspondence, and the law requires police to have a warrant signed by a prosecutor or magistrate before entering or conducting a search. Officials, however, did not respect these protections. Reportedly, government officials routinely and systematically monitored correspondence and communications between citizens, tracked their movements, and entered homes without legal authority and with impunity.
Security forces conducted arbitrary stops and searches, especially in urban areas and at government-controlled checkpoints at the entrances to provinces and municipalities. Authorities used dubious pretenses to enter residences where they knew activists were meeting, such as “random” inspections of utilities, for epidemiological reasons, or spurious reports of a disturbance. Authorities also used seemingly legitimate reasons, often health related, such as fumigating homes as part of an antimosquito campaign or door-to-door COVID-19 checks, as a pretext for illegal home searches.
On May 2, security officers taunted and threatened human rights activist and UNPACU member Orestes Varona Medina in what observers said was an unsuccessful effort to provoke a confrontation. The next morning, after he received a summons to go to the Minas police station, several policemen raided his house while he was with his wife and young children, arrested him, carried him out by his hands and feet, and beat him. On May 8, he was sentenced for “propagating an epidemic” and contempt and sentenced to 10 months in prison.
The Ministry of Interior employed a system of informants and neighborhood groups, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, to monitor government opponents and report on their activities. Agents from the ministry’s General Directorate for State Security frequently subjected foreign journalists, visiting foreign officials, diplomats, academics, and businesspersons to surveillance, including electronic surveillance.
Family members of government employees who left international work missions or similar activities (such as medical missions, athletic competitions, and research presentations) without official permission at times faced government harassment or loss of employment, access to education, and other public benefits. Family members of human rights defenders, including their minor children, reportedly suffered reprisals related to the activities of their relatives. These reprisals included reduction of salary, termination of employment, denial of acceptance into university, expulsion from university, and other forms of harassment.
Arbitrary government surveillance of internet activity was pervasive and frequently resulted in criminal cases and reprisals for persons exercising their human rights. Internet users had to identify themselves and agree they would not use the internet for anything “that could be considered…damaging or harmful to public security.” User software developed by state universities gave the government access to users’ personal data and communications.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, on the condition that the expression “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” The law bans criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda, with penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison. On August 17, the government imposed a new law restricting online speech and dissent. Decree 35, enacted in response to the widespread July 11 antigovernment protests, penalizes categories of internet activity determined to be critical of the government and provides criminal penalties for violations. Network providers were obligated to report any such activity to the new Office of Security for Computer Networks. According to the NGO Proyecto Inventario, the government utilized another decree that prohibits the online publication of information contrary to the “social interest, morals, [and] good manners,” to target, temporarily detain, fine, and sometimes confiscate the telephones of 14 citizens, journalists, and activists. In addition to restricting access to the internet, authorities prohibited access to specific social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram.
Freedom of Expression: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs, and it limited public debate of topics considered politically sensitive. Several laws criminalize aspects of freedom of expression, such as Decree 349, which empowers the Ministry of Culture to regulate all artistic and cultural activity. Rather than enforce these laws, police typically used other pretexts to harass and arrest persons exercising freedom of expression.
On January 28, security officials violently arrested more than 20 activists from the 27N movement, a collection of artists advocating for freedom of expression. Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas had invited three 27N members, including artist Camila Lobon, to a private meeting that day under the guise of discussing artistic freedom. Prior to the meeting, the government arrested several other 27N activists on their way to a separate gathering. When Lobon and others gathered in protest in front of the Ministry of Culture, Rojas confronted the group, punching independent journalist Mauricio Mendoza, after which Ministry of Culture bureaucrats began attacking the protesters. Security officials violently arrested the protesters, breaking activist Alfredo Martinez’s finger. On a bus in transit to the police station, three security officials assaulted Lobon when she refused to surrender her cell phone. Another security official punched artist Celia Gonzalez for verbally protesting her detention. The activists were released within 24 hours, but their phones were returned with all data erased. The next day state media released a half-hour news program on the incident, attempting to defame the activists and independent journalists by alleging they went to the Ministry of Culture with the intention of provoking government employees. Among the individuals who protested these restrictive laws was Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, an internationally recognized artist and leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting greater respect for civil rights and freedoms, especially for freedom of expression, as well as artistic rights. Otero Alcantara, who appeared in the video for the Latin Grammy Award-winning song “Patria y Vida” that became an anthem of the July 11 protests, had been arrested dozens of times previously and either detained or placed under house arrest.
On May 2, state security forces detained Otero Alcantara at his home, where he was on a hunger strike, and held him for more than four weeks before releasing him on May 31, under permanent surveillance. Police arrested him again during the July 11 protests and held him in the maximum-security prison in Guanajay, where he remained at year’s end. He went on a hunger strike again from September 27 to October 14 and then contracted COVID-19.
On May 18, state security forces arbitrarily detained rapper, fellow San Isidro activist, and “Patria y Vida” performer Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo. As of December, he remained in pretrial detention in Pinar del Rio, where he undertook a hunger and thirst strike and was kept in isolation. When Castillo publicly dedicated his Grammy to the Cuban people, prison officials responded by restricting his telephone calls for 30 days. They increased the restriction to 90 days after Castillo signed “Patria y Vida” under his name on the disciplinary measure, a document that prisoners are obliged to sign acknowledging they were punished.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent debates on cultural, political, economic, and social topics to force them to stop discussing matters deemed controversial. The organizers reported assaults by state security, video surveillance installed outside of venues, and detention of panelists and guests on the days they were expected to appear.
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or for affiliating with independent organizations.
Alexander Jesus Figueredo Izaguirre was detained with others during the July 11 protests in Bayamo, Granma. A physician of 15 years, he was fired in May 2020 and no longer permitted to practice medicine for his social media postings calling for medicine and personnel, rather than restrictive measures alone, to combat COVID-19. Gremio Medico Cubano Libre, an organization dedicated to fighting for doctors’ rights to practice medicine without interference of politics or doctrine, reported that he was one of 11 doctors the regime punished.
Religious groups reported increased restrictions on expressing their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, with authorities sometimes using COVID-19 restrictions to prevent persons from worshipping. Most members of the clergy exercised self-censorship. Religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its policies, and the country’s leadership without reprisals. Other religious groups, particularly those not officially state sanctioned, reported harassment and destruction of houses of worship. The Communist Party’s (PCC) Office of Religious Affairs directed government policies against religious groups.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The government or the PCC directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and virtually all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all government-controlled outlets. The government controlled all printing presses and nearly all publications. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government limited the importation of printed materials.
Foreign correspondents had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. Foreign correspondents struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. The government harassed and denied access to correspondents who reported stories deemed critical of the government. On November 14, the day before the opposition had prepared to stage announced protests, the government revoked the media credentials of five journalists affiliated with the Spanish media agency EFE. Following engagement from the Spanish government, two of the journalists had their credentials reinstated the same day. As a result of self-censorship and lack of access, many foreign journalists rarely published stories on human rights violations while inside the country. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, journalists belonging to state media institutions who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred them from working for unofficial media outlets in addition to their official duties. The government harassed and threatened any independent citizen journalists who reported on human rights violations.
On April 30, plainclothes security forces arrested Esteban Lazaro Rodriguez Lopez, an independent citizen journalist, and others during a peaceful demonstration in Havana. Rodriguez attempted to visit Otero Alcantara at his home, where the artist had gone on a hunger and thirst strike for several days, when military forces blocked access. Rodriguez reportedly sat on the ground and linked arms with other demonstrators in a nearby park, and agents arrested them by force. Habeas corpus appeals failed, and Rodriguez Lopez remained in detention as of November.
Security forces repeatedly threatened, detained, and harassed 22-year-old YouTuber Ruhama Fernandez for criticizing the government in online discussions of social and political issues. On October 24, when she traveled to Florida to visit her parents, security forces escorted Fernandez to her plane; she stated upon arrival in Florida that the government forced her to leave the country.
Violence and Harassment: The government did not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists frequently faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions were of independent journalists who filmed arrests and harassment of activists or otherwise attempted to cover politically sensitive topics. Community members and journalists for the Cuban Institute for Freedom of Expression and of the Press reported increased repression after President Diaz-Canel took office. Independent reporters experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, aggression, and censorship, and several were confined to their homes or prevented from traveling abroad. On July 11, police beat Associated Press reporter Ramon Espinosa while he was covering the protests in Havana. Photographs documented the journalist bleeding from his face. Security forces prevented dozens of independent journalists from leaving their homes on November 15 to keep them from covering planned civic marches called for that day. Many reported the state telecom provider cut off service to their cell phones.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers and magazines were generally unavailable outside of tourist areas. Distribution of material with political content – interpreted broadly to include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, foreign newspapers, and independent information on public health – was not allowed, and possession of these materials sometimes resulted in harassment and detention. Government officials also confiscated or destroyed cameras and cell phones of individuals to prevent them from distributing photographs and videos deemed objectionable.
The government sometimes barred independent libraries from receiving materials from abroad and seized materials donated by foreign governments, religious organizations, and individuals.
Libel/Slander Laws: The government used defamation of character law to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons with the vague crime of “contempt of authority.”
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Article 5 of the constitution enshrines one-party rule by the PCC, disallowing political expression outside of that structure. The government suppressed attempts to form other parties. Candidates for office must be nominated by a PCC “mass organization” and approved by local party officials. These PCC-approved candidates win the vast majority of votes, since electors are limited to PCC representatives. Elections are neither free nor fair. Citizens do not have the ability to form political parties or run as candidates from political parties other than the PCC. The government forcefully and consistently retaliated against those who sought peaceful political change. The government orchestrated mass political mobilization on its behalf and favored citizens who actively participated.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The government selected candidates for the October 2019 election for president of the republic, president of the National Assembly, and membership in the Council of State. Only members of the National Assembly – all of whom were PCC members – were allowed to vote, and candidates ran for office uncontested. For the first time since 1959, on January 18, citizens “elected” provincial governors; however, only one candidate (chosen in theory by the president but in reality by the PCC) stood for each post, and the only persons allowed to vote were loyal party members chosen as delegates of the municipal assemblies in each province. The chosen candidates were not known to the public before the election, and each one received 93 percent or more of the ballots cast, with most receiving 99 percent of the votes.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As in previous national elections, government-run commissions nominated all candidates for office for the January election. No non-PCC candidates were allowed on the ballot. The government routinely used propaganda campaigns in the state-owned media to criticize its opponents. Numerous opposition candidates were physically prevented from presenting their candidacies or were otherwise intimidated from participating in the electoral process.
The 2019 constitution includes many sections that restrict citizens’ ability to participate fully in political processes by deeming the PCC as the state’s only legal political party and the “superior driving force of the society and the state.” For example, Article 4 states, “Citizens have the right to combat through any means, including armed combat when other means are not available, anyone who intends to overthrow the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” The article effectively empowers ordinary persons to violently attack those who publicly disagree with the party.
Citizens who live abroad without a registered place of abode in Cuba lose their right to vote.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No law limits participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. Women and minority representatives in the Central Committee and Politburo declined re-election in the Eighth Party Congress. Women held no senior leadership positions in the military or security services.