Bolivia is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected president and a bicameral legislature. On October 18, Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, candidate for the Movement Toward Socialism Party, won a presidential election with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community coalition candidate Carlos Diego Mesa Gisbert, won 28.8 percent. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent.
The national police, under the Ministry of Government’s authority, have primary responsibility for law enforcement and the maintenance of order within the country, but the Armed Forces, which report to the Ministry of Defense, may be called to help in critical situations. Immigration officials report to the Ministry of Government, and police and military share responsibilities for border enforcement. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious problems concerning judicial independence; restrictions on free expression, the press, and other media, including violence against journalists by state security forces and censorship; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and use of child labor.
The government took steps in some cases to prosecute members of the security services and other government officials who committed abuses, but inconsistent application of the law and a dysfunctional judiciary led to impunity.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings during the year.
The Institute of Forensic Investigations recorded 30 persons killed from October 20 to November 15, 2019, in the context of the postelectoral crisis. The death toll was corroborated by Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Of these 30 deaths, OHCHR and forensic reports indicated nine persons were killed and more than 100 injured during demonstrations in Sacaba, Cochabamba Department, on November 15, 2019, and another 10 were killed and 30 injured during protests near the Senkata gas facility in El Alto, La Paz Department, on November 19, 2019.
Regarding the violent disturbances that occurred in the postelectoral period in October-November 2019, an August OHCHR report cited Institute of Forensic Investigation reporting that the use of lethal ammunition led to deaths and injuries during protests in Sacaba and Senkata. The OHCHR report also highlighted there were no reports of security forces being killed or wounded by gunfire during these same protests, although Ministry of Justice officials stated a number of security forces were wounded during the Sacaba incident. A December 2019 preliminary report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated the injury patterns in both cases “point strongly to extrajudicial killing practices.” Government authorities denied security forces were responsible for these deaths, claiming the protesters used their own firearms and that some calibers of the bullets found in victims’ corpses did not correspond to standard ammunition issued to police or armed forces. In a February interview with Human Rights Watch, then minister of government Arturo Murillo claimed leaders of the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party killed their party’s own supporters in Sacaba and Senkata, referencing the forensic reports that allegedly found bullets in victims that were inconsistent with the caliber used by security forces. The August OHCHR report cited forensic reports indicating authorities were unable to recover the vast majority of bullets that killed and injured protesters in the two incidents and that authorities had not conducted any formal assessment of the weapons carried by security forces during those operations. Government officials stated the use of force by security forces was proportional to the protesters’ level of violence. The officials indicated protesters had homemade weapons and explosive material and that they intended to cause an explosion at the gas installation the armed forces were guarding in Senkata. The OHCHR also reported accounts of the events from authorities, victims, and witnesses revealed inconsistencies that needed to be investigated.
A September Human Rights Watch report indicated other persons died in subsequent clashes between pro-Morales supporters and their opponents, including two men allegedly killed by Morales supporters in Montero, Santa Cruz Department. According to local media, two police officers were also killed in the postelection violence. In November 2019 police sergeant Juan Alarcon Parra died of injuries after allegedly being beaten by a mob, and Lieutenant Coronel Heybar Alarcon died in a motorcycle accident allegedly after being attacked by protesters.
In December 2019 the IACHR announced it had signed an agreement with the transitional government to create a mechanism to support the investigation of acts of violence and human rights abuses that took place between September and December 2019. Subsequently, an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) was created by the IACHR with the agreement of the transitional government to investigate the events for a period of six months, which could be extended by agreement of the parties for as long as necessary to fulfill its mission.
On November 23, the Arce government and the IACHR signed a protocol agreement during a public ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to install the five-member GIEI and officially begin the investigation into the acts of violence that occurred between September and December 2019. The group of international human rights experts is scheduled to conduct meetings with victims, witnesses, government authorities, and civil society. The government authorized the group to have access to police and military records to conduct an independent and impartial investigation of the acts of violence surrounding the October 2019 general election.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits all forms of torture, coercion, and physical and emotional violence, but there were reports that government officials employed them. The penal code carries only minimum penalties for persons convicted of torture, but no public official had ever been found guilty of the crime.
A representative of the Ombudsman Office, Nelson Cox, alleged that nine prisoners from the Chapare region detained on drug charges were physically and psychologically attacked by police after they were sent on April 26 to the El Abra Prison in Cochabamba. Cox referenced a report from the prison physician that found bruising and lesions on the prisoners resulting from blows to their lower extremities, back, and ribs.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) charged that the Ministry of Justice’s Service to Prevent Torture failed to denounce consistently torture by police and military personnel, who employed it frequently. NGOs reported that police investigations relied heavily on torture to procure information and extract confessions. The majority of abuses reportedly occurred while officials were transferring detainees to police facilities or holding them in detention. According to reports from NGOs engaged with prison populations, the most common forms of torture for detainees included rape, gang rape by guards, sensory deprivation, use of improvised tear gas chambers and Tasers, asphyxiation, verbal abuse, and threats of violence.
Within the military, torture and mistreatment occurred both to punish and to intimidate trainees into submission. Military officials regularly verbally abused soldiers for minor infractions and perceived disobedience.
Impunity remained a significant problem in the National Police due to corruption and politicization of the judicial system, with mechanisms to investigate abuse rarely utilized or enforced. Complex legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, executive interference, corruption, and inadequate case-tracking mechanisms contributed to police impunity. According to a 2019 report by the Department of Inspection and Control of Disciplinary Cases of the Institution of Order, 180 police officers cited in criminal proceedings between 2014 and 2019 were reinstated after their cases were closed. Of the 180 officers, 84 were involved in drug trafficking and corruption cases. Mechanisms to investigate abuse exist, but investigations frequently were not completed due to systemic corruption that encouraged investigated parties to pay off investigators. NGOs and the international community offered most training courses to increase respect for human rights, but few took place throughout the year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prisons were overcrowded, underfunded, and in poor condition, resulting in harsh and life-threatening conditions. Violence was pervasive due to inadequate internal security.
Physical Conditions: According to the government’s Penitentiary Regime Directorate, prison facilities had a combined capacity for 6,765 persons, but in March the prison population was 18,260 inmates, representing a 270 percent overpopulation. The problem was most acute in the 20 urban prisons, which had a combined capacity of 5,436 persons but held 15,581 inmates.
Women’s prisons operated in Cochabamba, two in La Paz, Reyes, Rurrenabaque, Santa Rosa, and Trinidad. Men and women shared sleeping facilities in Morros Blancos Prison in Tarija, Montero Prison in Santa Cruz, Riberalta Prison in Beni, and Oruro Prison in Oruro. In other facilities men and women had separate sleeping quarters but commingled daily. Female inmates experienced sexual harassment and assault on a regular basis, and some were forced to pay antirape extortion fees. While observers noted violence against women, such as rape, was rampant, they reported a culture of silence that suppressed reporting of gender-based violence due to fear of reprisal.
Although the law permits children up to age six to live with an incarcerated parent under “safe and regulated conditions,” children as old as 12 resided in detention centers with incarcerated parents, despite unsafe conditions, often because the parents lacked viable alternative living arrangements due to poverty or family constraints. Minors ages six and younger were allowed only in women’s prisons. Minors were not allowed to live in men’s detention centers.
The law sets the juvenile detention ages from 14 to 16 and requires that juvenile offenders be held in facilities separate from the general prison population to facilitate rehabilitation. Children younger than age 14 are exempt from criminal liability but may be subject to civil liability. Adult inmates and police reportedly abused juvenile prisoners. Rehabilitation programs for juveniles or other prisoners were scarce.
Violence was ubiquitous due to inadequate internal security. Abuses perpetrated by penitentiary officials included systematic intimidation, rape, psychological mistreatment, extortion, torture, and threats of death. There were reports of rape and sexual assault committed by authorities and other inmates.
Prisoners with independent means could purchase a transfer to the rehabilitation center, a newly built detention facility with better living conditions. One medical doctor attended to prisoners in each prison twice a month. Although medical services were free, prisons rarely had medications on hand. Skin diseases and tuberculosis were widespread due to the cramped sleeping quarters and lack of medicine to manage contagion. Incarcerated women lacked access to obstetric services.
Corruption was persistent. A prisoner’s ability to pay bribes often determined physical security, cell size, visiting privileges, ability to attend court hearings, day-pass eligibility, and place and length of confinement. Inmates and NGOs both alleged there was an insufficient number of police officers to escort inmates to their hearings, and prison directors often refused to intervene, exacerbating delays. Police sometimes demanded bribes in exchange for granting inmates the right to attend their own hearings. Independent media reported corruption complaints against police were common. Prison inmates stated guards extorted money in order to receive goods.
On July 27, inmates at four separate detention centers in Cochabamba mutinied against poor sanitary conditions and lack of medical care. Inmates from San Sebastian Male Prison, San Sebastian Female Prison, San Pedro de Sacaba Prison, and San Pablo de Quillacollo Prison staged separate protests demanding rapid COVID-19 testing, medical attention, and considerations of amnesty and pardons after three inmates died of suspected COVID-19 symptoms in San Sabastian Male Prison and another three in San Pablo de Quillacollo Prison. A relative of one of the inmates said there were no physicians or medical supplies inside the facility. Inmates complained that many judicial activities had been suspended since the start of the pandemic due to infections among judges. The heightened tension followed the suspected COVID-19 death of 23 inmates in the San Pedro Jail of La Paz.
On August 19, Director General of the Penitentiary System Clemente Silva Ruiz reported in a UN webinar that 56 prisoners had died due to COVID-19 throughout the prison system. He stated that overcrowding, a lack of infrastructure, and a lack of medical personnel were the main factors for the loss of life. According to data provided during the webinar, since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak the Penitentiary System registered 118 confirmed cases, with 16 persons hospitalized, 56 deceased, and five awaiting test results. There were also 149 suspected cases. The director explained that despite the prison system’s contracts with hospitals to care for prisoners, inmates with suspected COVID-19 were denied care due to a lack of space in the hospitals.
Administration: Authorities generally did not conduct investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, prisoners could submit complaints to a commission of district judges for investigation, but due to fear of retaliation by prison authorities, inmates frequently did not do so.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted monitoring by independent NGO observers such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, local NGOs, judges, religious organizations, legislators, and media. The COVID-19 pandemic greatly restricted independent monitoring of prison conditions, however. As of August observers reported a nearly four-month court closure during the national quarantine and a near complete ban on visiting prisons by outside monitors, with many lawyers who represented defendants unable to visit in person. Criminal justice activists also pointed to the lack of any law related to the access to public information in the prison system and stated the lack of transparency and opacity in the judicial branch increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not always respect the law. The law also provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed this provision, although international human rights groups highlighted a number of potentially politically motivated cases initiated by the interim government that resulted in arbitrary arrest.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires that police obtain an arrest warrant from a prosecutor and that a judge substantiate the warrant within eight hours of an arrest. Police did not strictly adhere to these time restrictions, except in cases in which the government specifically ordered adherence. The law also mandates that a detainee appear before a judge within 24 hours (except under a declared state of siege, during which a detainee may be held for 48 hours), at which time the judge must determine the appropriateness of continued pretrial detention or release on bail. The judge is to order the detainee’s release if the prosecutor fails to show sufficient grounds for arrest. The government allows suspects to select their own lawyers and provides a lawyer from the Public Defender’s Office if the suspect requests one. The public defenders were generally overburdened and limited in their ability to provide adequate, timely legal assistance. While bail is permitted, most detainees were placed in pretrial detention or could not afford to post bail. Several legal experts noted pretrial detention was the rule rather than the exception.
Arbitrary Arrest: The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not always respect the law.
On May 22, Judge Hugo Huacani ordered the transfer of Edith Chavez Arauco, the babysitter of former president Evo Morales’s minister of the presidency, Juan Ramon Quintana, from pretrial detention to house arrest after the time period of her ordered pretrial detention had expired. Hours later Judge Huacani was detained by police for a “lack of independence” in his ruling, according to a statement from the Interior Ministry. That same day the La Paz Departmental Attorney General’s Office reported it had not been involved in Judge Huacani’s arrest nor issued an arrest warrant against him, and on May 23, another judge ordered his release and declared his detention illegal. Amnesty International determined the detention was “arbitrary as it was based solely on the fact that the government disagreed with a judicial decision he [Judge Huacani] had taken.”
Pretrial Detention: The law affords judges the authority to order pretrial detention if there is a high probability a suspect committed a crime, if evidence exists that the accused seeks to obstruct the investigation process, or if a suspect is considered a flight risk. If a suspect is not detained, a judge may order significant restrictions on the suspect’s movements.
The law states no one shall be detained for more than 18 months without formal charges. If after 18 months the prosecutor does not present formal charges and conclude the investigatory phase, the detainee may request release by a judge. The judge must order the detainee’s release, but the charges against the detainee are not dropped. By law the investigatory phase and trial phase of a case may not exceed 36 months combined. The law allows a trial extension if the delays in the process are due to the defense. In these circumstances pretrial detention may exceed the 36-month limit without violating the law.
Despite the legal limits on pretrial detention, prolonged pretrial detention remained a problem. Complex legal procedures, large numbers of detainees, judicial inefficiency, executive interference, corruption, a shortage of public defenders, and inadequate case-tracking mechanisms contributed to trial delays that lengthened pretrial detention and kept many suspects detained beyond the legal limits for the completion of a trial or the presentation of formal charges.
Many defense attorneys intentionally did not attend hearings in order to delay trial proceedings and ultimately avoid a final sentencing, either at the request of their clients or due to high caseloads. According to information received in March from the Penitentiary Regime Directorate, approximately 65 percent of prisoners were being held in pretrial detention, consistent with 2019 figures but less than in previous years, when 70-85 percent of the prison population was in pretrial detention.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the judiciary remained overburdened, vulnerable to undue influence by the executive and legislative branches, and plagued with allegations of corruption. Authorities generally respected court orders, but on several occasions, they pressured judges to change verdicts. Judges and prosecutors sometimes practiced self-censorship when issuing rulings to avoid becoming the target of verbal and legal harassment by the government.
The judiciary faced numerous administrative and budgetary problems. NGOs asserted the funds budgeted for the judiciary were insufficient to assure equal and efficient justice and that the reliance on underfunded, overburdened public prosecutors led to serious judicial backlogs. As a result justice officials were vulnerable to bribery and corruption, according to credible observers, including legal experts. An August report by the domestic NGO Fundacion Construir stated that only 0.52 percent of the 2020 national budget was allocated to the entire judicial sector. The 2018 Report on the State of Justice indicated that of the 118 members (magistrates), 1,039 ordinary judges, and 63 agriculture or environmental judges, only 223 were considered career judges. While the Ministry of Justice approved greater regulations regarding the judicial career, NGOs cited a lack of transparency in the application of these regulations and the classification of career versus noncareer judges.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial without undue delay, but the government did not always respect the law. Defendants are entitled to be informed of charges promptly and in detail and to a presumption of innocence and trial by a panel of judges. They have the right to avoid self-incrimination and to consult an attorney of their choice, receive adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense and confront adverse witnesses, present witnesses and evidence, and file an appeal. Defendants who cannot afford an attorney have the right to a public defender or private attorney at public expense. Free translation and interpretation services are required by law. Officials did not always comply with the law. Criminal justice observers pointed out the number of public defenders fell from 89 to 77 countrywide during the year, resulting in increased case backlogs. Observers also highlighted the perennial problems of poor retention due to the large workload and poor compensation, with public defenders often earning only half of what prosecutors earned.
Judicial system NGOs expressed concern regarding what they termed “the arbitrary use of the penal system” to criminally prosecute persons who violated COVID-19 quarantine measures. According to press statements from the prosecutor’s office of various departments, as of mid-May, 193 criminal sentences for crimes against public health had been delivered: 126 in Santa Cruz, 56 in La Paz, and 11 in Chuquisaca. According to other data released by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, from March 22 to April 20, the office had initiated 273 criminal cases of crimes against public health throughout all nine departments. NGOs expressed particular concern regarding the systematic use of abbreviated procedures that pressured defendants to plead guilty to obtain a lighter sentence and serve it under house arrest instead of in prison. NGOs argued this method of offering a lighter sentence if the defendant agrees to an abbreviated procedure violates due process legal provisions.
On April 30, the interim government released Decree Law No. 4226, Presidential Decree of Amnesty and Pardon for Humanitarian Reasons and National Health Emergency, against the contagion and spread of COVID-19 in the prison system. Many justice system observers and civil society representatives criticized the expansive exclusion criteria within the decree such as age limits or types of crimes that drastically reduce the number of prisoners eligible for parole or pardon. The limited number of public defenders, who would typically have to initiate the pardon requests, exacerbated the ineffectiveness of the decree.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
According to an August OHCHR report, the Office of the Attorney General initiated criminal proceedings against approximately 150 former Morales government officials at all levels from November 2019 to February. Common charges included sedition, terrorism, and breach of duties, and the proceedings were often initiated by legal complaints from interim government officials. The OHCHR expressed concern that the overly broad and vague definitions of crimes such as terrorism, sedition, and breach of duties “could be arbitrarily applied to restrict the rights of a person.” The report also noted violations of legal due-process provisions, irregularities in the notification of legal warrants, and the detention and prosecution of defense attorneys. In September, Ministry of Justice officials denied these figures, claiming that only a handful of terrorism or sedition investigations remained open. The officials cited the case of former minister of culture Wilma Alanoca Mamani and nine other colleagues from the Ministry of Culture who allegedly fabricated Molotov cocktails and distributed them to MAS supporters in the days preceding Morales’ resignation.
On August 19, the International Policy Commission in the MAS-controlled Chamber of Deputies approved the extension of a bill for the safe conduct of former officials in the Morales administration who had claimed asylum in the residence of the Mexican embassy since late 2019. Following the departure of Morales in November 2019, seven former officials sought asylum in the Mexican embassy, among them former presidency minister Juan Ramon Quintana, former defense minister Javier Zabaleta, and former justice minister Hector Arce. Gonzalo Aguilar, a MAS deputy, claimed these former officials had not been found guilty of any crime and had been accused of political crimes. Officials in the interim government’s Foreign Ministry disagreed, stating that Congress could not encroach other legal jurisdictions and that many of the former officials had urgent arrest orders pending against them for charges of sedition, terrorism, terrorist financing, and public incitement to commit a crime. Following the October 18 elections, the majority of the detention orders and criminal investigations against the former officials were dropped, and all seven officials eventually left the Mexican embassy. On October 25, a judge annulled the detention order against Zabaleta, and on November 1, judges annulled the detention orders against Quintana and Hector Arce.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The law permits individuals and organizations to seek criminal remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts. At the conclusion of a criminal trial, the complainant may initiate a civil trial to seek damages. The human rights ombudsman may issue administrative resolutions on specific human rights cases. The ombudsman’s resolutions are nonbinding, and the government is not obligated to accept his or her recommendations.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and there were no reports that the government failed to respect these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
While the constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, the former Morales government, and to a lesser extent the transitional government, carried out reprisals against media outlets that expressed dissenting opinions. Some media outlets reported the government pressured and intimidated them to report favorably regarding its policies, particularly by withholding government advertising and imposing steep taxes.
Freedom of Speech: On March 25, the interim government issued Presidential Decree 4200 as one of the first major government decrees to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by mandating a national quarantine through April 15 (which was later extended due to an increase in COVID-19 cases). In a section titled “Sanctions for Lack of Compliance,” the second clause reads: “Individuals who incite noncompliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainty in the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health.” A subsequent clause states persons who commit crimes against public health “will be subject to imprisonment for one to 10 years, in accordance with the stipulations of the penal code.” The decree itself establishes no legal sanctions beyond those that already exist. The decree’s language led to criticisms from international observers. On April 7, Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch called the decree’s provision “overly broad” and argued the interim government “appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect,’ in violation of free speech protections.” On April 11, the IACHR special rapporteur for freedom of expression echoed this sentiment in a tweet, claiming the provision reflected a “disproportionate use of penal law to criminalize commentary on issues of public interest.”
On May 7, the interim government issued Presidential Decree 4231, which states that persons who disseminate information “be it in written, printed, artistic form and/or by any other procedure that puts them at risk or affects public health, or generates uncertainty in the population, will be liable to complaints for the commission of crimes established in the penal code.” This decree built upon Presidential Decree 4200 to deter the spread of “misinformation” related to COVID-19 by broadening the potential methods of disinformation to include “printed and/or artistic form.” Following this decree, the Ombudsman’s Office announced it would file an action before the Constitutional Tribunal to declare Decree 4231 was unconstitutional and violated the fundamental democratic right to freedom of expression. Many entities previously critical of the Morales government’s record on free speech issues noted the decree represented a similar threat against freedom of speech. The Association of Journalists of Bolivia and the Association of Journalists of La Paz called for the repeal of Decree 4231, since “it establishes a severe unconstitutional and unconventional restrictions by penalizing the human and fundamental right to freedom of expression.”
Following a May 14 cabinet meeting, the interim government announced it was annulling the relevant provisions of each “disinformation” decree. The interim government had been widely criticized by domestic and international groups, including the IACHR, for the decrees’ language, which many had argued countered citizens’ free speech and free press rights and international commitments.
On April 21, Mauricio Jara Pacheco was arrested and placed into pretrial detention for allegedly inciting the population via WhatsApp Messenger groups to ignore the rigid national quarantine measures and for belonging to a group of “digital warriors” tied to the previous Morales administration. He was charged with sedition, public instigation to commit a crime, and attacks against public health. On April 29, a total of 46 journalists and media figures released a public statement demanding his release and urging the government to respect freedom of expression. As of September, Jara Pacheco remained in pretrial detention while the investigation continued.
Freedom of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: According to Supreme Decree 181, the government should provide goods and services to all media outlets in a nondiscriminatory manner, but it did not purchase advertisements in media outlets considered adversarial.
Media outlets alleged the government pressured news organizations to report favorably on government policies and retaliated against news organizations that did not comply. The National Press Association of Bolivia (ANP) and several journalists alleged the government’s retaliatory tactics included withdrawing advertisements and conducting excessive tax audits, which forced companies to spend significant time and resources to defend themselves. Civil society organizations explained that while reported harassment under the interim government was not as serious as during the Morales government, other forms of economic pressure via advertising used under the Morales administration continued relatively unchanged. In late 2019 Minister of Communication and Minister of Government Murillo threatened journalists who published stories against the government, but no charges were filed.
Violence and Harassment: Journalists faced threats. On September 11, the ANP Monitoring Unit released a report that detailed 87 cases of assault or attacks against journalists in 2019, up 165 percent from 2018. The unit cited increased social tension during an electoral year as the principal cause. In addition to the 87 cases of direct attacks, the report also highlighted other “alerts” of aggression against freedom of expression that included restricting access to information, stigmatizing discourse, and internet restrictions. Of the 162 total alerts (including the 87 cases of attacks against journalists), the report identified the government as the perpetrator in 28 percent of them, with the other alerts attributed to nonstate actors (mainly protesters) or unknown perpetrators.
On July 29, the ANP reported that at least four journalists were physically and verbally attacked during a march organized by the trade union federation Central Obrera Boliviana and organizations aligned with MAS against the postponement of the general election date, but several of those affected opted for self-censorship to avoid retaliation. Protesters tried to take mobile phones from press envoys filming the marches, and other press workers were insulted and threatened by marchers. One federation leader, who organized the protests, claimed the leadership lacked the ability to control “radical people” among the bases.
On May 20, the ANP reported that a journalist and cameraman were ambushed by MAS-aligned protesters in the K’ara neighborhood of Cochabamba as they attempted to cover a conciliation meeting between community members and municipal authorities regarding a garbage dump that had been temporarily closed due to COVID-19 concerns. According to victim testimony and video from the incident, protesters threw large rocks through the windshield of a press vehicle and chased the journalists as they attempted to flee. The cameraman suffered chest injuries from the stone and shattered glass.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Journalists sometimes practiced self-censorship due to fear of losing their jobs or losing access to government sources, in addition to fear of prosecution and harassment.
There was no evidence the government restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, although political considerations allegedly influenced academic appointments.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but some civil society organizations criticized the interim government for using the pretext of the COVID-19 national quarantine to restrict the right of freedom of assembly. The government generally respected the right of freedom of association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
While the law requires a permit for most demonstrations, the government rarely enforced the provisions, and most protesters demonstrated without obtaining permits. Most demonstrations were peaceful, but occasionally demonstrators carried weapons, including clubs, machetes, firearms, firecrackers, and dynamite. Security forces at times dispersed protest groups carrying weapons or threatening government and private facilities. The number of protests sharply increased due to the postponement of the election to October 18. Protesters established roadblocks that impeded highway traffic for nearly two weeks, and counterprotesters clashed with blockaders in many cities. In September parents of public school students in major cities initiated peaceful, targeted protests to demand school breakfasts for their children, which had been halted when schools closed at the start of the national quarantine.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
In-country Movement: The law prohibits travel on election days and on census days and restricts foreign and domestic travel for up to three months as a penalty for persons who do not vote.
Foreign Travel: On March 25, the interim government enacted a total quarantine and border closing without prior advance public notice, leaving thousands of citizens working in bordering countries stranded outside their homeland. Many of these migrants had lost jobs or income in bordering countries due to lockdown measures and found themselves left at the border in makeshift quarantine camps for indefinite periods of time.
On April 5, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet cited the example of Bolivians stranded at the border with Chile and noted that in the beginning of the crisis, approximately 1,300 citizens, including pregnant women, elderly persons, and children, were stranded on the Chilean side of the border and forced to sleep in the open in freezing temperatures with little food or water before Bolivian and Chilean officials were able to partially remedy the situation weeks later.
f. Protection of Refugees
The interim government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees through the National Commission on Refugees. The country has a legal structure and framework to accommodate those seeking refuge and has a registry of refugees and stateless persons.
The interim government’s National Commission on Refugees reported it had reactivated processing of refugee applications and approved 176 cases as of October.
Employment: Refugees have the right to work once authorities grant their residency status but not while waiting on pending applications. International Organization for Migration officials assisted with economic integration programs in coordination with the interim government to support entrepreneurs and small business owners from the Venezuelan community to create and maintain small businesses.
Durable Solutions: Refugee recognition does not entail in itself a path to naturalization. In 2016 the Interior Ministry approved a reduction of fees for the naturalization procedure for recognized refugees. Any refugee who wishes to begin this process must comply with all the general legal requirements. UNHCR reported it knew of no cases in the past three years of refugees who applied for naturalization. On January 28, Marcel Rivas, the director general of migration, approved a resolution allowing Venezuelan minors without identification documents or expired documents to regularize their immigration status with authorities. Immigration authorities set up this special measure in recognition of the difficulty of obtaining updated Venezuelan identity documents by changing the regulations to allow parents to attest to the identity of their children using photocopies of their Venezuelan birth certificates or identity documents, even if they were expired. Immigration contacts estimated that approximately 3,000 Venezuelans were “living on the streets,” many of whom were minors. Previously the law required proper entry documents in order to regularize immigration status.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: On October 18, MAS candidate Luis Arce won the election for president with 55 percent of the vote. His closest opponent, Citizen Community candidate Carlos Mesa, won 28.8 percent of the vote. The elections were peaceful, and Mesa conceded soon after the release of the preliminary vote tabulations. International electoral observation missions and domestic electoral observation organizations characterized the elections as free, fair, and transparent. On November 8, Luis Arce and David Choquehuanca were sworn in as president and vice president, along with the 36 newly elected members of the Senate and 130 members of the Chamber of Deputies.
After negotiations in November 2019 produced the framework for a new electoral process, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) set the initial date for general elections on May 3. As the prospects for that date waned due to a national quarantine and COVID-19 fears, in March the TSE, in consultation with political parties and the National Assembly (ALP), postponed the elections from the May 3 date without announcing a date. After the MAS sought to force elections by early August, a timeframe to which the TSE never agreed, on June 2, the TSE again negotiated an agreement with most parties to move the date to September 6. Soon afterward, the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic became more apparent, with the collapse of health-care system’s ability to handle patients and several high-profile deaths. On July 23, the TSE announced that it was postponing national elections for the second time to October 18, with a second-round presidential runoff election to be held on November 29, if necessary. Marking a first, the TSE made its decision without the assent of the National Assembly (ALP), asserting its authority to do so as a fourth and coequal branch of government. This decision marked the third time an election date had been set since the annulled, fraudulent election of October 2019.
Despite protests and subsequent blockades from the opposition, legal and electoral experts agreed the TSE acted within its constitutional limits regarding its decision to delay national elections by six weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases. TSE leaders justified their decision to postpone elections to October 18 without obtaining assent from the ALP by citing the 2009 constitution and later electoral laws that establish the electoral body as an independent and coequal branch of government with well defined electoral prerogatives. TSE President Salvador Ignacio Romero Ballivian stated the TSE consulted various epidemiological studies from the Ministry of Health and international health organizations to assess forecasts of the pandemic peaking in September. Romero explained the TSE ultimately decided to push back the election date to minimize public-health risks during the peak of the crisis. Prior to the TSE decision, many civil society groups and the majority of presidential candidates, with the exception of MAS candidate Luis Arce, had called on the TSE to delay the election due to the exponential rise in coronavirus cases and threats to public safety.
Article 12 of the 2009 constitution clearly identifies the TSE as a coequal branch of the state that maintains its independence and separation from the legislative, judicial, and executive branches. Article 24 of the 2008 Electoral Body Law further delineates the TSE responsibilities to call fixed electoral processes, decide election dates, and approve the respective electoral calendar. Local media reports quoted a number of constitutional and electoral experts who argued the TSE acted within its legal scope of responsibilities to move the election date back based on legitimate public-health concerns. In a press release, the United Nations expressed support for the decision to delay the elections and expressed full confidence “in the professionalism and independence of the Plurinational Electoral Body (OEP).” The UN release also recalled how the TSE members were selected on the individual merits by all the political parties of the ALP and that TSE President Romero was appointed due to his “recognized and impeccable career in electoral matters.”
On August 12, following nearly two weeks of extensive protests and road blockades that paralyzed the country and restricted passage of vital medical supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, political parties within the ALP reached an agreement giving legal approval for the postponement of elections to October 18. On August 13, interim president Anez signed the bill into law, and the TSE unanimously approved a resolution setting the election date for October 18.
In the face of international condemnation and dwindling public support for the protesters’ activities, MAS leadership began to distance themselves from initial solidarity, calling instead for “reflection” and eventually agreeing in principle on an August 8 election date. Other protest leaders from the Unity Pact initially rejected the MAS position and vowed to continue the protests and blockades. International organizations and humanitarian groups had criticized the protesters for preventing the passage of medical supplies through blockade lines. According to the interim government, these blockades resulted in the deaths of more than 30 COVID-19 patients who perished because trucks carrying life-saving oxygen tanks to hospitals were blocked. Local media also documented numerous acts of violent intimidation perpetrated by the protesters, including kidnapping, physical assault, arson, and vandalism. Despite vows from a small number of social organizations to continue the blockades in spite of the political agreement, overall support for the blockades quickly evaporated, and the majority of roadblocks had been cleared by August 17. Clashes between neighborhood civil groups and the blockaders were reported in the departments of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz during this period.
Political Parties and Political Participation: The law prohibits and sanctions the requirement of contributions to a political campaign and states political organizations “may not manage, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, any type of contributions, donations, subsidies, or support that have been provided from persons who had been forced to make the contribution by their superiors or employers, whether in public or private entities.”
On September 7, the Second Constitutional Chamber of La Paz ruled to deny the petition of former president Morales to run as a MAS candidate for the Senate. The ruling ratified the TSE’s February 21 decision to disqualify Morales’ Senate candidature due to his failure to meet the minimum permanent residency requirements from his asylum in Argentina. Following the TSE’s decision, representatives of the former president filed a constitutional protection case to reverse his disqualification. On September 7, the chamber ruled two-to-one against Morales’ constitutional protection petition.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law mandates gender parity in the candidate selection process at national, regional, and municipal legislative level.
While women had a substantial amount of representation on the legislative level, occupying 52 percent of legislative seats, they remained significantly underrepresented in executive positions. Candidates for mayor, governor, vice president, and president were not chosen from party lists, and the majority of executive political positions were held by men.
Women participating in politics faced violence and harassment. According to a survey conducted by the Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia, 59 percent of councilwomen polled had suffered some type of violence or political harassment in their municipality, and 39 percent did not complete their term due to the severity of the threats and hostility they received.
On April 21, Patricia Arce, a MAS-affiliated mayor of Vinto, who was assaulted by a crowd of men in November 2019, was detained for an alleged breach of the national quarantine after police accused Arce and seven other persons of participating in a party in their private homes. Arce described the detention as a political act. The Association of Female Mayors and Councilwomen of Bolivia denounced the “irregular apprehension” of Arce and demanded an impartial investigation to determine whether excessive force was used during the arrest. On August 7, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented criminal charges against Arce for making municipal dump trucks available to transfer rocks and debris to block the entrance and exit from an oxygen factory in Cochabamba during the two weeks of protests and blockades, following the TSE decision to postpone elections until October 18.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the former Morales government and to a lesser extent the transitional government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.
Corruption: On May 20, authorities arrested Minister of Health Marcelo Navajas Salinas as part of an investigation into claims that the government paid inflated prices for ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients. In addition the state prosecutor announced four other Health Ministry officials had also been detained in relation to the investigation and that officials abroad and intermediaries involved in the purchases would also be investigated. Local newspaper Pagina Siete reported the government paid $4.7 million for 170 ventilators from the Spanish company GPA Innova, despite the contract being worth only $1.2 million. Press reports noted the steep premium paid for the ventilators, bought at approximately $27,500 each, were purchased from emergency funds the government received from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The IDB stated it was concerned regarding “possible irregularities in the purchase of the respirators” by the Health Ministry.
In addition to former minister Navajas, lead prosecutor Mejillones stated that former legal director of the Ministry of Health, Fernando Valenzuela; former director of the Agency for Infrastructure in Health and Medical Equipment, Geovanni Pacheco Fiorilo; and the consul of Bolivia in Barcelona, Alberto Pareja, were also charged in the case. Mejillones further reported that a consultant for the IDB who gave “no objection” to the acquisition process was also charged.
On August 17, a judge ordered the former governor of Beni, Alex Ferrier Abidar of the MAS Party, to four months of pretrial detention after being accused of misappropriation of resources, embezzlement, and breach of duties associated with two large public works projects while he was governor. The largest project involved construction of the Trinidad-Loreto highway and alleged construction work that began without proper contract tenders being issued or awards being granted.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to report potential personal and financial conflicts of interest and to declare their income and assets. The law mandates that elected and appointed officials disclose their financial information to the auditor general, but their declarations are not available to the public. By law noncompliance results in internal sanctions, including dismissal.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated in the country, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Domestic NGOs and human rights groups reported they had more freedom to publicly report on sensitive problems under the interim government than under the Morales government. The Permanent Assembly of Human Rights (APDHB), an independent human rights organization, had been targeted by the Morales administration for reporting on sensitive topics such as Yungas region coca growers’ criticism of MAS and the indigenous communities’ Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory struggle against a highway through their protected area. During the interim government period, the APDHB freely reported on politically sensitive topics such as the need for anticorruption measures and the distribution of the International Monetary Fund’s COVID-19 financial assistance.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The constitution establishes a human rights ombudsman subject to confirmation by both houses of the Legislative Assembly to serve a six-year term. The ombudsman is charged with overseeing the defense and promotion of human rights, specifically defending citizens against government abuses. The constitution also affords the ombudsman the right to propose legislation and recommend modifications to laws and government policies. The ombudsman operated with inadequate resources. Civil society groups and several political figures contended the ombudsman lacked independence from the central government, in part because the MAS supermajority in congress allowed for the position’s confirmation without meaningful debate.
Both houses of congress have human rights committees that propose laws and policies to promote and protect human rights. Congressional deputies and senators sit on the committees for one-year terms.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law establishes penalties of imprisonment for 15 to 20 years for conviction of the rape of an adult (man or woman), but it was not enforced. Conviction of domestic abuse resulting in injury is punishable by three to six years’ imprisonment, and the penalty for conviction of serious physical or psychological harm is a five- to 12-year prison sentence. Despite these legal provisions, the NGO Community of Human Rights reported two-thirds of domestic violence cases were closed without action, and the conviction rate of the remaining cases was less than 1 percent.
The law prohibits domestic violence, but it was not enforced. Lack of training on the law and slow judicial processes, among other factors, continued to hinder the law’s full implementation, according to the UN Entity on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) and human rights groups. Domestic violence was the most frequently committed crime in the country, according to the National Observatory of Public Safety. According to a survey conducted by the local NGO Coordinator of Women, 50 percent of women were victims of a violent crime some time in their lives; two-thirds of these women suffered violence in their own home.
The law criminalizes femicide, the killing of a woman based on her identity as a woman, and conviction stipulates a sentence of 30 years in prison. Activists stated corruption, lack of adequate crime scene investigation, and a dysfunctional judiciary hampered convictions for femicide. According to the Public Ministry, 93 femicides were registered from January to August 24, with La Paz registering the highest number of any department with 30 reported incidents of femicide. The Public Ministry also documented 18,464 cases of violence against women from January to August. Following the publication of the figures, UN Women called for comprehensive actions to eliminate violence against women and full access to justice for all victims. Mercedes Cortez of the justice reform NGO Free Voice Justice Observatory stated the impunity rate for femicides reached 97.8 percent as of August; she called for more financial resources for the judicial system and an increase to the use of specialized prosecutors with experience in prosecuting gender-based violence. Under the interim government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held meetings and training sessions with businesswomen and female entrepreneurs with a focus on opening international markets to female business leaders and reducing bureaucratic procedures and obstacles for businesswomen.
According to the special prosecutor in crimes against life and personal integrity, Nuria Gonzales, social isolation due to the national quarantine had led to the increase in femicides, stating the majority of cases occurred in the victims’ own homes. On August 3, lawyers and families of victims demanded modification of Law 1173 Criminal Procedure Abbreviation that allows many alleged attackers to go free after completing their six months of preventive detention that the judge assigned to them.
On August 7, Dayneth Ch. of Cochabamba died in the Viedma hospital after being admitted with blows and burns to 80 percent of her body. Her partner claimed it had been an accident, but autopsy results revealed she had died from blunt force head trauma; her partner was charged with femicide.
Local media reported that in August, seven police officers were implicated in five cases of femicides and other violent acts. In some of these cases, the participation of uniformed police was reported and used as cover-up to provide impunity for their comrades. While senior public officials regretted how the image of police was being tarnished, Minister of Government Arturo Murillo stressed that police training could trigger violent and abusive action in some persons.
On August 11, Betsabe Mara Alcacia was killed by her partner, police lieutenant Adan Boris Mina. Investigations showed that Mina shot, burned, and then dismembered the body of the 24-year-old victim. Mina was captured, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but investigators indicated that two or three police officers helped cover up the crime and had yet to be apprehended.
Women’s rights organizations reported police units assigned to the Special Force against Violence did not have sufficient resources and frontline officers lacked proper training regarding their investigatory responsibilities. Women’s organizations also reported domestic violence victims received poor representation from public defenders and generally abandoned their cases after they languished in the justice system for years. On average it took three years for a domestic violence case to conclude. Once the case was closed, the victim was often responsible for the legal fees. The lack of public services, lengthy judicial process, and financial burden discouraged most women from reporting domestic abuse by their spouses.
The law calls for the construction of women’s shelters in each of the country’s nine departments. The municipalities of La Paz and Santa Cruz both had temporary shelters for victims of violence and their children. Human rights specialists explained the shelters for domestic violence survivors were not well staffed, did not promise anonymity, and could not provide protection from abusers. Human rights activists described shelters that, due to a lack of financial resources, mixed populations of many different vulnerabilities, such as juvenile delinquents, human trafficking victims, sexual abuse victims, and minors with mental-health issues.
According to the Public Ministry, during the COVID-19 national quarantine from March 22 to May 31, there were 2,378 cases of domestic violence, 153 cases of sexual abuse, and 124 cases of rape reported, marking a significant increase from 2019. Human rights activists stated the figures represented an undercount from the actual numbers because of the difficulty of reporting these crimes due to movement restrictions and the lack of other housing options for many female spouses during the quarantine.
Sexual Harassment: The law considers sexual harassment a criminal offense for which conviction is punishable by up to eight years’ imprisonment. There were no comprehensive reports on the extent of sexual harassment, but observers generally acknowledged it was widespread (see also section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups) and that the sexual harassment laws were rarely enforced.
Reproductive Rights: By law couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to have the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Civil society noted information on access to reproductive health can be difficult to obtain in rural areas due to lack of medical infrastructure.
The law guarantees access to contraceptives, but in practice, according to reproductive rights group Marie Stopes International-Bolivia, many health-care providers refused to provide the service and stigmatized patients who requested contraceptives. Some health-care providers required the consent of an adult woman’s husband or other male family member before providing her with contraceptives and would not provide contraceptives to adolescents without parental consent. Misinformation or social taboos made women hesitant to seek contraceptives.
Lack of access to quality medical care in remote areas adversely affected access to skilled health-care attendance during pregnancy and birth. In addition many indigenous women feared their cultural traditions regarding who should be present at the birth, the treatment of the placenta, and treatment of the umbilical cord would not be respected if they gave birth in a hospital or clinic.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
According to the World Health Organization, the maternal mortality rate was 155 per 100,000 live births in 2017. The Pan American Health Organization reported one-third of all maternal deaths were caused by obstetric hemorrhage, usually postpartum. Another leading cause of maternal death was unsafe abortion.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: The law provides for the same legal status and rights for women as for men, but women generally did not enjoy a social status equal to that of men. While the minimum wage law treats men and women equally, women generally earned less than men for equal work. Additionally, antidiscrimination laws were not uniformly or effectively implemented to protect women from harassment and political violence (see also section 3, Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups). The government has legal restrictions against women in employment regarding limits on working hours and tasks.
According to a 2015 study by the National Federation of Female Domestic Workers, persons engaged in domestic labor rose to nearly 137,000 workers, of whom 96 percent were women. The study also reported that 40 percent of these workers received a salary below the national minimum and worked without the benefit of a contract and health insurance and other labor rights that come with contract work. A July report by UN Women highlighted the increased vulnerability of domestic workers due to COVID-19, both in terms of economic vulnerability from quarantine measures and nearly immediate wage loss, in addition to health vulnerabilities if they commuted to work.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived both through birth within the country’s territory (unless the parents have diplomatic status) and from parents. The 2018 civil registry indicated 78 percent of citizens were registered within one year of their birth and 96 percent by age 12.
Child Abuse: Conviction of rape of a child younger than 14 carries a penalty of 20 to 25 years’ imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of consensual sex with an adolescent ages 14 to 18 is two to six years’ imprisonment. The Attorney General’s Office reported 39 cases of infanticide between January and July. The penal code defines infanticide as the killing of a child younger than 13.
On August 18, a La Paz court sentenced Victor Hugo Ricaldi Zambrana (stepfather of the victim) and Claudia Branez (mother of the victim) to five years in prison for manslaughter for the death of Branez’s daughter, who was age five at the time of her death in 2009. She was found dead on a street in the Villa San Antonio area of La Paz. Her mother and stepfather claimed the child threw herself out of a third-floor window, but investigators and forensic evidence appeared to refute the claim. Laboratory reports from the Forensic Research Institute found the presence of semen in the minor’s underwear and anal injuries indicating rape. Representatives of the Citizen Network for the Prevention of Infanticide and Crimes against Children also denounced the lenient sentence. Lawyers representing the grandparents stated they would appeal the sentence.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum age for marriage is 14 for girls and 16 for boys. Minors’ parents or guardians must approve marriages between adolescents younger than 18.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Conviction of commercial sexual exploitation of children is punishable with 15- to 20-year prison sentences but remained a serious problem. The law also prohibits child pornography, punishable if convicted with 10- to 15-year sentences.
According to the Public Ministry, during the period of the COVID-19 national quarantine from March 22 to May 31, there were 118 cases of infant or adolescent rape (victims younger than age 14) and 102 cases of statutory rape (victims ages 14-18), marking a dramatic increase from the same time period in 2019.
Displaced Children: UNICEF reported in 2015 (the most recent information available) that 20,000 to 32,000 minors lived in shelters after their parents abandoned them.
Institutionalized Children: Child advocacy organizations reported abuse and negligence in some government-run shelters. The La Paz Department Social Work Service confirmed that of the country’s 380 shelters, including centers for abuse victims, orphans, and students, only 30 had government accreditation for meeting minimal standards.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish population numbered fewer than 500. There were no reports of anti-Semitism.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law requires access for wheelchair users to all public and private buildings, duty-free import of orthopedic devices, and a 50 percent reduction in public transportation fares for persons with disabilities. The law also requires communication outlets and government agencies to offer services and publications in sign language and braille. The government did not effectively enforce these provisions.
A national law to protect the rights of persons with disabilities exists, but it lacked full implementation. Official action was rarely taken to investigate, prosecute, and punish those responsible for violence against persons with disabilities.
Architectural and infrastructure barriers prohibited ease of movement in urban areas for individuals with physical disabilities. There were advances, however, in the public transportation sector in the city of La Paz. The city bus and gondola system provided some accommodations for persons with disabilities.
The law stipulates that persons with “serious and severe” disabilities are entitled to government payments of 250 bolivianos ($37) per month. The law requires both public and private institutions to employ a certain percentage of workers with disabilities.
The 2012 census established the existence of 23,300 Afro-Bolivians. Afro-Bolivians in rural areas experienced the same type of problems and discrimination as indigenous persons who lived in those areas. Afro-Bolivian community leaders reported that employment discrimination was common and that public officials, particularly police, discriminated in the provision of services. Afro-Bolivians also reported the widespread use of discriminatory language. The government made little effort to address such discrimination.
On June 30, the IACHR reported it opened a process against the state for human rights violations committed during the Morales government against indigenous communities of Isiboro Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory while constructing the San Ignacio de Moxos-Villa Tunari highway. The petition was originally submitted by 64 indigenous communities in 2012 and supported by the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development and the NGO Earth Rights International two years later. The petition accused the Morales government of taking “decisions and legislative and administrative actions without consulting or obtaining the consent of the indigenous people” and later “taking measures of force and repression against the VIII Indigenous March in the town of Chaparina in 2011.”
An August 20 report by Amnesty International expressed concern for the rights of indigenous communities that were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A June report from the Ombudsman’s Office warned of a lack of public-health policy to protect indigenous peoples from COVID-19 and a stigmatization and risk for indigenous communities in a situation of voluntary isolation as a means of protection against the COVID-19 virus.
In the 2012 census, approximately 41 percent of the population older than 15 self-identified as indigenous, primarily from the Quechua and Aymara communities.
Indigenous communities were well represented in government and politics, but they continued to bear a disproportionate share of poverty and unemployment. Government educational and health services remained unavailable to many indigenous groups living in remote areas.
Indigenous lands were not fully demarcated, and land reform remained a central political problem. Historically, some indigenous persons shared lands collectively under the ayllu (traditional form of a community) system, which did not receive legal recognition during the transition to private property laws. Despite laws mandating reallocation and titling of lands, recognition and demarcation of indigenous lands were not completed.
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The law allows transgender individuals to update their name, gender marker, and photograph to reflect their gender identity on all legal identification cards and birth certificates.
Transgender activists said a majority of the transgender community was forced to turn to sex work because of discrimination in the job market and unwillingness on the part of employers to accept their identity documents and professional licensures. Activists reported police targeted transgender individuals who were sex workers.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons faced discrimination in the workplace, at school, and when seeking to access government services, especially in the area of health care. Transgender individuals remained particularly vulnerable to abuse and violence. Elderly LGBTI persons faced high rates of discrimination when attempting to access health-care services. There were no legal mechanisms in place to transfer power of attorney to a same-sex partner.
On July 3, the Second Constitutional Chamber of La Paz ruled the national civil registry must register a same-sex couple’s relationship as a “free union.” The ruling stemmed from an effort by David Aruquipa and Guido Montano, an LGBTI couple who had been together for more than a decade and tried to register their relationship as a free union in 2018, which would have the same legal effects as a civil marriage per the constitution. After the registry office rejected their application, the couple filed a number of administrative appeals, citing international human rights standards and constitutional nondiscrimination principles. In September 2019 the national civil registry rejected these appeals. On July 3, the Constitutional Chamber struck down the civil registry resolution, declaring the registry had violated the couple’s due-process rights. The ruling also highlighted the constitution requires laws and administrative procedures to be interpreted consistent with the principles of nondiscrimination and equality, including on the basis of sexual orientation.
Although the law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS, pervasive discrimination persisted. Ministry of Health authorities reported discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS was most severe in indigenous communities, where the government was also least successful in diagnosing cases.
Activists reported discrimination forced HIV-positive persons to seek medical attention outside the country.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Mob violence in lieu of justice was a consequence of an inefficient judicial system, among other factors, according to observers. Supporters of mob violence claimed limited policing and a lack of faith in the justice system to punish criminals justified their actions. Although official statistics did not exist, media reports suggested mob violence in lieu of justice led to 30-40 deaths each year. The government took no formal action to combat acts of mob violence couched as “vigilante justice.”
Cuba is an authoritarian state with former president Raul Castro serving as the first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, the highest political entity of the state by law, and Miguel Diaz-Canel serving as president of the republic. A new constitution ratified in February 2019 codifies that Cuba remains a one-party system in which the Communist Party is the only legal political party. 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. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: 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; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy. Freedom of the press functionally did not exist. Criminal libel laws were used against persons who criticized government leadership. The government engaged in censorship and internet site blocking, and there were severe limitations on academic and cultural freedom. There were severe restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations. There were severe restrictions on religious freedom. There were restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement. Citizens were unable to change their government through free and fair elections. Political participation was restricted to members of the ruling party. There was official corruption; trafficking in persons, including compulsory 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.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
On June 24, police killed Hansel Hernandez Galiano, an unarmed Afro-Cuban man, in Havana. State media initially refused to acknowledge the case, but news circulated quickly across social media. On June 25, the supposedly independent but in fact state-controlled blog Guerrero Cubano issued a detailed story about how Hansel was killed. Other official media outlets followed suit the morning of June 27 when the Ministry of Interior issued a press release with the same account of events related by Guerrero Cubano that was reprinted across official state media.
The official version of Hernandez Galiano’s death was that in the course of a regular patrol, two members of the National Revolutionary Police discovered and chased a suspected thief. Official media stated the suspect ran from police but then confronted them and threw large rocks, some of which hit the officers. The government stated that as the suspect was throwing rocks, one officer fired two warning shots and then a final killing shot. The press release concluded by lamenting Hansel’s death but denigrated his character, claiming Hansel had been found guilty of threatening persons, “lascivious abuse,” and robbery with violence, for which he served a prison term and was on probation.
Outside observers identified a number of reasons to doubt the accuracy of the government’s account. Photographs of the body circulated on social media by Hernandez Galiano’s family members showed a single bullet wound, entering via Hansel’s back and emerging from his chest, indicating he was running from the officers, not actively confronting them. The photographs also showed bruising to his face and sutures closing a cut to the head (possibly post mortem). Members of his family said his body was reportedly quickly cremated, after pressure from the government. Activists criticized the press release’s emphasis on Hansel’s alleged criminal record, with one lawyer saying it “demonstrates their desire to treat him as a defendant and not as a victim.” Authorities stated they would investigate the death but as of December had not publicly released results of an investigation.
At least eight prisoners died in custody in a variety of suspicious circumstances. Roberto Jimenez del Sol, a manager in an army-owned shoe store, died in military custody after spending one month in solitary confinement as part of an investigation into missing funds. Although authorities told his family he died of natural causes, his body displayed signs of abuse. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Cuba Archive documented at least six other prisoners who died in suspicious circumstances. None of these deaths was reported by official media.
There were confirmed reports of long-term disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were multiple reports of detained activists whose whereabouts were unknown for days or weeks because the government did not register these detentions, many of which occurred at unregistered sites.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
There were recurring reports that members of the security forces and their agents harassed, intimidated, and physically assaulted human rights and prodemocracy advocates, political dissidents, and peaceful demonstrators, and that they did so with impunity. Some detainees and prisoners endured physical abuse by prison officials or other inmates at the instigation of guards. Although the law prohibits coercion during investigative interrogations, police and security forces at times used aggressive and physically abusive tactics, threats, and harassment during questioning. Detainees reported officers intimidated them with threats of long-term detention, loss of child-custody rights, denial of permission to depart the country, and other punishments.
State security officials frequently deployed to countries such as Venezuela and Nicaragua, where they trained and supported other organizations in their use of repressive tactics and human rights abuses and sometimes participated in the abuses directly. For instance, Cuban security force members were embedded in the Maduro regime’s security and intelligence services in Venezuela and were instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) from a small organization focused on external threats to a much larger organization focused on surveilling Venezuelans and suppressing dissent. UN reports accused the DGCIM of torture, and many former Venezuelan prisoners said that Cubans, identified by their distinctive accents, supervised while DGCIM personnel tortured prisoners.
A December 2019 report from the Casla Institute, a Czech Republic-based NGO focused on governance in Latin America, stated the Cuban ambassador in Venezuela was personally involved in organizing this training. The Casla Institute report also stated, “Cubans constantly instruct members of the FANB [Venezuelan armed forces] and intelligence in techniques of repression, intimidation, and monitoring, so that they carry out investigation work and spy on their own colleagues and their families and political and social leaders, and directly intervene in social unrest.”
Impunity was pervasive. There were no known cases of prosecution of government officials for any human rights abuses, including torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening. There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners. Prisons were overcrowded, and facilities, sanitation, and medical care were deficient.
The government did not publish official statistics on its prisons. In January, citing information from two senior Ministry of Interior officials, the Spain-based NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders claimed more than 90,000 persons were in prison, with another 37,000 in other forms of custody such as labor camps, house arrest, or conditional parole.
Physical Conditions: The government provided no information regarding the number, location, or capacity of detention centers, including prisons, work camps, and other kinds of detention facilities. Cuban Prisoners Defenders claimed the government had more than 200 such facilities.
Prison and detention cells reportedly lacked adequate water, sanitation, light, ventilation, and temperature control. Although the government provided some food and medical care, many prisoners relied on their families to provide food and other basic supplies. Potable water was often unavailable. Prison cells were overcrowded. Women reported lack of access to feminine hygiene products and inadequate prenatal care.
In June political prisoner Walfrido Rodriguez Piloto told independent outlet CubaNet he was denied medical care in El Arco del Chico prison camp in Havana’s La Lisa municipality, where he said prisoners were fed less than two ounces of food per day. He said, “This is a concentration camp; I have been here for six days with nephritic colic and without any medical attention. Between the mosquitoes [which carry dengue], the bed bugs, and hunger, I’m going to die here.” He also complained that he was mistreated by fellow prisoners who did “the dirty work” of authorities in exchange for benefits.
Prisoners, family members, and NGOs reported inadequate health care in prisons, which led to or aggravated multiple maladies. Prisoners reported outbreaks of COVID-19, dengue fever, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and cholera. There were reports of prisoner deaths following official indifference to treatable medical conditions such as asthma, HIV, AIDS, and other chronic medical conditions as well as from suicide. Authorities rarely if ever supplied medicine. In May a member of the opposition group Eastern Democratic Alliance posted on Facebook that one of their members, Sandi Fernandez Ortiz, died in Mar Verde Prison in Santiago de Cuba of sepsis due to poor medical care.
Political prisoners were held jointly with the general prison population. Political prisoners who refused to wear standard prison uniforms were denied certain privileges, such as access to prison libraries, reductions in the severity of their sentence, or transfer from a maximum-security to a medium-security prison.
There were credible reports that prison officials assaulted inmates. Political prisoners also reported that fellow inmates, acting on orders from or with the permission of prison authorities, threatened, beat, intimidated, and harassed them.
In July the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued a resolution granting precautionary protection measures to Silverio Portal Contreras, who was arrested and beaten in March 2018 following a protest against unsafe housing in Havana. The IACHR resolution detailed complaints made on behalf of Contreras, including reports that following his July 2018 sentencing, prison authorities severely beat Portal on multiple occasions and placed him in an isolation cell, that he was losing his eyesight because of the beatings, that he was denied medical attention for his multiple chronic medical conditions, and that he was prohibited from contacting his family. In determining the gravity of risk to Portal, the IACHR cited the context faced by human rights defenders in Cuba, which it described as “generally characterized by a climate of hostility, abuse, and harassment, particularly with respect to those who have manifested opposition to the government.” On December 1, Portal was released in poor health.
Prisoners reported solitary confinement was a common punishment for failure to comply with prison regulations, and some prisoners were isolated for months at a time. Some prisoners were held incommunicado, without being able to contact friends or family until they were released.
The government subjected prisoners who criticized the government or engaged in hunger strikes and other forms of protest to extended solitary confinement, assaults, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care.
Administration: There were reports that prison officials assaulted prisoners, but authorities did not investigate credible allegations of mistreatment. Prisoners reported government officials refused to accept or respond to complaints.
Prisoners and pretrial detainees had access to visitors, although several political prisoners’ relatives reported prison officials arbitrarily canceled scheduled visits or denied visits altogether.
Authorities allowed prisoners to practice their religion, but there were isolated reports authorities did not inform inmates of their right to religious services, delayed months before responding to such requests, and limited visits by clergy to a maximum of two or three times per year.
Independent Monitoring: The government did not permit independent international or domestic human rights groups to monitor prison conditions, and it denied access to detainees by international humanitarian organizations. Although the government pledged in previous years to allow a visit by the UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment, no visit occurred during the year.
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 denied a habeas corpus motion on behalf of political prisoner Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees), the only time it was known to have been filed.
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.
The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. In December the NGO Human Rights Watch released a report documenting 34 cases in which authorities invoked rules concerning the COVID-19 pandemic to target government critics and others. Documented cases included Keilylli de la Mora Valle, a member of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) political group, who was arrested on April 12 for lowering her mask to smoke a cigarette on the street. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison after protesting her treatment by police. In another incident, on November 26, authorities claiming to be medical personnel entered San Isidro Movement headquarters on the pretext of requiring a COVID-19 test of journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez who had arrived earlier in the year. They were followed by police wearing medical gowns, who proceeded to arrest the protesters, several of whom later stated they were beaten during the arrests. Officers told the dissidents that a criminal complaint had been filed against them for “spreading an epidemic.”
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 in order 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
Under criminal procedures, 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 February, the Ministry of Justice regularly invoked “extraordinary circumstances” in order to conduct summary trials.
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.
Reports suggested bail was available, although bail was typically not granted to persons arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial 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.
Arbitrary Arrest: Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest. 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. Police and security officials continued to use short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. 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. Sometimes fines formed the basis for preventing persons from leaving the country.
In connection with a planned yearly march on September 8, several activists from UNPACU were arbitrarily detained on September 7. On September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested (see also section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). Human rights NGOs reported at least 70 arrests and arbitrary detentions linked to the September 8 “Sunflower Revolution,” a call for nonviolent protests against the regime.
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.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
While the constitution recognizes the independence of the judiciary, the judiciary is directly subordinate to the National Assembly and the Cuban Communist Party (PCC), which may remove or appoint judges at any time. Political considerations thoroughly dominated the judiciary, and there was no separation of powers between the judicial system, the PCC, and the Council of State.
Civilian courts exist at the municipal, provincial, and national levels. Special tribunals convene behind closed doors for political (“counterrevolutionary”) cases and other cases deemed “sensitive to state security.” Military tribunals may have jurisdiction over civilians if any of the defendants are active or former members of the military, police, or another law enforcement agency. The government denied admission to trials for observers on an arbitrary basis.
The law provides for the right to a public trial, but politically motivated trials were at times held in secret, with authorities citing exceptions for crimes involving “state security” or “extraordinary circumstances.” Many trials concluded quickly and were closed to the press. In April, on the basis of the COVID-19 pandemic public health emergency, most trials were converted to summary trials, with many defendants accused of poorly defined claims of “propagating an epidemic” or a range of crimes referred to as “illicit economic activity,” such as hoarding scarce goods. According to state media, in summary trials neither prosecutors nor defense counsel need to be present, only a judge. This protocol, however, imposes a limit on the length of the sentence. If the potential sentence exceeds one year, defendants are to be assigned a lawyer. If persons hire a lawyer, they may bring one; however, few persons received legal representation.
Due process rights apply equally to citizens and foreigners, but courts regularly failed to protect or observe these rights. The law provides criminal defendants the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law presumes defendants to be innocent until proven guilty, but authorities often ignored this, placing the burden on defendants to prove innocence.
The law requires that defendants be represented by an attorney, at public expense if necessary. Defendants’ attorneys may cross-examine government witnesses and present witnesses and evidence. Private attorneys are not licensed to practice in criminal courts, forcing defendants to rely on lawyers who work for the very government that is prosecuting them. These attorneys reportedly were often reluctant to defend individuals charged with political crimes or associated with human rights cases and in many cases did not appear to provide adequate counsel.
Criteria for admitting evidence were arbitrary and discriminatory. According to reports, prosecutors routinely introduced irrelevant or unreliable evidence to prove intent or they offered testimony about the defendant’s “revolutionary credentials,” which are demonstrations of loyalty to the PCC or lack thereof.
Defense attorneys have the right to review the investigation files of a defendant unless the charges involve “crimes against the security of the state.” In “state security” cases, defense attorneys were not allowed access to investigation files until charges were filed. Many detainees, especially political detainees, reported their attorneys had difficulties accessing case files due to administrative obstacles. Interpretation was sometimes provided during trials for non-Spanish speakers, but the government claimed limited resources prevented interpreters from always being available.
In trials where defendants are charged with “precriminal dangerousness,” the state must show only that the defendant has a “proclivity” for crime, so an actual criminal act need not have occurred. Penalties may be up to four years in prison. Authorities normally applied this provision to prostitutes, alcoholics, young persons who refused to report to work centers, repeat offenders of laws restricting change of domicile, and political activists who participated in public protests.
The law recognizes the right of appeal in municipal courts but limits the right of appeal in provincial courts to cases involving lengthy prison terms or the death penalty.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
The government held political prisoners and detainees but denied it did so. It refused access to its prisons and detention centers by international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations.
The NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders estimated there were 134 convicted political prisoners serving sentences as of December 1. Other groups reported different numbers, although figures consistently ranged near 100 or higher. The lack of governmental transparency, along with systemic abuse of due process rights, obscured the true nature of criminal charges, investigations, and prosecutions. This allowed government authorities to prosecute and sentence peaceful human rights activists for criminal violations or “precriminal dangerousness.” The government used the designation of “counterrevolutionary” for inmates deemed to be political opposition, but it did not publicize the number of these inmates. The government closely monitored organizations tracking political prisoner populations, and the organizations often faced harassment from state authorities.
Political prisoners reported the government held them in isolation for extended periods. They did not receive the same protections as other prisoners or detainees. The government frequently denied political prisoners access to home visits, prison classes, telephone calls, and, on occasion, family visits.
The justice system systematically subjected Jose Daniel Ferrer, head of UNPACU, to a wide range of abuses after he was arrested in October 2019 with several colleagues. While he was incarcerated, Ferrer was subjected to routine abuse from fellow prisoners who told him they were being rewarded with special privileges by prison authorities for beating him. During Ferrer’s detention, prison officials at times withheld food and medicine and gave Ferrer only unclean water to drink. Ferrer and his compatriots were convicted of spurious charges of lesiones (inflicting grievous bodily harm) and false imprisonment after a 13-hour trial on February 26 with numerous irregularities.
On the day of Ferrer’s trial, the Ministry of Justice tweeted that Ferrer would get a fair trial but in the same tweet called him “a common criminal” in violation of his right to the presumption of innocence. State media conducted a propaganda campaign against him before his trial that alleged Ferrer was a habitual domestic abuser (which was contradicted by past partners of his). Authorities tightly cordoned off the courthouse and did not allow international observers; most members of the audience were in fact members of the security services. Authorities allegedly attempted to intimidate several defense witnesses. The court ignored evidence (a recorded telephone conversation) from the alleged victim’s wife that suggested the injuries to the alleged victim were the result of a motorcycle accident rather than a beating. The court also ignored evidence that the victim was coerced to testify on behalf of the prosecution.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
It is possible to seek judicial remedies through civil courts for violations of administrative decisions, but independent legal experts noted general procedural and bureaucratic inefficiencies often delayed or undermined the enforcement of administrative decisions and civil court orders. Civil courts, like all other courts in the country, lacked independence, impartiality, and effective procedural guarantees. No courts allowed claimants to bring lawsuits seeking remedies for human rights violations. On December 20, the National Assembly postponed approval of the Law for the Claim of Constitutional Rights before the Courts, which would have allowed for lawsuits related to rights protected in the constitution.
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 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 November 9, musician and activist Denis Solis was arrested for “contempt” after he posted a video of himself verbally sparring with a lone police officer who entered Solis’ home without permission and refused to produce a warrant. Criminal procedure requires that officers may enter persons’ residences only with another officer present, and also requires a warrant or exigent circumstances, neither of which appeared to exist in this case. Solis, who had previously been arrested twice for protesting restrictions on freedom of expression, was sentenced to eight months in prison.
The Ministry of Interior employed a system of informants and neighborhood committees, known as 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, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, 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.
Freedom of Speech: 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.
Rather than enforce these laws, police typically used other pretexts to harass and arrest persons exercising freedom of expression. Among the individuals who protested these restrictive laws was Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, an artist and a leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), an organization promoting cultural independence. Several MSI members, such as rapper Maykel Osorbo and Otero Alcantara’s partner Claudia Genlui, were arrested, beaten while in custody, blackmailed by state security, and fined during the year. While some of these arrests were in conjunction with political events or Otero Alcantara’s art, many arrests were arbitrary.
Otero Alcantara, arrested dozens of times in conjunction with his performance art, was charged once, for “defiling national symbols,” a case that was dropped after he spent 13 days incarcerated. He was arrested, among other times: on February 7, for walking around Havana wearing a hard hat in protest of several individuals killed when their state-owned house collapsed; on February 11, for protesting a state television decision to censor a kiss between two men; on September 8, moments after stepping outside his home holding a sign with a black and white sunflower, referencing the country’s patron saint; and on October 10, after gathering individuals to celebrate the anniversary of the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara, the 1868 start of the country’s independence struggle).
Otero Alcantara was also arrested several times while demonstrating for the freedom of fellow MSI member Denis Solis, including on November 12 when Otero Alcantara and another activist attempted to present a writ of habeas corpus for Solis. Otero Alcantara was arrested on November 26 when authorities raided his house to break up a hunger strike of MSI members. At year’s end he remained on house arrest, despite the government’s not levying charges against him.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent debates on cultural 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 Raul Pupo Casas told independent media outlet CiberCuba that he was forced out of his residency program in neurosurgery at the Ernesto Che Guevara Hospital. His supervisor, Ponce de Leon Noriega, viewed Facebook posts from Pupo Casas that were critical of the government, including its low salaries for medical professionals. Noriega then publicly denounced Pupo Casas as “counterrevolutionary” and started proceedings to expel him from the hospital.
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.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government or the PCC directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and 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. As a result of self-censorship and lack of access, 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.
After Camila Acosta started working as an independent journalist in August 2019, she endured nearly constant state harassment and other abuses for her work. Since February she was forced to move at least six times (including several times during the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak) due to police harassment of her landlords for “hosting a dissident.” She was arbitrarily arrested, detained, abused, fined, threatened, and interrogated at length on many occasions. For example, on July 31, she was waiting for friends in a park in Havana when two officers approached her, asked for her identity document, arrested her, and took her to a police station. Inside her bag they found several facemasks reading, “No to Decree 370,” a reference to legalized surveillance of electronic communication without a court order. The officers forced Acosta to strip and searched her further. Police fined her and threatened further prosecution for protesting the decree. On March 9, police arrested Acosta while she covered a demonstration for the freedom of artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (see section 2.a., Freedom of Speech). Police gave her a large fine and threatened her with “deportation” to her home province, Isla de la Juventud.
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 November 22, security forces allowed a progovernment mob to block registered foreign media teams from reporting on protests for the freedom of Denis Solis in Havana’s central park. Foreign media reported the mob “pushing, shoving, and punching one cameraman four or five times in the body.”
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.”
The government restricted access to the internet, and the country had a low internet connectivity rate. All internet access was provided through state monopoly companies, and the government has unrestricted and unregulated legal authority to monitor citizens’ and foreigners’ use of email, social media, internet chat rooms, and browsing. The government controlled all internet access, except for limited facilities provided by a few diplomatic missions and a small number of underground networks. The government used a combination of website blocking, pressure on website operators, arrests, intimidation, imprisonment, and unrestricted surveillance to censor information critical of the regime and to silence its critics. Despite heavy restrictions, citizens circumvented government censorship through grassroots innovations. Access to blocked outlets was generally possible only through a virtual private network.
For most internet users, the cost of accessing non-Cuban sites remained higher than the cost of accessing domestic ones, most of which were controlled by the government. Some individuals could connect at low or no cost via state institutions where they worked or studied. The government closely monitored web access points, such as Wi-Fi hotspots, cybercafes, and access centers, as well as the backbone internet infrastructure, which was directly controlled by the government.
The government selectively granted censored in-home internet access to certain areas of Havana and sectors of the population, consisting mostly of government officials, established professionals, some professors, and students, journalists, and artists. Others could access email and internet services through government-sponsored “youth clubs,” internet cafes, or Wi-Fi hot spots approved and regulated by the Ministry for Information, Technology, and Communications. Users were required to purchase prepaid cards to access the internet.
During the year the government increased the number of Wi-Fi hot spots and increased mobile service that allowed persons greater access to the internet on their cell phones through the state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA without needing to connect to public Wi-Fi. The cost of this improved service was far beyond the means of most citizens; the cost of basic internet packages exceeded the average monthly wage.
In addition to public Wi-Fi hot spots, citizens and foreigners could buy internet access cards and use hotel business centers. Authorities reviewed the browsing history of users, reviewed and censored email, and blocked access to websites the government considered objectionable. The number of blocked websites fluctuated. The government blocked approximately 20 websites on a regular basis, including independent media outlets such as CiberCuba, 14yMedio, CubaNet, ADNCuba, Tremenda Nota, Marti Noticias, and other websites critical of the government’s human rights record. The government blocked access to Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net report. The government blocked internet tools and websites that the government considered contrary to its interests.
Public reports revealed that the government monitored citizens’ internet use and retaliated against them for their speech. The government selectively blocked the communications of government critics to prevent them from communicating with one another, sharing content, or reporting on government harassment. This occurred, for example, when activists attempted to gather in protest of the killing of Hansel Hernandez on June 30 (see section b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). At least 20 activists and journalists had their connectivity to the internet severed by the state that day.
Human rights activists reported frequent government monitoring and disruption of cell phone and landline services prior to planned events or key anniversaries related to human rights. ETECSA frequently disconnected the telecommunication service of human rights organizers, often just before their detention by state security or to disrupt planned activities. For example, artist and activist Tania Bruguera reported that her internet access was blocked for at least 45 days after she participated in protests on November 27 and was subsequently illegally confined to house arrest.
Human rights activists reported government employees (“trolls”) tracked the social media accounts of activists. Activists also reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.
The government frequently targeted users of SNet (abbreviated from Street Network), a grassroots system of user-owned and user-operated wireless networks that allowed persons to exchange information outside of state control. While the law does not set specific penalties for unauthorized internet use, it is illegal to own a satellite dish that provides uncensored internet access, and authorities restricted the use of networking equipment that was key to SNet. The government restricted the importation of wireless routers, actively targeted private wireless access points, and confiscated equipment. After tolerating the growth of SNet for years, the government completed its expropriation of the system in 2019, and networks outside of government control essentially ceased to exist.
The use of encryption software and the transfer of encrypted files are also technically illegal, but information on enforcement of this restriction was not available. Despite poor access, harassment, and infrastructure problems, a growing number of citizens maintained news sites and blogs in which they posted opinions critical of the government with help from persons living outside the country, often expatriate Cubans. The government blocked local access to many of these blogs. In addition a small but growing number of citizens used Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, YouTube, and other social networks to report independently, including observations critical of the government. Like other government critics, bloggers faced government harassment, including detention, physical abuse, and often the destruction or confiscation of their internet equipment and devices.
The government restricted academic freedom and controlled the curricula at all schools and universities, emphasizing the importance of reinforcing PCC rule through “revolutionary ideology” and “discipline.” Most academics refrained from meeting with foreigners, including diplomats, journalists, and visiting scholars, without prior government approval. Government monitors were sometimes present at these meetings. Those persons permitted to travel abroad were aware that their actions, if deemed politically unfavorable, could negatively affect them and their relatives in Cuba. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced out of their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.
Outspoken artists and academics faced harassment and criticism orchestrated by the government. According to the digital magazine Tremenda Nota, academics and their students faced increased discrimination based on ideology and politics during the year.
On October 8, the NGO Observatory of Academic Freedom, founded in July by Cuban exiles, published the first of two reports on ideological discrimination in Cuban universities. In remarks accompanying the presentation, “Political Discrimination in Cuban Higher Education as a Violation of Academic Freedom,” several former Cuban academics described the censorship and punitive actions that led to their dismissals from university positions.
During the year universities adopted new admissions criteria to give greater weight to prospective students’ ideological beliefs.
Public libraries required citizens to complete a registration process before the government granted access to books or information. Citizens could be denied access if they could not demonstrate a need to visit a particular library. Libraries required a letter of permission from an employer or academic institution for access to censored, sensitive, or rare books and materials. Some religious institutions organized small libraries. Independent libraries were illegal but continued to exist, and owners faced harassment and intimidation.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution grants a limited right of assembly, the right is subject to the requirement that it may not be “exercised against the existence and objectives of the socialist state.” The law requires citizens to request authorization for organized meetings of three or more persons, and failure to do so carries a penalty of up to three months in prison and a fine. The government tolerated some gatherings, and many religious groups reported the ability to gather without registering or facing sanctions. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, however, reported that in other cases the government harassed leaders of house churches and owners of homes where house church congregations met. Many house church leaders also reported frequent visits from state security agents or PCC officials. Some reported they received warnings from agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be “threatened” if the house church leaders continued their activities.
Independent activists and political parties other than the PCC faced greater obstacles than religious groups. State security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrations or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.
The government routinely arrested individuals who attempted to assemble, by either placing them under house arrest or taking them into custody if they left their residences.
On November 27, a group of persons assembled outside the Ministry of Culture to demonstrate against the government’s efforts to suppress protests. This was the sole example of a protest successfully forming and being allowed to disperse peacefully. At this event, well known cultural figures protested the government’s treatment of the MSI and its members and demanded the “right to have rights.”
On June 24, police killed Hansel Hernandez Galiano, an unarmed Afro-Cuban man, in Havana (see section 1.a.). Prominent activists soon adopted a #Justice4Hansel campaign and called for protests on June 30 at Havana’s Yara Theater. On the eve of the planned protests, the government arrested scores of potential protesters and deployed a sophisticated media campaign modeled on the #BlueLivesMatter countermovement. Reportedly, no one actually arrived at the protest site because at least 35 individuals were arrested and another 33 were held under house arrest before the planned protest.
State communications monopoly ETECSA, part of the Ministry of Communications, cut off internet access for targeted activists and independent journalists. A state security official informed one activist he would not be allowed to leave his house on June 30 and that whoever tried to attend the protest for Hansel Hernandez Galiano would be arrested for “propagation of an epidemic.” Jose Daniel Ferrer, the leader of UNPACU and the most prominent opposition leader, endorsed the calls to protest. On June 30, police locked the front door to his house from the outside, and when Ferrer and his 17-year-old son climbed out from the roof to join the protest, police arrested them both. Two activists, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and rapper Maykel Castillo, were also arrested and taken into custody. (Days earlier, Otero Alcantara and Castillo had associated themselves with the #Justice4Hansel movement.) Police subsequently violently abused them and prevented them from filing a complaint. Everyone arrested for the June 30 protest was released within two days, except for Diario de Cuba reporter Jorge Enrique Rodriguez, who was held for five days after filming police violence against two young persons.
On October 10, the anniversary of the Grito de Yara proclaiming Cuban independence from Spain, the regime arrested–sometimes violently–more than 20 artists and activists in a crackdown on a peaceful demonstration for political change organized by the San Isidro Movement in Havana. According to media reports, the majority of the activists were held for approximately seven hours by police.
On numerous occasions, the government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” by crowds organized to assault and disperse persons who assembled peacefully. Persons in these crowds arrived in government-owned buses or were recruited by government officials from nearby workplaces or schools. Participants arrived and departed in shifts, chanted progovernment slogans, sang progovernment songs, and verbally taunted those who had peacefully assembled. The persons targeted by this harassment at times suffered physical assault or property damage. Government security officials at the scene, often present in overwhelming numbers, did not arrest those who physically attacked the victims, and they did not respond to victims’ complaints. Instead, government security officials frequently orchestrated activities against protesters or took direct part in physical assaults.
Freedom of Association
The government routinely denied freedom of association to citizens and did not recognize independent associations. The law proscribes any political organization not officially recognized. A number of independent organizations, including opposition political parties and professional associations, operated as NGOs without legal recognition, and police sometimes raided their meetings.
For example, the Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), an association of female political activists originally formed to protest the detention of their male relatives, was subjected to arbitrary arrest whenever it tried to meet, constant surveillance of the house that served as their headquarters, and harassment by state officials and local PCC members.
Recognized churches (including the Roman Catholic humanitarian organization Caritas), the Freemason movement, and a number of fraternal and professional organizations were the only organizations legally permitted to function outside the formal structure of the state or the ruling party. Religious groups are under the supervision of the PCC’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities; it exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons and often limited freedom of movement for independent pastors.
Groups are required to register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities ignored applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups, women’s rights organizations, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights organizations. The lack of official recognition left group members open to potential charges of illegal association.
The government gave preferential treatment to persons who took an active part in PCC activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government. Preferential treatments included valued public benefits such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
There were increased restrictions on freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, and migration with the right of return. The government controlled internal migration from rural areas to Havana, sometimes arresting and expelling persons from Havana if authorities discovered their national identity card listed them as living in another city. The government also barred some citizens and persons of Cuban descent living abroad from entering the country, apparently on grounds that these visitors were critical of the government, had “abandoned” postings abroad as low-paid medical doctors, or had defected when they were abroad as athletes. The government prevented many Cubans who normally were residents in another country but who were caught in Cuba during the COVID-19 pandemic from leaving the country.
When former government employees emigrated from the country, sometimes their family members lost public benefits or were denied passports to travel and join their family members abroad. The law provides for imprisonment of up to three years or a moderate fine for first-time “rafters” (those who attempted to depart the country clandestinely, commonly using homemade vessels), although these attempts were less frequent than in previous years. Most persons caught attempting unauthorized departures via sea were detained briefly under quarantine as a precaution against COVID-19. In the case of military or police defectors or those traveling with children, the punishment could be more severe.
Under the terms of the 1994-95 U.S.-Cuba migration accords, the government agreed not to prosecute or retaliate against migrants returned from international or U.S. waters or from the Guantanamo U.S. Naval Station after attempting to emigrate illegally, assuming they had not committed a separate criminal offense. Some would-be migrants in these circumstances, however, alleged harassment and discrimination, such as fines, expulsion from school, and job loss.
In-country Movement: Although the constitution allows all citizens to travel anywhere within the country, establishing residence in Havana was restricted. The local housing commission and provincial government authorities must authorize any change of residence. The government may fine persons living in a location without authorization and send them back to their legally authorized residence. There were reports that authorities provided only limited social services to illegal Havana residents and at times restricted food purchases to a person’s official neighborhood of residence. Police threatened to prosecute anyone who returned to Havana after expulsion.
The law permits authorities to bar an individual from a certain area within the country, or to restrict an individual to a certain area, for a maximum of 10 years. Under this provision, authorities may internally exile any person whose presence in a given location is determined to be “socially dangerous.” Dissidents frequently reported authorities prevented them from leaving their home provinces, or that authorities detained and returned the dissidents to their homes, even though the dissidents had no written or formal restrictions placed against them.
Foreign Travel: The government continued to require persons from several professional and social categories to obtain permission to emigrate. The affected persons included highly specialized medical personnel; military or security personnel; many government officials, including academics; and many former political prisoners and human rights activists.
The government prohibited human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists from traveling outside the country to attend events related to human rights and democracy. The government used arbitrary or spurious reasons to deny permission for human rights activists to leave the country to participate in workshops, events, or training programs. Activists reported a significant increase in interrogations and confiscations at the airport when arriving from abroad.
The government arbitrarily designated some persons as regulados (regulated persons), meaning the government either prohibited them from receiving a passport or from leaving the country. The policy did not appear to be supported by a legal framework, and officials denied such a policy existed, declaring the law allows for freedom of movement. Because the government did not acknowledge that persons were prevented from leaving, those subject to the policy were left without any recourse for an appeal. The tactic served not only to restrict the movement of citizens but also their freedom of expression, because it was routinely applied when individuals attempted to travel to speak at conferences.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government allegedly cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Information about the extent of that cooperation was not publicly available.
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their principles or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism, however, to process asylum for foreign nationals and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Temporary Protection: On the small number of cases of persons seeking asylum, the government worked with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide protection and assistance pending third-country resettlement. In addition the government allowed foreign students who feared persecution in their home countries to remain in the country after the end of their studies until their claims could be substantiated or resolved.
The government regularly rendered citizens de facto stateless persons when it withheld consular services from employees and their families as punishment for abandoning a foreign work mission. There were reports of Cubans residing abroad who were refused a passport or other proof of identity or citizenship, including for direct return to Cuba. Children born abroad to Cuban citizens in these circumstances were unable to obtain recognition of their Cuban citizenship and may not have citizenship in their country of birth. Cubans residing outside of Cuba for more than 24 months may lose full citizenship rights.
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. All of these “elections” were shams, however, since 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 new constitution, approved in February 2019, 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 attack violently 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’s representation increased slightly from previous years in the most powerful decision-making bodies, but women held no senior leadership positions in the military or security services.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption. The government was highly sensitive to corruption allegations and often conducted anticorruption crackdowns.
Corruption: The law provides for three to eight years’ imprisonment for “illegal enrichment” by authorities or government employees. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of police and other official corruption in enforcement of economic restrictions and provision of government services. For example, employees frequently stole products from government stocks and sold them on the black market. Multiple persons reported that when searching homes and vehicles, police sometimes took the owners’ belongings or sought bribes in exchange for not imposing fines or arrests. Corruption by customs officers was also reportedly common.
Financial Disclosure: The law does not require appointed and elected officials to disclose their assets.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several human rights organizations continued to function outside the law, including UNPACU, the Christian Liberation Movement, the Assembly to Promote Civil Society, and the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. The government subjected domestic human rights advocates to intimidation, harassment, periodic short-term detention, and long-term imprisonment on questionable charges.
No officially recognized NGOs monitored human rights. The government refused to recognize or meet with NGOs that monitored or promoted human rights. There were reports of government harassment of individuals who met with unauthorized NGOs.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government continued to deny international human rights organizations, including the United Nations, its affiliated organizations, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, access to prisoners and detainees. The government continued to deny or ignore long-standing requests from the UN special rapporteurs on torture, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly to enter the country to monitor human rights.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women, including spousal rape, and separately criminalizes “lascivious abuse” against both genders. The government enforced both laws. Penalties for rape are at least four years’ imprisonment. Several reports from women’s rights advocacy groups, however, suggested that crimes against women were underreported and that the state failed to investigate many cases. The government recognized the high rate of femicide for the first time in a report released in 2019, but as of October officials had not responded to requests from human rights activists for a comprehensive law against gender-based violence, despite increasing reports of femicide during the pandemic. The online platform Yo Si Te Creo (I do believe you) documented at least 32 victims of femicide, including 29 Cuban women, two Canadian women, and three minors. Official media sources failed to report any of these killings.
The government specifically targeted activists organizing a campaign called the Red Femenina de Cuba (Cuban Women’s Network) that asked the state to update information on crimes against women, train officials to handle crimes against women, and define gender-based violence in the law. Police also targeted for harassment small groups of women assembling to discuss women’s rights and gender matters more broadly. The government opposed any non-state-sponsored programs that focused on gender violence.
Security officials often refused to take serious action on cases of sexual violence, including several cases where security officials were themselves implicated. In September several soldiers were caught raping a 13-year-old girl. Three men were arrested, but other suspects fled, and those who were arrested were freed the next day. The mother of the victim told the Red Femenina she went to police to protest and was told that police did not have resources to investigate the case and that trials were paused due to COVID-19 anyway. She said the officer warned her that bringing further attention to the case in the independent press or on social networks would be “counterrevolutionary” and could result in her arrest.
The law prohibits all threats and violence but does not recognize domestic violence as a distinct category of violence. Penalties for violence range from fines to prison sentences of varying lengths, depending on the severity of the offense.
Sexual Harassment: The law provides penalties for sexual harassment, with potential prison sentences of three months to five years. The government did not release any statistics on arrests, prosecutions, or convictions for offenses related to sexual harassment during the year.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. It is not clear whether individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health, or whether they had access to the information and means to do so free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Many women, especially poor and young mothers, were required to spend their pregnancies in a state-run maternity home and could be involuntarily committed there if they were deemed noncompliant with a physician’s advice. These establishments provided steady nutrition and access to medical care; however, they could deprive expecting mothers of the support of their partners, families, and communities. (See Coercion in Population Control subsection.)
No legal, social, or cultural barriers affected access to contraception. The government, however, was the sole legal importer of all goods, which resulted in constant acute shortages of contraceptive products–particularly condoms. Nearly all births were attended by a skilled health worker, whom the law requires be employed by the state. It is illegal for private citizens–no matter their qualifications–to provide health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth.
By law the government provides access to sexual, psychosocial, and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence; in practice, however, the health care provided by the state was insufficient to meet survivors’ needs.
Coercion in Population Control: There were some reports of abortions performed by government health authorities without clear consent from the mother. For example, doctors were documented as having performed abortions or pressured mothers into having an abortion when ultrasound scans revealed fetal abnormalities because “otherwise it might raise the infant mortality rate.” Health authorities used abortions to improve infant mortality statistics artificially by preventing marginally riskier births in order to meet centrally fixed targets.
Discrimination: The law accords women and men equal rights, the same legal status, and the same responsibilities with regard to marriage, divorce, parental duties, home maintenance, and employment. No information was available on whether the government enforced the law effectively.
Birth Registration: Citizenship is normally derived by birth within the country’s territory, and births were generally registered promptly.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of consent for marriage is 18. Marriage for girls age 14 or older and for boys 16 or older is permitted with parental consent. According to UNICEF, 26 percent of girls were married before 18, with higher prevalence in the provinces of Oriente and Centro.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: Prostitution is legal for individuals age 16 and older. There is no statutory rape law, although penalties for rape increase as the age of the victim decreases.
The law imposes seven to 15 years’ imprisonment for pornographic acts involving minors younger than 16. The punishment may increase to 20 to 30 years or death under aggravating circumstances. The law does not criminalize the possession of pornography, but it punishes the production or circulation of any kind of obscene graphic material with three months’ to one year’s imprisonment and a fine. The offer, provision, or sale of obscene or pornographic material to minors younger than 16 is punishable by two to five years in prison.
Child trafficking across international borders is punishable by seven to 15 years’ imprisonment.
The law does not establish an age of consent, but sexual relations with children younger than 16 may be prosecuted if there is a determination of rape. In such cases the law leaves room for consideration of possible consent and the age of the other person, especially if the other person is also a minor. Penalties vary based on the age of the victim, ranging from four to 10 years’ imprisonment if the victim is age 14 or 15, up to 15 to 30 years’ imprisonment or death if the victim is younger than 12.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
There were between 1,000 and 1,500 members of the Jewish community. There were several reports of anti-Semitic acts.
In December 2019 local officials ruled against a Jewish family in Nuevitas, Camaguey, who had fought to exercise their children’s right to wear religious headgear (a kippah) in school. The children’s father, Olaine Tejada, said that Mary Vidal, a local state prosecutor, forced him to sign a legal document acknowledging that if his children came to school wearing a kippah on January 6, he and his wife, Yeliney Lescaille, would be arrested and charged with “acts against the normal development of a minor,” with a potential one-year prison sentence. This followed a long history of the children being threatened with expulsion and bullied by schoolmates because of their faith. Tejada said the family would appeal to higher authorities to reinstate their rights. No further developments were reported during the year.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
No law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security oversees the Employment Program for Persons with Disabilities. The law recommends that buildings, communication facilities, air travel, and other transportation services accommodate persons with disabilities, but these facilities and services were rarely accessible to such persons.
A large number of persons with disabilities who depended on the state for their basic needs struggled to survive due to inattention and a lack of resources. Some persons with disabilities who opposed the government were denied membership in official organizations for persons with disabilities, such as the National Association for the Blind. As a result they were denied benefits and services, which included 400 minutes of telephone usage, training in the use of a white cane and in braille, and reduced fares on public transportation.
Afro-Cubans often suffered racial discrimination, and some were subject to racial epithets and beatings by security agents in response to political activity. Afro-Cubans also reported employment discrimination, particularly for positions of prominence within the tourism industry, media, and government. Employment advertisements were allowed to be openly sexist and racist. Police violence intensified during the year, disproportionately affecting Afro-Cubans. Police targeted Afro-Cubans for abuse during enforcement of laws requiring mask-wearing in public and against informal commercial activity. The economic crisis disproportionately affected Afro-Cubans, as seen in the scarce distribution of food and continuous water shortages affecting Havana’s Afro-Cuban neighborhoods. Although the regime’s defenders pointed to a few high-ranking Afro-Cuban officials, Afro-Cubans remained severely underrepresented in ministerial positions and the Politburo, and they were completely absent from the highest ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and Ministry of Interior–seen as the country’s true power centers.
Journalist Abraham Jimenez Enoa, hired on June 15 as a regular contributor to a foreign newspaper’s opinion page, was put under house arrest after the newspaper published an article on June 29 regarding Hansel Hernandez Galiano’s death in which Jimenez said police violence in the country was racist. State media subsequently formally attacked the foreign newspaper in a coordinated print and television campaign, and security officials arrested Jimenez multiple times on charges that observers considered baseless.
The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in employment, housing, citizenship, education, and health care but does not extend the same protections to transgender or intersex individuals based on gender identity or gender expression.
The government did not recognize domestic human rights groups or permit them to function legally. Several unrecognized NGOs that promoted LGBTI human rights faced government harassment, not for their promotion of such topics, but for their independence from official government institutions.
Despite a history of state-sanctioned events in support of the LGBTI community, the state-funded National Center for Sex Education was muted in its support for the LGBTI community after canceling its annual conga (gay pride march) against homophobia in 2019. Ariel Ruiz Urquiola, a biologist and activist for environmental justice and LGBTI rights, alleged the government deliberately infected him with HIV while he was detained after a peaceful protest for gay rights in the wake of 2019’s cancelled pride march. He maintained that he always practiced safe sex and asserted that the government knowingly injected him with HIV when he was hospitalized during a hunger strike to discredit him because of the social stigma of HIV in the country.
The government operated four prisons exclusively for inmates with HIV or AIDS; some inmates were serving sentences for “propagating an epidemic.” Hospitals and clinics sometimes discriminated against patients with HIV.
Special diets and medications for patients with HIV were routinely unavailable, sometimes resulting in the patients’ deaths from neglect.
Political prisoner Maikel Herrera Bones, a person with HIV who was a member of UNPACU, said prison officials withheld HIV treatment from him to pressure him into silence. Herrera Bones was arrested on April 16 after arguing with a plainclothes police officer about blackouts in his Havana neighborhood. Accused of simple assault, Herrera Bones said he had not been tried in court by year’s end.