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 condition that it “conforms to the aims of socialist society.” Laws banning criticism of government leaders and distribution of antigovernment propaganda carry penalties ranging from three months to 15 years in prison.
Freedom of Expression: The government did not tolerate public criticism of government officials or programs and limited public debate of issues considered politically sensitive. The government passed two additional laws further criminalizing freedom of expression: Decree 349, which came into effect in December 2018, institutionalizes censorship of independent art and culture and establishes violations for art that was not regulated or recognized by the official cultural institutions. The decree also allows “supervising inspectors” to review cultural events and empowers them to immediately close any exhibition they deem violates the law and confiscate the business license of any business hosting the offending event. The National Symbols Law criminalizes the way the national flag may be displayed or used in other creative contexts.
Police arrested several persons who protested these laws during the year, including Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a leader of the San Isidro Movement, an organization promoting cultural independence, who was arrested at least 18 times in 2018 and 2019, with the last arrest occurring on December 10, International Human Rights Day. On August 9, police arrested him in front of his privately owned Museum of Dissidence for his performance art protest against the National Symbols Law. His performance consisted of wearing a national flag draped over his shoulders. He was also arrested on September 12, when three uniformed police officers and two plainclothes officers beat him and took him away in an unmarked vehicle, holding him incommunicado for more than 72 hours. On September 13, he was charged with violating the National Symbols Law and then released on the condition that he not leave his home after midnight, drink alcohol in a public place, or frequent public places. Several other members of the San Isidro Movement were assaulted, arrested, and fined during the year.
State security regularly harassed the organizers of independent fora for debates on cultural and social topics to force them to stop discussing issues deemed controversial. The fora’s 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. In addition, human rights activists, independent journalists, and artists were prohibited from traveling outside the country to attend events in international fora related to human rights and democracy in the country. Media and religious leaders said the government continued to harass or detain members of religious groups advocating for greater religious and political freedom.
Government workers reported being fired, demoted, or censured for expressing dissenting opinions or affiliating with independent organizations. Several university professors, researchers, and students reported they were forced from their positions, demoted, or expelled for expressing ideas or opinions outside of government-accepted norms.
In contrast with 2018, some religious groups reported increased restrictions to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings. Most members of the clergy continued to exercise 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.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government directly owned all print and broadcast media outlets and all widely available sources of information. News and information programming were generally uniform across all outlets. The government also controlled nearly all publications and printing presses. The party censored public screenings and performances. The government also limited the importation of printed materials. Foreign correspondents in the country had limited access to and often were denied interviews with government officials. They also struggled to gather facts and reliable data for stories. Despite meeting government vetting requirements, official journalists who reported on sensitive subjects did so at personal risk, and the government barred official journalists 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 in the country.
On October 10, 19 independent media outlets published a joint declaration on the state of independent journalism in the country. They denounced the 183 documented incidents of state aggression against journalists since January 2018, part of a broader wave of repression of independent journalism, and demanded the state respect a more open, transparent, and diverse independent media.
On April 22, journalist and lawyer Roberto Quinones was arrested and assaulted while reporting on a trial involving religious expression. Quinones was interviewing a daughter of two Protestant pastors who were facing a court sentence because they wanted to homeschool their children when police officers approached to arrest him. Quinones asked why he was being arrested. Rather than answer, an officer pulled Quinones’ hands behind his back, handcuffed him, and threw him to the ground. The officers then dragged him to their police car. One of the arresting officers struck 65-year-old Quinones several times, including once on the side of the head with enough force to rupture his eardrum. On August 7, he was sentenced to one year of “correctional labor” for “resistance and disobedience,” and on September 11, he was taken to prison, after authorities processed and then denied his appeal. Quinones continued to write while in prison, especially about the bleak conditions of the facility, although he wrote a letter saying he was happy to “be here for having put my dignity before blackmail.” When the letter was published on CubaNet, an independent domestic online outlet, Quinones was reportedly punished and threatened with “disciplinary action.”
Violence and Harassment: The government does not recognize independent journalism, and independent journalists sometimes faced government harassment, including detention and physical abuse. Most detentions involved 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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law prohibits distribution of printed materials considered “counterrevolutionary” or critical of the government. Foreign newspapers or 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. Among many blocked websites, in September the government blocked Change.org after several petitions critical of the government appeared on the website. 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 laws to arrest or detain individuals critical of the country’s leadership. Authorities frequently arrested and charged persons for the ambiguous crime of “contempt of authority.”
Human rights activists reported government internet trolls tracking their social media accounts and reported on the government’s practice of sending mass text messages warning neighbors to avoid association with dissidents.
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 could carry 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 CCP officials. Some reported they received warnings from the 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, as well as political parties other than the CCP, faced greater obstacles, and state security forces often suppressed attempts to assemble, even for gatherings in private dwellings and in small numbers. The government refused to allow independent demonstrators or public meetings by human rights groups or any others critical of any government activity.
On May 11, authorities violently halted an independent march by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) activists, beating and detaining several participants. In another instance the government suppressed marches planned for September 8, the feast day of the country’s patron saint, organized by UNPACU. The march, named the Sunflower March in honor of the flower that represents the patron saint, prompted the government to ban sales of sunflowers in cities in the days leading up to the march. Several UNPACU activists were arbitrarily detained on September 7, and on September 8, immediately after leaving his house with several supporters, UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer and other supporters were arrested. In total, the government arrested at least 130 individuals after raiding several UNPACU offices and homes of UNPACU members as well as accosting others already in the streets, many of whom were beaten during their arrest. Most persons arrested were released within a few days, often after paying a fine, but one organizer, Ovidio Martin Castellano, was sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to pay a 2,000 nonconvertible pesos (CUP) ($80) fine. On September 10, the government followed up by raiding UNPACU headquarters again. Several UNPACU leaders and their family members were arrested and held incommunicado for days. The government routinely barred independent meetings related to animal rights, gender violence, and other forms of civil society activism not officially sanctioned by the state.
The government, using undercover police and Ministry of Interior agents, organized “acts of repudiation” in the form of mobs organized to assault and disperse those who assembled peacefully. Participants 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 assembled peacefully. The targets of 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 or respond to victims’ complaints and instead frequently orchestrated the activities or took direct part in physical assaults.
Freedom of Association
The government routinely denied citizens freedom of association 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, on August 31, state security agents raided a meeting of the Pena del Jucaro Martiano, a group of intellectuals who met to study and celebrate the life of national writer Jose Marti. Officials prevented persons from entering the house where the meeting was held, entered the house on the pretense of an “electrical meter check,” threatened and photographed persons who arrived, and arrested and then interrogated one member, Alenmichel Aguilo, for several hours.
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 party’s Office of Religious Affairs, which has the authority to deny permits for religious activities and exerted pressure on church leaders to refrain from including political topics in their sermons.
Groups must register through the Ministry of Justice to receive official recognition. Authorities continued to ignore applications for legal recognition from new groups, including several new religious groups as well as women’s rights and gay rights organizations, thereby subjecting members to potential charges of illegal association.
The government continued to afford preferential treatment to those who took an active part in CCP activities and mass demonstrations in support of the government, especially when awarding valued public benefits, such as admissions to higher education, fellowships, and job opportunities.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the granting of asylum to individuals persecuted for their ideals or actions involving a number of specified political grounds. The government has no formal mechanism 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. In June, however, 142 Congolese medical students protesting unpaid stipends at their embassy in Havana for several months were arrested and deported to the Republic of the Congo, despite several of them expressing fears for their safety if returned.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
While a voting process to choose CCP-approved candidates exists, citizens do not have the ability to form political parties or choose their government through the right to vote in free and fair elections or run as candidates from political parties other than the CCP. The government forcefully and consistently retaliated against those who sought peaceful political change.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The government selected candidates for the October 10 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 CCP members–were allowed to vote, and candidates ran for office uncontested.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As in previous national elections, for the October election, government-run commissions had to preapprove all candidates for office and rejected certain candidates without explanation or the right of appeal. The few dissident candidates who ran for election reported the government organized protests and town hall meetings to slander their names. 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 otherwise intimidated from participating in the electoral process.
On February 24, a national referendum nominally approved a new constitution drafted without public input or debate, although there were several months of controlled public consultation. The independent journalism organization CubaData estimated more than 45 percent of citizens did not participate in the government-controlled consultation process. Some members of independent civil society alleged the official number of public consultations was grossly exaggerated and were not designed to gather public comments, and that some citizens who spoke up or criticized the constitutional draft during this consultation period were harassed. In the weeks preceding the constitutional referendum, there was a sharp increase in repression against those who peacefully opposed the new draft constitution, especially targeting those who advocated abstaining or voting “No,” despite an article of the constitution providing that “sovereignty resides nontransferably with the people…”
The new constitution includes many sections that restrict citizens’ ability to participate fully in political processes by deeming the CCP 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.” Because the CCP and its ideology are so entrenched in the document, the article effectively empowers ordinary persons to violently attack those who publicly disagree with the party.
Citizens who live abroad without a registered place of abode on the island lose their right to vote.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Women’s representation increased slightly from previous years in the most powerful decision-making bodies; women held no senior positions in the military leadership.
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 any unauthorized NGOs that monitored or promoted human rights. There were reports of explicit government harassment of individuals who met with these 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.