Cuba is an authoritarian state. The 2019 constitution codifies that Cuba remains a one-party system in which the Communist Party is the only legal political party. On April 19, President Miguel Diaz-Canel replaced former president Raul Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party, the highest political entity of the state by law. Elections were neither free nor fair nor competitive.
The Ministry of Interior controls police, internal security forces, and the prison system. The ministry’s National Revolutionary Police are the primary law enforcement organization. Specialized units of the ministry’s state security branch are responsible for monitoring, infiltrating, and suppressing independent political activity. The national leadership, including members of the military, maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses, and the number of political prisoners increased dramatically, with many held in pretrial detention under extremely harsh and degrading conditions.
On January 28, security forces violently arrested more than 20 artists and journalist peacefully protesting in front of the Ministry of Culture for the release of detained artists. On July 11, spontaneous peaceful protests broke out across the island. In the largest and most widespread demonstrations in decades, tens of thousands of citizens across the country poured into the streets to demand an end to repression as well as to criticize the government’s failure to meet their basic needs and its poor response to COVID-19. Social media posts helped spread news of the protests among citizens. Security forces responded with tear gas, beatings, and arrests. First Secretary of the Communist Party and President Miguel Diaz-Canel went on national television to call on “all revolutionaries and communists to confront these protests,” a reference to Article Four of the 2019 constitution, which gives citizens the right to “combat through any means, including armed combat” any who “intend to topple the political, social, and economic order established by this constitution.” Many of those arrested reported cruel and degrading treatment in prison. In October authorities denied permission for a protest planned for November 15 and threatened organizers. The government conducted summary trials for some protesters; sought long prison sentences, some up to 30 years, in hundreds of cases; and held other protesters in extended pretrial detention. Some activists chose to go into exile, and the government forced others to do so.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings, by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of political dissidents, detainees, and prisoners by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; political prisoners; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; reprisals against family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on freedom of expression and media including violence or threats of violence against journalists, censorship, and criminal libel laws used against persons who criticized government leadership; serious restrictions on internet freedom; severe restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly and denial of freedom of association, including refusal to recognize independent associations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on internal and external freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections, including serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; a lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons, including forced labor; and outlawing of independent trade unions.
Government officials, at the direction of their superiors, committed most human rights abuses. As a matter of policy, officials failed to investigate or prosecute those who committed these abuses. Impunity for the perpetrators remained widespread, as was impunity for official corruption.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Although the 2019 constitution adds explicit protections of freedom and human rights, including habeas corpus, authorities did not observe them, nor did the courts enforce them.
The government broadened arbitrary arrest powers under the pretext of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. A May 2020 resolution permits security forces to carry out active and systematic screening of the entire population, prioritizing suspected cases and populations at risk. Travel restrictions barring persons from leaving their homes except in cases of emergency made it harder for activists and political dissidents to communicate.
The law requires that police furnish suspects a signed “report of detention,” noting the basis, date, and location of any detention in a police facility and a registry of personal items seized during a police search. Authorities routinely ignored this requirement. Police routinely stopped and questioned citizens, requested identification, and carried out search-and-seizure operations directed at known activists. Police used legal provisions against public disorder, contempt, lack of respect, aggression, and failure to pay minimal or arbitrary fines as ways to detain, threaten, and arrest civil society activists. Police routinely conducted short-term detentions to interfere with individuals’ rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, and at times assaulted detainees.
Police and security officials used short-term and sometimes violent detentions to prevent independent political activity and free assembly. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days.
The law allows for “preventive detention” for up to four years of individuals not charged with an actual crime, based on a subjective determination of “precriminal dangerousness,” which is defined as the “special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct in manifest contradiction of socialist norms.” Mostly used as a tool to control “antisocial” behaviors such as substance abuse or prostitution, authorities also used such detentions to silence peaceful political opponents. Several of the more than 100 individuals considered to be political prisoners by domestic and international human rights organizations were imprisoned under the “precriminal dangerousness” provision of the law.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
Police have 24 hours after an arrest to present a criminal complaint to an investigative police official. Investigative police have 72 hours to investigate and prepare a report for the prosecutor, who in turn has 72 hours to recommend to the appropriate court whether to open a criminal investigation.
Within the initial 168-hour detention period, by law detainees must be informed of the basis for the arrest and criminal investigation and have access to legal representation. Those charged may be released on bail, placed in home detention, or held in continued investigative detention. Once the accused has an attorney, the defense has five days to respond to the prosecution’s charges, after which a court date usually is set. Prosecutors may demand summary trials “in extraordinary circumstances” and in cases involving crimes against state security. After the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in early 2020, the Ministry of Justice regularly invoked “extraordinary circumstances” to conduct summary trials.
Reports suggested bail was available, although bail was typically not granted to persons arrested for political activities. Time in detention before trial may be counted toward time served if convicted.
Detainees may be interrogated at any time during detention and have no right to request the presence of counsel during interrogation. Detainees have the right to remain silent, but officials do not have a legal obligation to inform them of that right.
By law investigators must complete criminal investigations within 60 days. Prosecutors may grant investigators two 60-day extensions upon request, for a total of 180 days of investigative time. The supervising court may waive this deadline in “extraordinary circumstances” and upon special request by the prosecutor. In the case of the “extraordinary circumstances” waiver, no additional legal requirement exists to complete an investigation and file criminal charges, and therefore authorities may detain a person without charge indefinitely.
Officials often disregarded legal procedures governing arrest. Following the July protests, they detained suspects longer than the legally mandated period without informing them of the nature of the arrest, without allowing them to contact family members, and without making legal counsel available to them. Family members of convicted protesters and protesters released pending trial or appeal reported that none of those released was provided with copies of the charges filed against them or of the evidence against them.
There were reports that defendants met with their attorneys for the first time only minutes before their trials and were not informed of the basis for their arrest within the required 168-hour period. In the case of summary trials for persons accused of “propagating an epidemic” for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions, accused persons were tried and sentenced without representation from legal counsel or the opportunity to present any defense.
Arbitrary Arrest: Arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions increased and became a routine government method for controlling independent public expression and political activity. The government frequently detained activists arbitrarily without informing them of any charges against them and often denied them the ability to communicate with their relatives. Such detentions generally lasted from several hours to several days. After being taken into custody, these suspects were typically fined and released. The record of the fines frequently lacked information about the law that was broken or the name of the official responsible for the fine, making the fines difficult to contest in court. At times fines formed the basis for preventing persons from leaving the country.
As a result of the July 11 protests, the number of arbitrary arrests rose steeply, with 5,000 to 8,000 arrests and detentions, according to estimates by the NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders. The NGO Justicia 11J estimated 710 remained in detention as of December. The regime used expansively a section of the penal code that allows the government to sentence persons to one to four years in prison for noncriminal acts that are considered antisocial.
Police arrested and imprisoned 18-year-old Marco Antonio Pintules Marrero during the July 11 protests in Holguin and did not allow his mother to see him for more than 46 days, even after he contracted COVID-19 and was transferred to a prison. His mother reported authorities beat him and coerced him into saying he had thrown stones at a Special Brigades car. Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported police arrested and imprisoned Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo during the July 11 protests. Rosales Fajardo was held for more than one month in Versalles Prison before being transferred to Boniato Maximum Security Prison. Guards at Versalles beat him and urinated on him; the beating caused him to lose a tooth. Following five months in detention, he was scheduled to stand trial on December 21. He faced a possible sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.
Pretrial Detention: The government held some detainees for months or years in investigative detention, in both political and nonpolitical cases. In nonpolitical cases delays were often due to bureaucratic inefficiencies and a lack of checks on police. The percentage of prisoners and detainees in pretrial detention was unknown.
As of December, Luis Robles Elizastigui spent more than one year in pretrial detention, his trial postponed indefinitely. Police arrested him in December 2020, when he carried out a solitary, peaceful protest in Havana to request that the government release imprisoned rapper Denis Solis. The Prosecutor’s Office requested a sentence of six years for the alleged crimes of “disobedience” and “enemy propaganda.” On October 11, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions found that Robles’ detention resulted directly from his peaceful protest and called for his release. Solis, for whom Robles protested, was released from prison in July after serving his full sentence.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees cannot challenge the lawfulness of their detention in court. Summary trial procedures do not allow defendants to contest the facts of the case as presented by the state, only why they committed the alleged offense.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution provides for the protection of citizens’ privacy rights in their homes and correspondence, and the law requires police to have a warrant signed by a prosecutor or magistrate before entering or conducting a search. Officials, however, did not respect these protections. Reportedly, government officials routinely and systematically monitored correspondence and communications between citizens, tracked their movements, and entered homes without legal authority and with impunity.
Security forces conducted arbitrary stops and searches, especially in urban areas and at government-controlled checkpoints at the entrances to provinces and municipalities. Authorities used dubious pretenses to enter residences where they knew activists were meeting, such as “random” inspections of utilities, for epidemiological reasons, or spurious reports of a disturbance. Authorities also used seemingly legitimate reasons, often health related, such as fumigating homes as part of an antimosquito campaign or door-to-door COVID-19 checks, as a pretext for illegal home searches.
On May 2, security officers taunted and threatened human rights activist and UNPACU member Orestes Varona Medina in what observers said was an unsuccessful effort to provoke a confrontation. The next morning, after he received a summons to go to the Minas police station, several policemen raided his house while he was with his wife and young children, arrested him, carried him out by his hands and feet, and beat him. On May 8, he was sentenced for “propagating an epidemic” and contempt and sentenced to 10 months in prison.
The Ministry of Interior employed a system of informants and neighborhood groups, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, to monitor government opponents and report on their activities. Agents from the ministry’s General Directorate for State Security frequently subjected foreign journalists, visiting foreign officials, diplomats, academics, and businesspersons to surveillance, including electronic surveillance.
Family members of government employees who left international work missions or similar activities (such as medical missions, athletic competitions, and research presentations) without official permission at times faced government harassment or loss of employment, access to education, and other public benefits. Family members of human rights defenders, including their minor children, reportedly suffered reprisals related to the activities of their relatives. These reprisals included reduction of salary, termination of employment, denial of acceptance into university, expulsion from university, and other forms of harassment.
Arbitrary government surveillance of internet activity was pervasive and frequently resulted in criminal cases and reprisals for persons exercising their human rights. Internet users had to identify themselves and agree they would not use the internet for anything “that could be considered…damaging or harmful to public security.” User software developed by state universities gave the government access to users’ personal data and communications.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women, including spousal rape, and separately criminalizes “lascivious abuse” against both genders. The government did not effectively enforce the law. 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 there was no comprehensive law against gender-based violence, despite increasing reports of femicide during the pandemic. The online platforms Red Femenina de Cuba (Cuban Women’s Network), YoSiTeCreoEnCuba (I Do Believe You), and Alas Tensas (Taut Wings) magazine independently confirmed at least 27 femicides during the first eight months of the year, compared with 25 reported in all of 2020. These figures included the July 25 killing of a young woman and her mother in their home in a rural community in Villa Clara. Daniela Cintra Martin was allegedly stabbed to death by her young child’s father, who then fatally wounded her mother, Liena Martin, when she tried to defend her daughter. Official media sources failed to report any of these killings or to report on femicide statistics.
Red Femenina de Cuba activists called on the state to update information on crimes against women, train officials to handle crimes against women, and define gender-based violence in the law. The government opposed any non-state-sponsored programs that focused on gender violence. Police also targeted for harassment small groups of women assembling to discuss women’s rights and gender matters more broadly. 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: 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.” According to the journal Health Policy and Planning and other international sources, health authorities used abortions to improve infant mortality statistics artificially by preventing marginally riskier births to meet centrally fixed targets.
Many women, especially poor and young mothers, were required to spend their pregnancies in a state-run maternity home and could be involuntarily committed 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. Pregnant women with COVID-19 were placed in isolation centers. One report described the stark conditions at Lenin Vocational Hospital, where the women were located on different floors from the doctors, requiring the pregnant COVID-19-positive patients to walk up and down three flights of stairs to be examined by a doctor. Beds at the facility were not changed between COVID-19-positive patients, and there was no water available, even for hand washing. The quarters were infested with mosquitoes, frogs, bats, and mice.
The government 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.
Discrimination: The law accords women and men equal rights, the same legal status, and the same responsibilities regarding marriage, divorce, parental duties, home maintenance, and employment. No information was available on whether the government enforced the law effectively.