Cuba 2015: One Year after Historic Change


On December 17, 2014 the presidents of Cuba and the United States announced a historical change in the relationship between the two countries. Since then some new spaces for Cuban citizens have opened up and Cuban society has been experiencing a remarkable ideological shift not seen in decades. However much less has changed in Cuba over the last year than might be apparent from sometimes overly optimistic media coverage. A significant part of the information in this report was obtained over the course of numerous trips to Cuba in 2015 during which People in Need’s representatives spent collectively more than 180 days on the island and visited over 200 activists in every Cuban province. Although there may be some legitimate reasons to be optimistic that the human rights situation will improve, a significant number of activists and civil society organizations have remained skeptical about future developments in Cuba.

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Ladies in White, Cuba
Ladies in White, Cuba © 2013 CubaRaw

Recommendations

For the International Community:

  • Insist on the same level of protection of human rights as is required from other Latin American countries
  • Meet with representatives from civil society during official visits to the country
  • Insist on ending all forms of repression directed towards civil society
For International Media

  • Before publishing any information released by the Cuban government, consult with members of the independent civil society
  • Open the door to Cuban journalists (both official and independent) and provide training to them

General situation and new government measures

Despite the recent acceleration of the process of political and economic opening that Cuba has undertaken since Raul Castro’s accession to the presidency in 2006, there has been no substantial improvement in regard to human rights and individual freedoms on the island. Over the last few years, Cuban authorities have constantly restricted the political and civil liberties of Cuban citizens using a range of repressive strategies, while also failing to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights as stipulated in international treaties previously signed by the Cuban government [ 1 ]. This is being done to maintain the existing political system and to keep the Communist Party of Cuba and the Revolutionary Armed Forces in power. Even though the government has made some concessions aimed at gradually liberalizing the economy that have been welcomed by the international community and tempered the pent up frustrations of the impoverished Cubans, it has also been actively silencing dissidents and the opposition.

There has been no substantial improvement in regard to human rights

The ability of Cubans to enjoy their fundamental rights still remains very limited and the lack of freedom is evident in all areas of life, despite the new measures that were introduced by the government to show its genuine openness and draw attention to a supposed political change. While it is true that in recent years, Cubans have been allowed to travel abroad without having to ask for an exit visa, to obtain certain licenses to run their own businesses and to be able to sell and buy cars and homes, the majority of the population cannot take advantage of these new measures – their economic situation simply does not allow it.

Most Cubans are paid in Cuban pesos and the average official salary is 23 USD a month. Internet access, which should mean access to free and uncensored information, is extremely limited [ 2 ] and too expensive for most of the population. Freedom of movement through the country is sometimes restricted [ 3 ] and the government can return citizens to their home provinces as it pleases. There are no independent trade unions that can effectively defend the rights of workers. Neither freedom of association nor independence for the three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial) has been restored.

Uncensored information is extremely limited

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Civil and political rights

The Communist Party of Cuba is still the only legal political party in Cuba and its members govern the country at the local and the national level. They are appointed via elections, which are neither free nor fair – how could they be – given that they take place in a country with a single-party system that keeps candidates for elected office and the electorate under constant control and pressure [ 4 ]. Gradually, the political system in Cuba has fallen more and more into the hands of an elite clique linked to the Revolutionary Armed Forces, which controls the majority of companies and foreign investments in Cuba and has also been gaining influence within the Communist Party of Cuba. The perpetrators of human rights violations belong to this group, which includes mainly the National Revolutionary Police, State Security agents and officers from the Ministry of the Interior.

Communist Party of Cuba is still the only legal political party

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Freedom of assembly and association

Cuban state authorities suppress any independent political initiative that does not follow the lines laid down by the regime. Members of various opposition groups are under constant surveillance and are prevented from organizing meetings and participating in them, while also being punished for criticizing the regime and threatened on a regular basis. As a result, they live in constant fear and under tremendous stress. Yet, this has not stopped Cuban civil society from trying to get organized.

Cuban state authorities suppress any independent political initiative

Members of the Ladies in White movement, who organize regular Sunday marches to demand the release of all political prisoners in Cuba, are frequently harassed by the Police and State Security. Some of the women have been [ 5 ] detained or attacked over 30 times in a single year . In accordance with the Law on Associations (Ley de Asociaciones 54/85), the government refuses to register any new association or organization that is not supervised by the State. As a rule, it argues that the functions any such new organization could perform are within the competence of the State or can be performed by an existing government [ 6 ] entity.

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Independent artist Danilo Maldonado, © 2013 CubaRaw.
Independent artist Danilo Maldonado, © 2013 CubaRaw.
“The accused poses a real danger to society as he intended to tarnish the image of the President of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, Army General Raul Castro, and the historic leader of the Revolution, Fidel Castro.” [ 7 ]

Prosecutor’s Response to the appeal for the release of independent artist Danilo Maldonado, a.k.a. “El Sexto”.

He was in prison from December 2014 to October 2015 for attempting to stage a public performance that used the names Fidel and Raul. He was released without charges. This case is emblematic of a nation that has put strict limits on its citizen’s right to express their opinions and where exercising freedom of expression can be punished by imprisonment.

Freedom of opinion and expression

In Cuba, there is no freedom of expression. The government owns every media outlet and does not hesitate to persecute independent journalists in order to maintain control over all sources of information. Any material that the authorities deem ”counter-revolutionary” is illegal and anyone who distributes it runs the risk of increased surveillance or the confiscation of their equipment, they face threats, beatings, arbitrary detention and possible arrest.

The government owns every media outlet

In the annual World Press Freedom Index, Cuba ranks 169 8 of the 180 countries worldwide [ 8 ]. The Internet does not represent a genuine alternative source of information since there is restricted access to it 9 due to high prices and only 35 access point [ 9 ]. If somebody wants to import a satellite dish that would allow them to use uncensored internet services or satellite television, they need to obtain prior authorization from the State, which is never granted. Moreover, the Cuban email system, nauta.cu, which has been gaining popularity since it can also be used on smartphones, is entirely monitored and controlled by the government.

In the annual World Press Freedom Index, Cuba ranks 169th of the 180 countries worldwide

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Repression strategies

The strategies of repression have become more subtle these days, but they are still quite harsh. In recent years, People in Need has observed a change in the repressive methods used by the Cuban authorities against the opposition. Since the Black Spring of 2003, when the international community rose up against the disproportionate sentences imposed on 75 dissidents, the government has been more cautious about the political cost of similar measures. It has adapted its repressive methods in order to make them invisible to the scrutinizing, judgmental eyes of the international community, but it has not reduced the level of pressure or control over the opposition. These days there are even more detentions than there were before, but of a shorter duration. Most activists are detained only for a few hours or days and they are released before there can be a response by the international community. In October 2015, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation registered 1093 arbitrary detentions [ 10 ], while the Hablemos Press Information Centre recorded a total of 1021 of them.

The strategies of repression have become more subtle

The detainees are often held in police cars, where the police do not follow any legal procedures for detaining individuals, as would be appropriate. Activists are illegally kept in cars that circulate around the town to let some time pass before they are released, or just parked out in the sun. After an hour or sometimes even after several hours, the activists are usually taken to the outskirts of the city or town where they live and are abandoned there with no means of getting back home. These acts are not registered as proper detentions and there is no evidence of them except for the testimonies of the victims and witnesses.

Arbitrary Detentions Cuba 2010 - 2015
Arbitrary Detentions Cuba 2010 – 2015

The government’s repression strategies include beatings, arbitrary house searches and even much more vicious practices such as throwing activists over an anthill or forcing them to remove their clothes and shoes far away from their homes where they will eventually need to return. Other common practices involve threats, improper dismissals or acts of repudiation, in which a group of citizens gathers to protest in front of a dissident’s house, while 11 shouting insults and throwing various objects or excrement [ 11 ].

Attacks against activists have been on the rise

Despite the growing acceptance of and the support for the opposition in the recent months, especially on the part of their neighbors and acquaintances, acts of aggression and attacks against activists that are being perpetrated by citizens who are allegedly acting out of their own free will have been on the rise [ 12 ]. According to the network of activists that People in Need collaborates with, such acts of aggression are instigated by State Security agents and the perpetrators of such acts (despite not being directly linked to the authorities) are following orders that had been given to them in exchange for certain privileges, protection, favors, or, in some cases, merely for recognition.

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Political prisoners

Since 2011, when the last prisoners of the Black Spring were released, the Cuban government has insisted that there are no political prisoners on the island. Yet, it agreed to free 53 political prisoners during negotiations held with the United States at the end of 2014. In January 2015, Cuba announced the release of these 53 political prisoners, 14 of whom had already been released days or weeks before the announcement. However, the Cuban government has shown no sign of continuing along these lines and releasing the remaining political prisoners who are still being held in Cuban jails. In a statement published in January 2015, Amnesty International declared that “the release of prisoners is nothing but a smokescreen if the government fails to give more space to all citizens to freely and peacefully express their opinions and enjoy other freedoms in Cuba” [ 13 ].

Number of known cases of prisoners of conscience ranges between 27 and 30

The fact is that there are still political prisoners in Cuba. Estimates vary according to the investigations done by various organizations, but the number of known cases of prisoners of conscience, who have been sentenced with or without a trial, ranges between 27 and 30. In general, the Cuban government has avoided putting such prisoners on trial (Sonia Garro, for example, remained in prison for 2 years and 9 months without being brought to a trial); instead, the government makes up fake cases and false charges so that they can accuse activists (e.g., Angel Santiesteban, who was held in jail from 2013 to 2015) and impose or pass outrageous sentences for the supposedly committed offences for instance, the prosecutor requested one to three year sentence for a performance that the artist known as El Sexto did not even stage.

Also, we should mention the case of the 11 political prisoners arrested during the Black Spring of 2003, who even after being released have remained under an “extra-penal license” (similar to parole) for refusing to leave the country. These 11 ex-prisoners are currently not allowed to travel abroad and there is still a possibility that the government could put them back in prison to serve the remainder of their sentences.

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Prison conditions

In April 2013 – three weeks before a UPR session of theUnited Nations Human Rights Council in Switzerland – Cuba gave permission to a group of foreign journalist to visit one of its prisons. It was the first such visit in 9 years. On the day of the visit, some of the imprisoned activists were placed in solitary confinement or transported to a different place, which was the case of Sonia Garro, a member of the Ladies in White movement, who was taken to a hospital. However, the Cuban government continues to refuse to let international organizations enter Cuban prisons (e.g. has been repeatedly refusing the Committee against Torture [ 14 ] ); it has even rejected visits by international human rights organizations such as the International Red Cross or Amnesty International or various independent Cuban groups.

Cuban government continues to refuse to let international organizations enter Cuban prisons

In a report on the human rights of individuals deprived of freedom in Cuba presented by Cubalex (a group of independent lawyers based in Havana) before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October 2014, it was noted that the most serious problems in Cuban prisons include overcrowding, poor prison conditions (both living conditions as well as the lack of provision of basic services), the excessive use of force by security forces, corruption and the lack of transparency with regard to prison management [ 15 ].

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How should the international community react?

Cuba is an authoritarian state, which does not adhere to the principles that guide most democratic countries, nor does it respect the human rights of its citizens. For this reason, it is necessary to insist on the same level of protection of human rights when carrying out negotiations over any future agreement with Cuba as is required from other Latin American countries. International community should be consistent in requesting end of all forms of repression directed towards civil society (e.g. acts of repudiation and short term arbitrary detentions).

Any time a negotiation or a dialogue is held with the Cuban government, representatives from civil society should be invited to attend – or, alternatively, meetings should be organized with them during official visits to the country. Also, any such meeting with the government should always address and endorse the demands of Cuban civil society, such as the release of political prisoners, the end of political repression, the recognition of independent Cuban civil society and the ratification of the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ 16 ].

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What can be done by the international press?

Since independent media in Cuba are limited and marginalized, the only source of independent information Cubans often have access to is via the international press. While official Cuban media ignore its civil society, the international media should not. Therefore when publishing any information released by the Cuban government, the international media should consult with members of the independent civil society. Another important suggestion is that the international media open its doors to Cuban journalists (both official and independent) and train them in how to disseminate critical and free information. This will help lay the foundations for the future free press in Cuba.

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About People in Need

People in Need is a Czech NGO established in 1992, which provides humanitarian assistance and aid. It is also involved in the defense of human rights and democratic freedoms. The organization has 18 years of experience in supporting civil society in places like Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela.

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Notes

1 Cuba is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is also a member of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. For information about the ratification status of other international treaties, see OHCHR website: http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/TreatyBodyExternal/Treaty.aspx?CountryID=44&Lang=EN , accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

2 Some websites are blocked in Cuba, for example, the independent newspaper http://www.14ymedio.com/, http://www.martinoticias.com/ or http://www.revolico.com/ ↑ Back to Text ↑

3 EYE on CUBA (2015), ‘Freedom of transit violated in Alta Habana, Cuba,’ 16 July,http://www.eyeoncuba.org/en/event/22026/, accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

4 Miranda Fuertes (2015), ‘Elections in Cuba: The Dictatorship Lives On,’ Cubalog, 21 May, http://cubalog.eu/2015/05/elections-in-cuba-the-dictatorship-lives-on/ accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

5 Keila Ramos Suarez was attacked 15 times between March 2013 and April 2014. Maria Teresa Gracias was arrested and assaulted 39 times between January 2013 and March 2014. Miranda Fuertes (2014), ‘How would you feel if you were innocent but still thrown in jail each Sunday,’ Cubalog, 23 July, http://cubalog.eu/2014/07/how-would-you-feel-if-you-were-innocent-but-still-thrown-in-jail-each-sunday/, accessed 12 November 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

6 See the sentence, refusing legal registration of Cuban Legal Association (Asociación Jurídica Cubana, AJC), available at: https://ajudicuba.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/sentencia-157-tribunal-provincial.pdf For more information consult AJC’s website:https://ajudicuba.wordpress.com/, accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

7 This wording was originally published by Cuban activist Lia Villares in her article ‘Visita a la abogada de Danilo’, available at:http://delsexto.blogspot.cz/2015_08_01_archive.html, accessed 12 November, 2015. Text was translated by People in Need. ↑ Back to Text ↑

8 Ranking by Reporters without Borders available at:http://index.rsf.org/#!/index-details/CUB, accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

9 Wifi connection costs 2 CUC per hour, which is approximately 8.6% of the official average monthly salary. For up-todate information concerning WiFi
in Cuba see:http://www.etecsa.cu/?page=inicio&sub=implementa_etecsa_zonas_wifi_publicas_para_acceso_a_internet, accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

10 Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos z Reconciliación Nacional (CCDHRN), ‘Informe mensual sobre represión,’ http://ccdhrn.org/informes/informe-mensual-sobre-represion/, accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

11 For more information about particular cases, visit EYE on CUBA website:http://www.eyeoncuba.org/en/, accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

12 People in Need registered 3 cases of assault against members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) within two months, which included an attack with a stone and stabbing. ↑ Back to Text ↑

13 Amnesty International (2015), ‘Prisoner releases must lead to new environment for freedoms,’ 8 January https://www.amnesty.org/en/press-releases/2015/01/cuba-prisoner-releases-must-lead-new-environment-freedoms-1/ accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

14 “The Government of the Republic declares, in accordance with article 28 of the Convention, that the provisions of paragraphs 1, 2 and 3 of article 20 of the Convention will have to be invoked in strict compliance with the principle of the sovereignty of States and implemented with the prior consent of the States Parties.” In United Nations Treaty Collections:https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=IV-9&chapter=4&lang=en#EndDec accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

15 Cubalex (2014), ‘Informe sobre los derechos humanos de las personas privadas de libertad en Cuba,’ 31 October, http://www.14ymedio.com/nacional/Informe-CubalexPenitenciario_CYMFIL20141031_0002.pdf accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

16 Four agreement points were approved by the “open space” platform formed by representatives of Cuban civil society. For details, see: http://www.14ymedio.com/nacional/Informe-CubalexPenitenciario_CYMFIL20141031_0002.pdf accessed 12 November, 2015. ↑ Back to Text ↑

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People in Need is a Czech NGO established in 1992 and working on the ground in Cuba since 1997.