November 19, 2009

I. Executive Summary

In July 2006, Fidel Castro handed control of the Cuban government over to his brother Raúl Castro. As the new head of state, Raúl Castro inherited a system of abusive laws and institutions, as well as responsibility for hundreds of political prisoners arrested during his brother’s rule.  Rather than dismantle this repressive machinery, Raúl Castro has kept it firmly in place and fully active. Scores of political prisoners arrested under Fidel Castro continue to languish in Cuba’s prisons. And Raúl Castro’s government has used draconian laws and sham trials to incarcerate scores more who have dared to exercise their fundamental freedoms.

Raúl Castro’s government has relied in particular on a provision of the Cuban Criminal Code that allows the state to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit an offense in the future. This “dangerousness” provision is overtly political, defining as “dangerous” any behavior that contradicts socialist norms. The most Orwellian of Cuba’s laws, it captures the essence of the Cuban government’s repressive mindset, which views anyone who acts out of step with the government as a potential threat and thus worthy of punishment.

Despite significant obstacles to research, Human Rights Watch documented more than 40 cases in which Cuba has imprisoned individuals for “dangerousness” under Raúl Castro because they tried to exercise their fundamental rights. We believe there are many more. The “dangerous” activities in these cases have included handing out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, staging peaceful marches, writing news articles critical of the government, and attempting to organize independent unions.

The Raúl Castro government has applied the “dangerousness” law not only to dissenters and critics of the government, but to a broad range of people who choose not to cooperate with the state. We found that failing to attend pro-government rallies, not belonging to official party organizations, and being unemployed are all considered signs of “antisocial” behavior, and may lead to “official warnings” and even incarceration in Raúl Castro’s Cuba. In a January 2009 campaign called “Operation Victory,” dozens of individuals in eastern Cuba—most of them youth—were charged with “dangerousness” for being unemployed. So was a man from Sancti Spíritus who could not work because of health problems, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in August 2008 for being unemployed.  

In addition to “dangerousness,” Cuba has a wide range of other laws that criminalize the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including laws penalizing contempt, insubordination, and acts against the independence of the state. Indeed, article 62 of the Cuban constitution prohibits the exercise of any basic right that runs contrary to “the ends of the socialist state.” Together with a judicial system that lacks independence and systematically violates due process rights, Raúl Castro’s government has employed such laws to imprison scores of peaceful dissidents.

Imprisonment is only one of the many tactics the Cuban government uses to repress fundamental freedoms. Dissidents who try to express their views are often beaten, arbitrarily arrested, and subjected to public acts of repudiation. The government monitors, intimidates, and threatens those it perceives as its enemies. It isolates them from their friends and neighbors and discriminates against their families.

Cuba attempts to justify this repression as a legitimate response to a US policy aimed at toppling the Castro government. It is true that the United States has a long history of intervention on the island, and its current policy explicitly aims to support a change in Cuba’s government. However, in the scores of cases Human Rights Watch examined for this report, this argument falls flat.

The reason that human rights advocate Ramón Velásquez Toranzo set out on a peaceful march across Cuba and journalist Raymundo Perdigón Brito wrote articles critical of the Castro government was not because they were agents of the US government, but rather because they saw problems with their own. Yet because these dissidents expressed their opinions openly, both were imprisoned by Raúl Castro’s government, like scores of others. Rather than being a legitimate defense against a threat to national security, these and other cases reveal a state that uses repression to enforce conformity with its political agenda.

It is important to note that the term “dissidents” in the Cuban context does not refer to a homogenous group of people who share a single ideology, affiliation, or common objective. Rather, it refers to anyone who—like Velásquez and Perdigón—engages in activities the government deems contrary to its political agenda. Some dissidents may advocate for democratic change or reform of the socialist system from within; while others may be apolitical, focusing instead on a single issue such as the right to practice their religion or organize a trade union.

Dissidents are a small and significantly isolated segment of the population. However, their marginalization is evidence not of the lack of dissent in Cuba, but rather of the state’s ruthless efficiency in suppressing it. Fear permeates all aspects of dissidents’ lives. Some stop voicing their opinions and abandon their activities altogether; others continue to exercise their rights, but live in constant dread of being punished. Many more never express dissent to avoid reprisals. As human rights defender Rodolfo Bartelemí Coba told Human Rights Watch in March 2009, “We live 24 hours a day ready to be detained.” Ten days after making that statement, Bartelemí was arrested and taken to prison without trial, where he remains today.

While this report documents a systematic pattern of repression, it does not intend to suggest that there are no outlets for dissent whatsoever in Cuba. The last three years have, for example, witnessed the emergence of an independent Cuban blogosphere, critical lyrics by musicians, and most recently a series of government-organized public meetings to reflect on Cuban socialism.

Upon closer examination, however, these examples show just how circumscribed spaces of dissent are and, as a result, how incredibly limited their impact is on society on the whole. While some bloggers speak to problems in Cuba, they must publish their work through back channels—saving documents on memory sticks and uploading entries through illegal connections. Because an hour of internet use costs one-third of Cubans’ monthly wages and is available exclusively in a few government-run centers, only a tiny fraction of Cubans have the chance to read such blogs—including, ironically, bloggers themselves. Some bands perform lyrics that criticize the government, but their songs are banned from the airwaves, their performances shut down, and their members harassed and arbitrarily detained. And while it is true that Raúl Castro’s government organized meetings recently to reflect on Cuban socialism, the agenda for these discussions explicitly prohibited any talk of reforming the single-party system.

Cuba has made important advances in the progressive realization of some economic, social, and cultural rights such as education and healthcare.  For example, UNESCO has concluded that there is near-universal literacy on the island and UNICEF has projected that the country is on track to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals. However, the stark reality is that this progress has not been matched in respect for civil and political rights.

The Raúl Castro government has at times signaled a willingness to reconsider its long-standing disregard for human rights norms. In February 2008, Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and commuted the death sentences of all prisoners except for three individuals charged with terrorism. Yet the Castro government has yet to ratify the ICCPR and ICESCR, and continues to flout many of the treaties’ core principles. And Cuban law still allows individuals who undermine the independence of the state to be sentenced to death.

The Cuban government has for years refused to recognize the legitimacy of independent human rights monitoring and has adamantly refused to allow international monitors, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and international nongovernmental organizations like Human Rights Watch, to visit the island and investigate human rights conditions. In researching this report, Human Rights Watch made repeated written requests to the Raúl Castro government for meetings with authorities and formal authorization to conduct a fact-finding mission to the island.  As in the past, the Cuban government did not respond to any of our requests.

As a result, Human Rights Watch decided to conduct a fact-finding mission to Cuba without official permission in June and July 2009. During this trip, Human Rights Watch researchers conducted extensive interviews in seven of the island’s fourteen provinces. We also conducted numerous interviews via telephone from New York City.  In total, we carried out more than 60 in-depth interviews with human rights defenders, journalists, former political prisoners, family members of current political prisoners, members of the clergy, trade unionists, and other Cuban citizens.

Those interviews, together with extensive research from January to November 2009, are the basis of the following findings:

The Legal Foundation of Repression in Cuba

Cuba’s laws empower the state to criminalize virtually all forms of dissent. Article 62 of the Cuban constitution explicitly prohibits Cubans from exercising their basic rights against the “ends of the socialist state.” Cubans who dare to criticize the government are subject to draconian criminal and “pre-criminal” charges, such as “dangerousness.” They are exempted from due process guarantees. They are denied meaningful judicial protection. And they are left without recourse to international human rights mechanisms.

A person is considered to be in a state of dangerousness due to antisocial behavior if the person... lives, like a social parasite, off the work of others.
—Article 73 of the Criminal Code, on one kind of “antisocial behavior” that constitutes “dangerousness.” 

Political Prisoners

Raúl Castro’s government has imprisoned scores of political prisoners using laws criminalizing dissent. In particular, Cuba has relied on a “dangerousness” provision that allows authorities to imprison individuals for exercising their fundamental freedoms, on the grounds that their activities contradict “socialist morality.” The provision has more broadly been applied to non-dissident Cubans who choose not to work for the government, and are thus viewed as a threat. Meanwhile, Raúl Castro continues to imprison scores of dissidents unjustly sentenced for exercising their fundamental freedoms under Fidel Castro, including 53 human rights defenders, journalists, civil society leaders, and other dissenters arrested in a massive 2003 crackdown. 

The authorities were always threatening me, saying that if I did not distance myself from ‘the opposition’—if I did not change my behavior—I was going to be arrested. I told them, “You have to prove I committed a crime, but I haven’t done anything.”
—William Reyes Mir, who belonged to an unofficial political group in Banes. Reyes was arrested in September 2007 and sentenced to two years of forced labor for “dangerousness.”

Due Process Violations

Cuba systematically violates the due process rights of dissenters from the moment they are arrested through their sham trials. Political detainees are routinely denied access to legal counsel and family visits, held in inhumane and dangerous conditions, and subjected to forced interrogations. Neither detainees nor their families are adequately informed about the charges against them, and political detainees may be held for months or years without ever being formally tried for a crime. Nearly all trials of political detainees are closed hearings lasting less than one hour, during which dissidents are subjected to politically motivated rulings and even falsification of evidence by security officials and prosecutors. Human Rights Watch was unable to document a single case under the Raúl Castro government where a court acquitted a political detainee.       

[The police] picked me up at 5:50 am while I was at home sleeping, and by 8:30 that morning they were already reading me my sentence... They detained me on July 5 but the ruling they gave me had been written on July 3. They didn’t allow me to have a lawyer, and the hearing was conducted behind closed doors, without my family. The trial lasted 15 or 20 minutes.
—Alexander Santos Hernández, a political activist from Gibara, on his July 2006 arrest and summary trial. Santos was sentenced to four years for “dangerousness.”

Inhumane Prisons

Cuba’s prison officials, like the Cuban government as a whole, punish dissent. Conditions for political prisoners and common prisoners alike are overcrowded, unhygienic, and unhealthy, leading to extensive malnutrition and illness. Political prisoners who criticize the government, refuse to participate in ideological “re-education,” or engage in hunger strikes or other forms of protest are routinely subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions of visits, and the denial of medical care. Prisoners have no effective complaint mechanism to seek redress, granting prison authorities total impunity. Taken together, these forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment may rise to the level of torture.

The cells are one meter or one-and-a-half meters wide by two meters long. You sleep during the day on a concrete platform and at night you get a mattress, which is removed at daybreak. You are not allowed to have any belongings, and the food is terrible... Some cells have a little window, others none. Some cells have light, others don’t.
—Víctor Yunier Fernández Martínez describes the conditions in solitary confinement, where he was sent repeatedly during his imprisonment for “dangerousness” from 2006 to 2009. Fernández, a political activist, was incarcerated in the prisons of Canaleta and 1580.

Everyday Forms of Repression

Dissenters are punished daily in nearly every aspect of their lives. The Cuban government routinely uses short-term arrests to harass dissidents or prevent them from participating in groups or activities considered “counterrevolutionary.” Dissidents are beaten, publicly humiliated, and threatened by security officers and groups of civilians tied to the state. They are denied work, fired from jobs, and fined, placing significant financial strain on their families. They are prevented from exercising their right to travel within and outside of the island. And they are subjected to invasive surveillance, which violates their privacy and gathers information that can later be used to imprison them. These tactics of repression are consistently visited on the families of dissenters as well.   

The rapid response brigade was waiting for us, carrying wooden bats and metal rods, as though they were ready to beat us. They insulted us, saying we were worms, the scum of society. They called my mother and me whores and sluts.
—Rufina Velásquez González describing one of the groups that harassed her and her parents when they set out on a peaceful march across Cuba in December 2006 calling for the release of all political prisoners.

State of Fear

Cuba’s systematic repression has created a pervasive climate of fear among dissidents and, when it comes to expression of political views, in Cuban society as a whole. This climate hinders the exercise of basic rights, pressuring Cubans to show their allegiance to the state, while discouraging any form of criticism. Dissidents feel as though they are constantly being watched—a sense that fosters distrust among peers and self-censorship. They fear they will be arrested at any moment, and have no confidence in the willingness of the government to protect their rights or give them a fair trial. This climate of fear has led to the near-complete isolation of dissidents from their communities, friends, and sometimes even families, which together with other forms of repression has had profound emotional consequences, including depression and signs of trauma.  

No one is allowed to talk to me. People who come to my house are immediately called by state security and reprimanded. Then these people—for fear of losing their jobs, for fear that [the authorities] will take it out on someone in their family—simply stop talking to me.
—Former political prisoner Eduardo Pacheco Ortíz, who was imprisoned for “dangerousness” in January 2008, describes his treatment by neighbors in Matanzas since his release. 


Given the effectiveness of Cuba’s repressive machinery and the Castro government’s firm grip on power, the pressure needed to bring progress on human rights cannot come solely from within Cuba. In order to succeed, it must be supported by effective pressure on the part of the international community. Currently, this effective pressure—whether from Latin American countries, the United States, Canada, or Europe—is lacking.

Efforts by the US government to press for change by imposing a sweeping economic embargo have proven to be a costly and misguided failure. The embargo imposes indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban population as a whole, and has done nothing to improve the situation of human rights in Cuba. Rather than isolating Cuba, the policy has isolated the United States, enabling the Castro government to garner sympathy abroad while simultaneously alienating Washington’s potential allies.

There is no question: the Cuban government bears full and exclusive responsibility for the abuses it commits. However, so long as the embargo remains in place, the Castro government will continue to manipulate US policy to cast itself as a Latin American David standing up to the US Goliath, a role it exploits skillfully.

Just as the US embargo policy has proved counterproductive, so have the policies of the European Union and Canada failed to exert effective pressure on Cuba. The EU’s Common Position sets clear human rights benchmarks for economic cooperation with Cuba, but the cost of noncompliance has been insufficient to compel change by the Castro government. Canada lacks such benchmarks, promoting significant investment in the island at the same time as it decries the Cuban government’s abuses.

Worse still, Latin American governments across the political spectrum have been reluctant to criticize Cuba, and in some cases have openly embraced the Castro government, despite its dismal human rights record. Countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador hold Cuba up as a model, while others quietly admit its abuses even as they enthusiastically push for Cuba’s reintegration into regional bodies such as the Organization of American States (OAS). The silence of the Latin governments condones Cuba’s abusive behavior, and perpetuates a climate of impunity that allows repression to continue. This is particularly troubling coming from a region in which many countries have learned firsthand the high cost of international indifference to state-sponsored repression.

Not only have all of these policies—US, European, Canadian, and Latin American—failed individually to improve human rights in Cuba, but their divided and even contradictory nature has allowed the Cuban government to evade effective pressure and deflect criticism of its practices.

To remedy this continuing failure, the US must end its failed embargo policy. It should shift the goal of its Cuba strategy away from regime change and toward promoting human rights. In particular, it should replace its sweeping bans on travel and trade with Cuba with more effective forms of pressure.

This move would fundamentally shift the balance in the Cuban government’s relationship with its own people and the international community. No longer would Cuba be able to manipulate the embargo as a pretext for repressing its own people. Nor would other countries be able to blame the US policy for their own failures to hold Cuba accountable for its abuses.

However, ending the current embargo policy by itself will not bring an end to Cuba’s repression. Only a multilateral approach will have the political power and moral authority to press the Cuban government to end its repressive practices. Therefore, before changing its policy, the US should work to secure commitments from the EU, Canada, and Latin American allies that they will join together to pressure Cuba to meet a single, concrete demand: the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.

In order to enforce this demand, the multilateral coalition should establish a clear definition of who constitutes a political prisoner—one that includes all Cubans imprisoned for exercising their fundamental rights, including those incarcerated for the pre-criminal offense of  “dangerousness” and the 53 dissidents still in prison from the 2003 crackdown. It should also set a firm deadline for compliance, granting the Raúl Castro government six months to meet this demand.

Most important, the members of the coalition should commit themselves to holding the Cuban government accountable should it fail to release its political prisoners. The penalties should be significant enough that they bear real consequences for the Cuban government. And they should be focused enough to target the Cuban leadership, rather than the Cuban population on the whole. Options include adopting targeted sanctions on the government officials, such as travel bans and asset freezes; and withholding any new forms of foreign investment until Cuba meets the demand.

During the six-month period, Latin American countries, Canada, the EU, and the US should be able to choose individually whether or not to impose their own restrictions on Cuba. Some may enact targeted sanctions on Cuba’s leadership immediately, while others may put no restrictions on Cuba during that time.

Regardless, if the Castro government is still holding political prisoners at the end of six months, Cuba must be held accountable. All of the countries must honor their agreement and impose joint punitive measures on Cuba that will effectively pressure the Castro government to release its political prisoners.

On the other hand, if the Cuban government releases all political prisoners—whether before or after the six month period is complete—these punitive measures should be lifted. Then, the multilateral coalition should devise a sustained, incremental strategy to push the Raúl Castro government to improve its human rights record. This strategy should focus on pressuring Cuba to reform its laws criminalizing dissent, dismantle the repressive institutions that enforce them, and end abuses of basic rights. And the impact of the strategy should be monitored regularly to ensure it is not creating more repression than it curbs.

Ultimately, it is the Raúl Castro government that bears responsibility for such abuses—and has the power to address them. Yet as the last three years of Raúl Castro’s rule show, Cuba will not improve its human rights record unless it is pressured to do so.