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Human Rights Developments

Despite a few positive developments over the course of the year, the Cuban government's human rights practices were generally arbitrary and repressive. Hundreds of peaceful opponents of the government remained behind bars, and many more were subject to short-term detentions, house arrest, surveillance, arbitrary searches, evictions, travel restrictions, politically-motivated dismissals from employment, threats, and other forms of harassment.

Although Cuba's human rights conditions improved little in 2000, U.S. policy toward Cuba did begin to change. The high-profile case of Elián González, the six-year-old Cuban shipwreck survivor who stayed seven months in the United States against the wishes of his father, brought increased public attention to the United States' policy of isolating Cuba. After the boy returned home in June, congressional efforts to relax some aspects of the thirty-eight-year-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba gained momentum.

Cuba's repressive human rights practices were undergirded by the country's legal and institutional structure. The rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, movement, and of the press remained restricted under Cuban law. By criminalizing enemy propaganda, the spreading of "unauthorized news," and the insulting of patriotic symbols, the government effectively denied freedom of speech under the guise of protecting state security. The authorities also imprisoned or ordered the surveillance of individuals who had committed no illegal act, relying upon laws penalizing "dangerousness" (estado peligroso) and allowing for "official warning" (advertencia oficial). The government-controlled courts undermined the right to a fair trial by restricting the right to a defense, and frequently failed to observe the few due process rights available to defendants under the law.

Even Cubans' right to leave their country was severely restricted, as the government prosecuted persons for "illegal exit" if they attempted to leave the island without first obtaining official permission to do so. Such permission was sometimes denied arbitrarily, or made contingent on the purchase of an expensive exit permit.

Pro-democracy activists planned a series of protests to coincide with the ninth annual Ibero-American Summit, held in Havana in November 1999. Yet, the authorities cracked down hard on public dissent, arresting over 200 dissidents in the weeks before and after the summit. Many of them were placed under house arrest, while others were temporarily detained in police stations. This wave of repression continued through February 2000. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation (Comisión Cubana de Derechos Humanos y Reconciliación Nacional), a respected Havana-based nongovernmental group, announced in early March that 352 dissidents hadbeen arrested over the preceding four months, while another 240 had their freedom of movement restricted, normally by being ordered to remain at their homes.

While the vast majority of those arrested were eventually released without any criminal charges being brought against them, a few were prosecuted. The most serious case was that of thirty-eight-year-old Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet González, who received a three-year prison sentence on February 25 for protests that included turning the Cuban flag upside-down and carrying anti-abortion placards. Biscet, the president of the Lawton Human Rights Foundation, was convicted of dishonoring patriotic symbols, public disorder, and instigating delinquency. It was reported in August that he had experienced severe weight loss in prison, suffered from health problems, including an untreated gum infection, and had been held in solitary confinement for months at a time.

Also on February 25, immediately after Biscet's trial, Eduardo Díaz Fleitas, vice-president of the Fifth of August Movement (Movimiento 5 de Agosto), and Fermín Scull Zulueta, were convicted of public disorder by the same court. Díaz Fleitas was sentenced to a year of incarceration, while Scull Zulueta received a year of house arrest. Like Biscet, they were anti-abortion protesters, and had carried signs at a November 10 demonstration.

The most encouraging development of the year came in May when three leaders of the Internal Dissidents Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo de la Disidencia Interna, GTDI) were freed prior to the expiration of their sentences. Economists Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello, engineering professor Félix Antonio Bonne Carcasses, and attorney René Gómez Manzano were granted provisional liberty within two weeks of each other, but Vladimiro Roca Antúnez, the fourth leader of the group, remained incarcerated at this writing. The four had been sentenced in March 1999 to several years of imprisonment for "acts against the security of the state," after having spent nearly nineteen months in pretrial detention. They were first detained in July 1997, a month after the GTDI released "The Homeland Belongs to All" (La Patria es de Todos), an analytical paper on the Cuban economy, human rights, and democracy.

Whether detained for political or common crimes, inmates were subjected to abusive prison conditions. Prisoners frequently suffered malnourishment and languished in overcrowded cells without appropriate medical attention. Some endured physical and sexual abuse, typically by other inmates with the acquiescence of guards, or long periods in isolation cells. Prison authorities insisted that all detainees participate in politically oriented "re-education" sessions or face punishment. Political prisoners who denounced the poor conditions of imprisonment were punished with solitary confinement, restricted visits, or denial of medical treatment.

At least twenty-four prisoners faced the death penalty, according to a list circulated in August by the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, which also provided the names of twenty-one others who had been executed in 1999. Although the organization noted that all of the executions involved defendants convicted of homicide, Cuban law permitted the use of the death penalty for numerous other crimes, including international drug trafficking and the corruption of minors. Cuba's secrecy regarding the application of the death penalty-the government did not provide information on execution-made it difficult to ascertain the actual number of death sentences imposed and carried out. The Cuban legal system's serious procedural failings and lack of judicial independence, which violated the rights of all criminal defendants, were especially problematic with regard to capital offenses. Miscarriages of justice were also unlikely to be remedied upon review by a higher court, since Cuban law afforded convicts sentenced to death minimal opportunities to appeal their sentences.

The Cuban government maintained a firm stance against independent journalism, regularly detaining reporters and sometimes prosecuting them. On November 10, 1999 Angel Pablo Polanco, the director of Noticuba, was arrested and held for a week, allegedly to prevent him from reporting on protests surrounding the Ibero-American Summit. On January 20, 2000 José Orlando González Bridón, president of the Cuban Confederation of Democratic Workers (Confederación de Trabajadores Democráticos de Cuba) and writer for the Cuba Free Press, was detained for several hours. Police reportedly questioned him about his writings and threatened to prosecute him. Other journalists detained and questioned for brief periods over the course of the year included Ricardo González Alfonso, Jadir Hernández, Jesús Hernández, and Luis Alberto Rivera Leiva. Others were harassed or prevented from working by police.

Victor Rolando Arroyo Carmona, a long-time government opponent who wrote for the Union of Independent Cuban Journalists and Writers (Unión de Periodistas y Escritores Cubanos Independientes), was sentenced on January 25 to six months of imprisonment for "hoarding" toys. Police had confiscated toys that he had planned to give away to poor children in his area; they had been paid for by Cuban exiles in Miami. Just after Arroyo's trial, the Cuban authorities freed another independent journalist, Leonardo de Varona González, who had served a sixteen-month sentence for "insulting" President Fidel Castro. At least three other independent journalists remained incarcerated: Bernardo Arévalo Padrón and Manuel Antonio González Castellanos, serving sentences of six years and of two years and seven months, respectively, for "insulting" Castro; and Jesús Joel Díaz Hernández, serving four years for "dangerousness," who was reportedly held in solitary confinement until early August.

On October 16, after his release from prison, Arroyo was reportedly beaten and insulted by state security agents. He and another dissident were picked up from a friend's house, driven to the police station in Güines, beaten en route, and then driven dozens of miles away and released after being beaten again.

Foreign journalists too faced government harassment if they attempted to work with or assist their Cuban colleagues. Italian freelance journalist Carmen Butta was reportedly detained by police on June 18 after meeting with independent journalists as part of her research for an article on the Cuban independent press. In August, three Swedish journalists were arrested in Havana by state security agents. They had traveled to Cuba on tourist visas but had held a seminar on press freedom for independent journalists. The three were deported after spending two days in detention. Earlier that same month, French journalist Martine Jacot was detained and interrogated at the Havana airport by six members of the Cuban security forces. She had spent a week in Cuba interviewing independent journalists and family members of incarcerated journalists. Jacot's equipment, including a video camera, was seized, as were some documents.

While the government permitted greater opportunities for religious expression than in past years and allowed several religious-run humanitarian groups to operate, it continued to maintain tight control over religious institutions, affiliated groups, and individual believers.

The government recognized only one labor union, the Worker's Central of Cuba (Central de Trabajadores de Cuba, CTC), and restricted labor rights by banning independent labor groups and harassing individuals attempting to form them. It tightly controlled workers employed in businesses backed by foreign investment. Under restrictive labor laws, the authorities had a prominent role in the selection, payment, and dismissal of workers, effectively denying workers the right to bargain directly with employers over benefits, promotions, and wages. Cuba alsocontinued to use prison labor for agricultural camps and ran clothing assembly and other factories in its prisons. The authorities' insistence that political prisoners work without pay in poor conditions violated international labor standards.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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